Have you guys ever watched the Disney Channel? Like seriously watched it. For hours. Because that shit is crazy. If you haven't watched it, and if you don't know any kids between the ages of 8 and 12, you probably aren't aware that there's a whole universe of celebrity going on right under our noses. Hundreds of "celebrities" with millions of fans. And they're generating a fucking ton of money. The tweens are in charge. We are their minions.
Heather Chaet at AdWeek looks into the massive world of tween culture and marketing:
The 20 million boys and girls in this country aged 8 to 12 (code name: Generation Z) are the new power players of consumerism. Calculations vary according to the assorted ways tweens are defined (some say they're 9 to 12, others 10 to 12), but one estimate has kids aged 8 to 12 spending $30 billion of their own money annually and influencing another $150 billion of their parents' spending.
It's little wonder that marketers are paying so much attention to them, devoting an estimated $17 billion a year to get in front of their shorter-than-a-tweet attention spans.
Okay, so first of all, who are these children getting $30 billion in allowance every year??? That is obviously bonkers. But second of all, that doesn't surprise me in the least. My partner has two daughters in exactly this age range—just a couple months shy of 9 and 11—which transformed me, within the past couple of years, into a quasi-stepmom and tween wrangler (mom question: what the fuck do kids DO ALL DAY in the summer???). At 27 I was having Big Gulps of hangover Sprite for breakfast; now, age 30, I'm worrying about how we're going to pay for summer camp. (It's not an unwelcome transition.) It means that I'm presented with this constant, direct line to the tween brain—fickle, funny, judgmental, spongey, curious, simultaneously unsure and overconfident. It also means that I watch A LOT of Disney Channel.
Basically every show is just a variation on the theme "a bunch of kids in a room." Then something zany happens*, everyone runs around screaming, somebody learns a lesson, and possibly there is a monkey. It's silly, and I don't particularly like it.** But it's also incredibly sophisticated and polished television. These are kids' sitcoms that look and feel like adult sitcoms. And they're super inclusive—they employ hundreds of young actors (that one girl on A.N.T. Farm is fucking awesome), they're groundbreakingly diverse, they're empowering kids (with a significant assist from modern gadgetry) to create pretty sophisticated art at a really young age. My girls make funny videos on their phones. They write songs, they draw, they read, they consume and create. And it's amazing.
But here's where I start having issues. I like to think about art as a means of expressing really complex ideas in a really simple way. When these shows mimic adult shows, they're forced to compress those complex, difficult ideas into a format that kids can swallow—because kids haven't DONE anything difficult or complex. And that makes kids feel like they understand things that they don't understand. My step-tweens think they know everything. They make jokes that I never made at their age—they're bizarrely grown up—but they're simultaneously less adult. Because there's nothing less adult than thinking you're an adult when you're not an adult.
None of which is new—there's always been dumbed-down art for kids, but the sheer glut of it now makes it so that kids never have to make the leap to real things. When you live in a world where everything is marketed at you, where there's a constant flow of new, pretty-good art to consume, it creates this tunnel where you never have to make choices. The wonderful, smart little tweens I live with, they can't tell the difference between Justin Bieber and the Beatles***—but because Justin Bieber is PRETTY good, and easier to consume, he's "better." And there's no reason to look beyond that, because there are enough sub-Biebers to last them well into their teens.
With Saved by the Bell, you got the sense that this is a bunch of old dudes selling shit to kids. But with the Disney Channel you get the sense that there's actual care and actual involvement from the actual kids—the people at the party—but there's a downside to that. There's no opportunity to get bored and go looking for other stuff. And if I'd never been bored every goddamn day, I never would have sought out all the weird, totally inappropriate books I ended up reading. I wouldn't have had to sit through my parents' favorite show, The McLaughlin Group (they called it The Arguing Show), and learn about how hilarious it is when boring old people yell at each other (my job now!). I would never have become a weirdo if it weren't for boredom. So by letting kids think they're deep, are we subtly creating shallower adults?
I don't know. But what I'm saying is that I'm forcing those kids to listen to the fucking Beatles.
*A TV writer friend once told me that children's sitcoms are a kind of permanent-limbo-elephant-graveyard for writers who, for whatever reason, couldn't find jobs on grown-up shows. Once you take a Disney Channel job, there's no going back. I have no idea if that's true, but it would explain the whiff of wacky desperation hanging around a lot of these shows.
**And I watched every episode of the first TEN seasons of Degrassi: The Next Generation, so don't try to act like I'm not some creepy lady-manchild who loves children's television. Because I AM.
***I know I could have picked something cooler, but the Beatles are really good, you guys. I don't know if you've heard.