08 February 2009

Miley Mania vs. Math

How young is too young for celebrity worship?

As per assignment instructions, I was perusing Radio Disney’s wiki page when I came across something disturbing: several of the educational segments had been cut over the years (News for Kids, Aptitude Dude, The State Game, Thinkenstein 2000), only to be replaced by tabloid-style useless stuff like Celebrity Take with Jake, Next Big Thing (news of up-and-coming bands, movies, and celebs), and 60 Seconds With…, which features celebrity interviews.

Up until I decided to spend my money on groceries, I used to spend $100 a month on tabloids. But I’m twenty-one. I didn’t start this nasty habit until college. In fact, I remember my mom refusing to buy me tabloids, and the day I got my first Weekly World News was so exciting that I framed the front page. But as a kid, I never took an interest in Tiger Beat or anything celebrity related. I was not a part of Miley Mania. I was pretty in to the Spice Girls, but I was a bit older by then. Maybe I was just in a bubble, listening to Weird Al Yankovic and ignoring the good pop culture. Or maybe it was just different back in the old days.

Why are kids so obsessed with celebrities? Is it because there are kid celebrities out there? Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, Drake and Josh…when I was younger, the only kid-celebrities were the Olsen Twins. Half of these tween celebs are terrible role models. All of them are wonderful cash cows. Which came first, the Hannah Montana sleeping bag, or the little girl who wanted the Hannah Montana sleeping bag?

Is it our duty to provide tokens for kids’ and tweens’ celebrity shrines? Should we push the Disney readers and display the Nickelodeon Cds above other media? When I was a story time reader for little kids, I was told not to use licensed character books. The reasoning was that those are the characters and materials kids are most often exposed to at home, and that I should take this opportunity to introduce kids to new materials. I totally agree with this reasoning, but that’s a lot easier to do when the kid is trapped in a story time room with no other alternatives. If we push Ramona books, or Gary Paulsen books over licensed books, will kids take notice, or will they give up and stop reading?

I’m not advocating removing licensed books and celebrity tween stuff entirely. I’m just wondering where our focus should lie. Do we have any control over the demand for materials? If we supply quality and not-so-quality media, will kids respond positively? Denying them Miley Cyrus stuff will only send them running for the book store. And reading mass-market paperbacks published by TV stations still counts as reading. But they’re usually abridged textual versions of already-aired TV episodes.

Disney, which I always thought of as fairly wholesome, is the worst offender. They’re making it uncool to read anything that doesn’t come with a coordinating backpack and sticker set. What are strategies you employ as an information professional to combat this marketing blitz? Do you totally embrace it? Stock it but highlight the qualities of other fine books? Include it in programming (and what about the rights to certain characters in terms of programming and advertising?) Is this just the latest fad? We have about a hundred Nancy Drew books at my library, but no Nancy Drew magazines. How did libraries display Nancy Drew and the other new, popular books when they first came out? Was there resistance?

I’m hoping that Disney’s radio lineup is just a phase. I don’t mind a little bit of celebrity worship (Any thoughts on Jessica Simpson’s weight gain J ?), but bombarding kids with that sort of behavior at such an early age can’t be helping the nation’s future. I suppose a happy medium would be things like Dora the Explorer, which is a marketing goldmine in addition to being educational. Look at Sesame Street. It’s the best of both worlds. I just wish there was something equally balanced for the older set. Although honestly, I don’t know if I could handle the High School Musical gang dealing with cancer, eating disorders, unplanned pregnancies, and drugs (outside of the tabloids, that is).


  1. You raise some interesting questions Maggie.

    I think the celebrity worship has been around as long as there have been celebrities. Celebrity is merely all tied together these days through marketing and product extensions. Disney is, I think, the worst offender, but there are the Happy Meal toys, the books tied to characters or movies, television spin offs, etc.

    Looking back at recent history in movies, Shirley Temple comes to mind as a celebrity with a product, a doll. Many celebrities endorsed products rather than put their face on them. Product placement was a big deal in movies (and still is). And celebrities would often be seen photographed by the paparazzi with specific products they were paid to use. (They probably still do.)

    As far as encouraging the use of such products in the library, like the books or the CDs you mention, I don't think that we should. I would definitely purchase some of them for the shelves, but I would avoid promoting them as displays. I may use them as a starting point for some programming, though there are probably licensing considerations that come into play. For example, instead of using Hannah Montana in the programming announcement, I might say it's a program about secret rock stars. I would definitely use pop culture as a starting point, since so many kids are exposed to it and have it as a commonality. You can't always assume that kids have read the same book, but I'll bet that 95% of kids in the US know who Hannah Montana is.

    The educational aspects of Dora the Explorer and the like are questionable. Whereas Sesame Street has very clear educational lessons and reinforces those lessons (but is still basically entertainment), can you argue that Dora really does the same? Sure, there are a few Spanish words thrown around, but I would argue that all Dora really does is teach children how to play videogames (the graphics show you how to select various paths for Dora to take, or choices for her to make, like you would on a computer).

    There has always been and always will be an argument over what pop culture materials to place in the library. I think it's a balancing act. You want to encourage kids to read, but not to encourage them only reading a book about the latest Nickelodeon character. Personally, I take the "pop culture as a gateway" approach. Lure them in with those sorts of books and then expose them to other books that they might like.

  2. I used to be very into celebrities and though I hate to admit it, still am by reading celebrity blogs every few days. I used to be all about New Kids on the Block (owned their bed sheets, biography, and would impersonate them in music videos) in elementary and Hanson in High School (was part of a web ring dedicated to them).

    I'm happy just to see kids reading, and my library buys all the Hannah Montana, HSM, and Lizzie Maguire series books. We don't have to display them, the kids that want them know right where to go.

    I like the program idea of taking the main idea from the book (secret rock star, high school cliques or kids on a team/in a musical) and doing an activity about the book and showing kids other, better quality books, that are similar in plot. Or for storytime, instead of reading all the Fancy Nancy or Batman books, read other lesser known pic books about kids who like to dress up/ superheroes.