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Trivializing Teens


Cynthia Peters

The

good news is: It takes a constant bombardment of advertising, articles, and

advice to convince teens that they ARE their skin-exfoliators, hair de-frizzers,

and lip moisturizers.

The

bad news is: There IS a constant bombardment of advertising, articles, and

advice to convince teens that they are their skin-exfoliators, hair de-frizzers,

and lip moisturizers.

The

goal of teen magazines is to provide an advertising platform to marketers.

That’s how they make their money and keep stockholders happy: They sell

advertising. Teen magazines thus compete with each other to provide the most

attractive context for advertisers, not, as some might think, to meet the needs

of the most readers. They still must address themselves to readers, though, so

what they do is publish articles – many of which are virtually

indistinguishable from advertising – that find different ways of telling teens

about their flaws and pointing out purchasable remedies.

But

don’t teens have a lot of insecurities about clothes, looks, and sexuality,

and aren’t these insecurities a factor in teen magazines’ choice to publish

articles on “getting kissed by midnight,” strategies for being “naughty

and nice,” how to “think pink for flirty fun,” and treating “your most

kissable feature to a colorful makeover”? It may be true that being on the

brink of adulthood is a time of uncertainty for many young people, but my hunch

is that teen magazines actually work hard to push teens to feel less confident,

more than they play off already existing insecurities. Teen magazines want a

readership that will be vulnerable to their advertisers’ message, so, in every

issue, they pummel readers with the news that they are what they buy.

Over

and over again, human agency is portrayed as the power to purchase, self-worth

is measured in breast dimensions, and happiness is a direct result of hair

volume. One ad in Seventeen Magazine says, “It’s who I am,” and then

offers check-boxes next to “eyes,” “lips,” and “face.” Articles

throughout the magazine back up the advertiser’s message by reporting on the

beauty regimen required to get ready for a date, the key beauty treatments every

girl must carry in her purse, and the latest in belly- and thigh-exposing

eveningwear.

Independent

attitudes, free thinking, rebelliousness, and just plain intelligence are roped

in by advertisers and article-writers alike, and put in service of brand names.

An ad for sneakers that change color in daylight tells you to “Get Out for a

Change.” “Question Authority!” screams another ad. “Authority,” in

this case, is the retailer at the point of purchase. The “question” is:

“Do you take plastic?” Articles reinforce the idea that teen agency is best

expressed as a series of superficial consumer choices. “Readers’ Choice

Polls” allow fans to choose their favorite stars. The February 2001 “Teen

People” award went to Britney Spears who perfectly sums up the idea that your

true inner self is best expressed in attire: “The moment I feel like I’m

getting held down or someone is telling me what to wear – not that I’ll wear

anything crazy, just hot pants and a bra – I’m like, ‘No!’ I have to do

my own thing.”

In

a stunningly cynical marketing ploy, another “Teen People” poll poses as an

investigation of materialism in today’s society. In fact, the poll collects

important information that can be used to construct consumer profiles of Teen

People’s readership – age, gender, importance of brand name, saving habits,

etc. as well as direct questions such as, “How do you and your friends

shop?” and “If you had all the money in the world, would you…” (The

multiple choice answers to the latter question, by the way, only pertain to

shopping. In other words, shopping is the only conceivable thing you can do with

money.)

Does

it really matter, though, that giant media conglomerates mobilize their massive

resources in order to beat teens senseless with the equation: human expression

equals consumer choices? Perhaps the U.S.’s greatest crime against young

people is that almost one-fifth of them live in poverty. (When considering all

races and both genders by age group, the U.S. census bureau (1999) finds that

the age groups “under 18” and “18-24” to have the largest percentages of

people living in poverty.) Or that almost a million children per year in the

U.S. are victims of child “maltreatment” – neglect, abuse or sexual

molestation (according to the Federal publication, “Child Maltreatment,

1998”). Or that public schools repeatedly fail the children who need them the

most. (On January 10, 2001, a State Supreme Court Justice ruled that children

who attend public school in New York City are illegally deprived of a sound

education, according to the New York Times.)

Many

youth do indeed experience all these hardships, an appalling fact in this

resource-rich, wealthy, and powerful country. All the more appalling, then, that

the immense power of the mass media aligns itself against teens. As if kids

didn’t have enough to deal with! Consider the fact that Teen People is owned

by Time, Inc., a subsidiary of Time-Warner, which is now (or soon to be) a

subsidiary of AOL-Time-Warner – all of which adds up to powerful print,

television, and online opportunities to reach young people and move them

seamlessly between “news,” advertising, and one-dimensional images of teens

as fashion-conscious rule-followers. Seventeen Magazine is owned by Primedia,

Inc., publishers of all Murdoch magazines (among many others), elementary and

secondary level classroom materials, and Channel One – the news and

advertising source piped “free of charge” into numerous U.S. classrooms.

What

if teens had a voice? What if corporate ownership and advertising delivery

didn’t determine the content in teen magazines? You might get something like

“Teen Voices,” published by the non-profit Teen Express in Boston,

Massachusetts (www.teenvoices.com). Their winter 2000 includes the following:

  • A

    special feature about teens dealing with popularity and identity. It

    includes first-person stories, poetry, and strategies for “being

    yourself.” There’s not a single mention of make-up; taking a stand

    against injustice emerges as a positive form of expression; and racism is

    offered as one of the reasons some girls are ostracized. There’s a reading

    list, word puzzle, and line drawings throughout. All the authors,

    illustrators, and poets are teens.

  • A

    “Food Corner” with actual recipes!! (No dieting strategies!!)

  • An

    article about how cigarette companies market to teens by playing on ideas

    that are important to them, like finding “your voice” and getting

    “connected.”

  • And,

    under the heading, “Your activism does make a difference…” a reprint

    of a letter to Perry Ellis complaining of sexist advertising and a response

    from Perry Ellis agreeing, and stating that the ad would be withdrawn.

The

bad news: Corporate media monopolies assault teens with a constant barrage of

messages that reinforce gender stereotypes, promote unattainable images of

beauty, and convince them that shopping is fundamental to human expression.

The

good news: Teens are not an easy sell. A quick perusal of teen magazines shows

that the media giants understand they have to be relentless in their portrayal

of teens as image-obsessed consumers.

The

even better news: Teens resist. Given a non-advertising based outlet, they have

plenty to say about what is important to them, the complex ways to create

identity, and the multiple ways to express agency in the world.

 

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