Disney Moppets, Dead Mothers, Post-Modern Consumer Hell and Me – A Review of Hannah Montana: The Movie

By May Carolan

It’s been confirmed, officially: when it comes to our brains, we women are doing a whole lot better than our male counterparts. This month the Higher Education Policy Institute published its findings on women in higher education and we have reason to celebrate, because it is very good news all round.

Within Britain’s university system, women now outnumber and importantly outrank and outperform men at every stage.  Female students are surpassing their male associates in terms of attendance numbers and academic achievements and now it’s not just at the low status universities either, where women have traditionally faired well (though let’s not sell ourselves short, the stats show we’re superior in those too).  Importantly though, at virtually every one of Britain’s highest ranked universities, including almost all members of the elite ‘Russell Group’ the assemblage that represents the top research institutions in the UK, women are doing better than men.

Significantly, it’s not only middle class white women either.  Of those children who were entitled to free meals at school, it’s the girls who are going on to higher education in the greatest numbers.  In just about every ethnic group, including Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, more girls than boys are heading to university after leaving school.

It seems logical then that enriching the minds of our girls, those daughters who will go on to make up our next generation of women, is highly important and filled with timely significance. However, if Hannah Montana: The Movie were anything to go by, you wouldn’t think girls actually needed to use their brains at all.

Linking the gender composition of educational establishments in the UK with a shrewdly created all-American, Disney ‘pop princess’ may seem somewhat tenuous, but hang in there, the connection is more potent and imperative than you may think.

The young women who are taking their exams this month will do better than their fellow male students.  In September they will head off to more prestigious universities and they will outnumber men on courses like Law and Medicine.  In a few years time they will enter our hospitals and law courts armed with degrees of a higher grade than their male colleagues.  Why then, when this fantastic intellectual achievement by women is taking place all over the country, does the media continue to unreservedly and unequivocally tell our girls that the important things in life are shoes, make-up, boys and becoming a pop star?

Women are on the cusp of taking a monumental step forward and yet it is evident that television companies and film studios are utterly intent on driving the youngest members of our gender backwards into a vapid world of material excess and an empty obsession with ‘celebrity’.

So how does Hannah Montana fit in to all this and just who is she?  Anyone without a daughter under the age of 14 may be somewhat unfamiliar with the mega money making media empire that is Hannah Montana, alas experience tells me that not many people have been able to escape without some kind of cursory experience of her.

The premise of Hannah Montana is that ‘normal’ schoolgirl Miley Stewart (played by real life teenager Miley Cyrus) has a secret pop star alter ego, ‘Hannah Montana’.  By assuming her covert ‘Hannah’ identity (which consists of a blonde wig, high heels and a short skirt) clumsy, unassuming Miley Stewart is able to ‘live the dream’ as a glamorous pop star, without losing her ‘normal life’ as an ordinary girl who lives with her older brother and widowed father.

To say that Miley Cyrus’ various Hannah Montana outputs are popular is an immense understatement with potentially critical consequences.  The film version of the hit TV show was the biggest Easter Weekend opener ever in the US, her 3D ‘Best of Both Worlds Tour” has broken box office records and now she’s over here…

UK merchandise sales of ‘Hannah Montana’ toys, t-shirts, shoes, underwear, hair accessories, computer games, board games, DVDs, books, CDs, furniture, duvet covers, party plates, sweets, cakes, make-up, mobile phone cases, roller skates and stationary to name but a few, is huge and as the rapidly increasing Hannah Montana section of the Argos catalogue proves, her ever escalating pervasiveness is beginning to feel damn near omnipresent!

What’s most disturbing about the film of Hannah Montana is that it is decidedly watchable.  The ostensibly wholesome façade exudes what feels like brilliant and positive life-lessons to the tween girl, even I was momentarily caught up in the colourful charade.  However, seeing a tiny girl of about 4 years old, perched on a booster seat across the aisle from me, cleared the sequin-induced haze that had momentarily blind sighted me.  This little girl was dressed from pink Stetson to flashing LCD shoes, in Hannah Montana gear.  She wriggled and gyrated in her seat and sang along to song and dance sequences, she squealed in wondrous short-attention-spanned glee.  But rather than being happy for her, I wanted more for her and so I watched with a far more reasoned eye.

When her increasingly brattish ‘Hannah’ persona begins to take over, Miley’s father (who in a confusing post-modern nightmare is played by Cyrus’ real-life country singer father, Billy Ray Cyrus) takes matters into his own hands and sends his wayward daughter back to their small home town of Crowley, Tennessee to learn the true value of family and friendship.

You see, that sounds Ok doesn’t it? And seeing as the build up to this banishment was Miley forgetting her best friend’s birthday, skipping her brother’s send-off to university in order to go shopping and a cringe-worthy catfight with America’s next Top Model Tyra Banks, over some shoes that look like they belong on a hooker, so far so good.  But again, once you stop staring aghast at the razzmatazz of it all, the hideous ‘moral backbone’ becomes all too clear.
The problem is that Miley never makes any decisions of her own.  From being tricked into going ‘home’ (which to all intents and purposes was a kidnapping, albeit it on a private jet) or deciding to ‘voluntarily’ give-up her Hannah façade (which had more to do with exhaustion and trying to get a boyfriend than anything else) Miley doesn’t have to think for one minute.

All Miley’s moral quandaries and personal dilemmas are induced, shaped and resolved in relation to a male role model.  Even her poor dead mother (of course she’s dead! They’re always dead!) doesn’t get a look in.  When Miley’s new home-town cowboy boyfriend tells her that her songs are rubbish and don’t truly come from her heart (how rude, what does he know!?) she writes a song about what a great Dad she has and how he taught her that she could live her dreams if she only tried hard enough.

And that is what is at the crux of Hannah Montana: The Movie and what makes it so perilous: it instructs children to spend most of their time dreaming and then it constructs what those dreams should be in order to squeeze more money out of their unwitting parents.  The dreams are wrapped up in a pretty neo-conservative casing that gives the impression of advocating individuality and feistiness, but which actually does the opposite.  The dream it endorses is one which seeks to create a merchandise demanding, money eating pre-teen automaton with unrealistic expectations for a life very few people will ever get (or should want) to lead, inducing dissatisfaction and frustration, which we are told can be appeased by better purchasing power.

This doesn’t even begin to mention the giant guilt complex most girls will acquire if (nay, when) they can’t live up to the hideous ‘wholesome’ image Disney has assembled for poor young Miley Cyrus.  She’s like a car crash waiting to happen.  Despite it all, Cyrus is a talented actress with excellent comic timing and a refreshingly un-perfect face. I wish her the best of luck and godspeed into non-raunchy adult roles away from the heavy corporate paw of the Disney dynasty.

You may think well, if girls are thriving academically then what does it matter if they watch Hannah Montana?  This is where the danger lies; the women who are currently entering into and graduating from our universities didn’t have the Disney puppet Miley Cyrus and her Hannah Montana Jekyll and Hyde personas preaching to them. I’m not wholly convinced they had anything you could point your finger at and categorically say “well this was better”, but they certainly didn’t have something so scheming, calculated or obviously commodity based thrust upon them from every avenue.

It’s worth noting here that Hannah Montana was produced by Al Gough and Miles Millar, two television executives who gave the world Smallville.  A contemporary prequel to the Superman story, Smallville features a young Clark Kent growing up in his mid-west hometown, before his superhero adulthood.  It’s interesting that Hannah Montana has a remarkably similar premise to Superman, mostly the shared secret identities which are apparently go unnoticed due to unfeasibly convincing disguises of different hair-dos.  It’s true that both of these shows are silly and unrealistic, but it’s such a shame that when a boy has a clandestine identity, he gets to have super human powers and save the world.  When a girl has one, she becomes pop star with nothing much but an awesome shoe collection to show for it.

Now I’m not suggesting that our daughters should only be allowed to watch junior versions of programming for the Open University, but does what’s on offer have to be so vacantly manipulative, consumer obsessed and filled with intentionally unrealistic expectations? Because judging by their current achievements within the university system, girls are capable of so much more and this can and should be reflected and celebrated on our television and cinema screens.

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13 responses to “Disney Moppets, Dead Mothers, Post-Modern Consumer Hell and Me – A Review of Hannah Montana: The Movie

  1. Interesting and very well argued article, May. I feel a bit duty bound to add a non-feminist point of view (I’m not anti-feminist, but nor am I a fully signed-up member of the feminist club).

    Firstly, I would say that Hannah Montana (a program / film I have never watched) is most likely representative of the media at large, which perpetuates the dream of celebrity for both sexes – see Britain’s Got Talent, Big Brother, The X Factor, etc, etc.

    I agree absolutely that this is an unhealthy, commercially driven phenomenon, but it is important to distinguish between media and real-life. My 9 year-old niece loves Hannah Montana, but her personality, ambitions and expectations will, I hope, be shaped more by her home life and her personal experiences than by what she sees on the screen. I see no problem in kids enjoying a whimsical film, buying the merchandise and so on, but education both at home and at school should put these things in to context.

    Figures suggest that women from our generation are doing well in education. We grew up watching US teen programmes like Saved By The Bell and California Dreams, which, to my memory, purported similar ideals to those you are citing the Hannah Montana franchise for.

    Miley Cyrus now is comparable to Britney Spears ten years ago. Girls who are 18 now would have been in their formative years when Hit Me Baby One More Time was top of the charts. Has Britney’s role-model status stunted their development? Not according to the University figures.

    We are fortunate to have a direct male comparison for Britney, in Justin Timberlake. How does such a role model as JT affect boys growing up? Do we have to follow his fashion choices, have his popularity and supposed promiscuity with the opposite sex and are we supposed to pull all of this off with his reckless attitude and untouchable level of cool? Talk about unrealistic ambitions!

    This brings me to the reason I am not a feminist. If the stats show that girls are doing better than boys, shouldn’t we be discussing why boys are doing badly? I’m all for equality, as long as it is actual equality and not positive discrimination in favour of those considered marginalised.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Dan. And I agree to a point. But it’s what happens after university which really shows how women are still faced with a glass ceiling – our pay is lower, our ability to break into the top jobs remains low etc etc. So while we may be doing well at Uni, this doesn’t follow through in the labour market. Without wanting to get into a huge debate – of which we are all aware of the arguments – equality has nowhere near been reached.

    Coupled with the horrendous body image pressures which girls and women are facing today, I’d suggest that these enjoyable (yes), whimsical (yes) films, games, tv programmes, websites (whatever), all add up to something which is very powerful and potentially very destructive. I have a 7 year old and a 3 year old daughter and I see evidence every day in them, of quite how influential all this stuff is. See previous blog about Mylie Cyrus being ‘fat’!

  3. ‘Why then, when this fantastic intellectual achievement by women is taking place all over the country, does the media continue to unreservedly and unequivocally tell our girls that the important things in life are shoes, make-up, boys and becoming a pop star?’

    So are you saying that there are structural reasons why the media creates these types of role models. Would have been intresting to know what you think those reasons are.

    Personaly i think Hanna Montana is hot and i am glad the media is giving me what i want.

  4. Emma,

    I don’t know the stats for male/female pay, but I’d be interested to know.

    I work in a corporate business where there are more female than male managers. More so than that, I – a 27 year old, white, male, who happens to be from up north and weighs about 16.5 stones – seem to find myself passed over for promotion, despite being more qualified than my peers.

    In fact every promotion I’ve seen in my department recently has gone to someone – male or female – who seems to fit the catalogue image, physically, of what a succesful man or woman should be, regardless of qualifications. I’ve also seen examples of attractive females getting promotions ahead of more qualified men, particularly in to direct customer facing roles, where it would be seen as beneficial to have a ‘prettier’ proposition for clients. I know this is not an bonus feminists would want, but it is a real advantage to the women concerned.

    There’s no-one out there arguing that I should get a better deal, and I work bloody hard.

    I don’t want women to be disadvantaged, but I don’t see any day to day evidence that they are.

    Finally, I don’t think body image issues are exclusively female. The biggest UK role model of the last 15 years is a man – David Beckham – and he can be seen in his photoshop-enhanced pants on billboards all over the world.

  5. I’m just going to take the body image issue here, there is plenty to say in this discussion but I don’t really have the time or resources to argue it all right now.

    Rightfully, body image issues are not exclusively female. Men are, as Dan rightly says, receiving more pressure to conform to an ideal image. Take the L’Oreal and Gilette adverts targetting men that seem to have multiplied in the previous 4 or 5 years: beauty is a commodity that is sold to both men and women these days.

    However, and I’m simplifying here, men have not historically been given their worth solely through their physical appearance. The only thing coming close to this is perhaps valuing men through their physical strength. However, this kind of value judgement still involves men’s ability to ‘do’ things, women, on the other hand, have been traditionally set up to simply ‘be’ beautiful. To look good around men.

    Notwithstanding fantastic strides taken by feminism, equality campaigns and the achievements of today’s young generation, the value judgements of old still exist, perpetuated by both men and women. (Let’s not kid ourselves here, other women are just as likely to push image as an important part of being ‘a women’).

    Thus even though men are being targetting through advertising to a similar extent to women these days, the value judgements ascribed to each sex in that context are not equal.

    I welcome argument, but for me it comes down to the fact that women have always ‘been told’ to be beautiful, on occasion, that it is the only thing they have going for them. Men are in the priviledged position of ‘being told’ that they are strong and providers and leaders (and.. and…) but are now increasingly ‘being told’ that they must also be beautiful.

    Notwithstanding all this, it would be interesting to see how these issues lie in 20, 50, 100 years time. it may be there is a big shift in value judgements occuring. However, that issue can only be speculative, can’t it? I hope taking history into context helps make this issue of body image, and why it is a serious issue for feminists, a bit clearer.

  6. “Men are in the priviledged position of ‘being told’ that they are strong and providers and leaders (and.. and…)”

    Could it be argued that in real terms this is conveyed as an ingrained societal pressure that at all costs real men *have to* be strong, providers, leaders etc…? Not an enviable position, by any means. Makes blokes end up like Yosser Hughes, and he was not having a happy time of it. No, sir.

    As for the demands on women to look pretty: I’m all for equality, even if it means we’re all equally miserable, so let’s place those same demands on men. Let’s have Heat, Grazia, Just 17, Jackie etc do to men what FHM, Nuts (yeccch), Zoo (vom) do to women. Let’s demand that men scrub up some.

  7. Of course you’re right, it’s an ingrained societal pressure to be a certain way, however, my point in that case would be that they have to ACHIEVE this strength, leadership ability etc, something that is a multifaceted goal of self improvement, rather than a message to achieve superficial beauty…

    As for counterbalancing, haven’t female-aimed magazines of that sort tended to crash and burn? Food for thought I guess.

  8. Just a quick knee-jerk reaction here, but aren’t we overlooking a significant aspect of magazines like FHM? Yes they have pictures of scantily clad, beautiful women in them, but they also present a substantial ‘male beauty’ message, from pictures of male models to articles / tips / adverts on male grooming, fitness and fashion.

    In fact, when you consider the ‘Bloke Test’ feature in FHM (which judges celebrity men on their masculinity based on a series of stereotype-based questions) and the assorted images of what a man should be (and how he should behave at work, socially and sexually), you could argue that FHM puts a lot of pressure on men to conform to a set ideal.

    The idea that men should be happy that they have to meet up to a certain expectation, whereas women should reject it doesn’t sit right with me, either. I understand your point, Liz, but I think this is too simplified, and does not give enough credit to the ‘burden’ of masculinity (as compared to that of femininity, if indeed we are to consider either a burden).

    • I don’t think anyone here would disagree with you that there is a burden on men – I think it’s possibly a different kind of ‘burden’, but yes of course there are perfect media images of men just as there are women. You said in your earlier post that no one was looking out for you. Well … about a year ago we identified the pink thing as something which we hated and we did something about it. So, how about you give it go? Our campaign isn’t about denying the pressures which men face. We speak about a specific issue which specifically affects girls. And it’s undeniable – well in my opinion anyway – that this is a big issue affecting girls. That’s why we focus on offering a positive alternative for girls. We can’t change the media. We’re not naive enough to think that we could have that much power. But we can offer an alternative and that’s exactly what we are doing. First film with some real role models for girls is in production. So watch this space.

    • Hi Dan,

      Sorry to everyone else for jumping in here, I’ve not contributed before this post so I hope you don’t mind!

      Anyway, Dan, I think you have a very valid point, of course, but like Emma says, this is a feminist space for a specific feminist cause: the impact of ‘pink culture’ on young girls. The focus here is not men and boys. I was merely trying to make sure you understood the issue fully. However, you are obviously well read and structure a great argument, (especially when compared to the backlash some feminist issues can receive!) So you deserve to have your concerns examined.

      If you are interested in masculinity you wouldn’t go far wrong having a look into modern gender studies. The only aspect I can say I know about is language and gender (having studied it), so I will talk about that!

      There are definitely people out there working on the issues you highlight; people like Scott Kiesling, who looked at interactions in US fraternities. Your point about men’s magazines is completely valid, in fact, look up Bethan Benwell’s 2003 book on it, called “Masculinity and men’s lifestyle magazines.” it’s on Google Books, though I’m not sure how much of it is available. If you want a background of what has been done in the area I can recommend ‘Language and masculinity’ edited by Johnson and Meinhof. It’s over 10 years old, but it definitely represents progress in an area that has been difficult to break into for many years. Afterall, what man would have the guts to stand up and tell a group of feminist academics that they need to start studying men?

      I hold that to fully understand society and femininity you should also study the issues of masculinity. Additionally, it is important to look cross-culturally because the issues are never the same!

      There is a lot of research out there, it just takes the right kind of searching, and knowing what you’re looking for. If you are interested in talking more about it perhaps we could think about setting up a separate ‘forum’ for such issues?

      Anyway, I’ve taken up plenty of space here so I will (try to) end. I hope you understand that it’s unlikely that your interesting points would receive the kind of attention they deserve in a blog such as this; masculinity and how it is constructed is a many faceted and fascinating subject that should be studied in its own right. Feminist spaces shouldn’t be expected to handle it thoroughly when they have just as many of their own issues to deal with!

      I think the desire to compare men and women overwhelms a lot of people and sometimes it’s necessary to look at each in their own right, rather than trying to constantly contrast them. It’s important to recognise that there are so many different types of femininity and masculinity WITHIN the concepts of ‘female’ and ‘male’, and that these should be understood before the two can be properly compared.

      Liz

  9. Really well written article, I like the fact that you admit despite your abhorrence of the films themes you still found yourself almost enjoying it.

    Hannah Montana does indeed seem to illustrate some of the most negative cultural obsessions which are currently dominating (well, forced upon) women’s lives at the moment. There have been these tween fads for years, dealing with the same thing, mostly pacifying, commercialising and sexualising pre teen girls. Britney and Christina, the Brats (those weird big headed things) and even stuff like My Little Pony have done much the same thing past (okay not so much sex with the ponys but you know what I mean).

    I like to think that most women grow out of such things but what is the celebrity obsession and misogeny of Heat, Grazier, etc. if it isn’t an extension of the same stuff you talk about in your piece. Many women I know who read Heat can’t even comprehend that it is sexist in the extreme. Is this an example of the what happens when girls are not encouraged to think and question for themselves when they are younger?

    On the positive side, the pre teen market is notoriously fickle, Montana may be forgotten by this time next year, and maybe the tweens will be into a new corperately produced idol. Perhaps another Spice Girls who, despite their faults, and there were many, at least had the message of Girl Power (TM) which has gotta be better than whatever nonsense Miley’s going on about. Not much better but still…

    My only problem is that I’ve not seen any Hannah Montanna stuff and can’t fully appreciate your point of view unless I do! Please don’t make me, it sounds terrible!

  10. Liz,
    Thank you very much for your kind words. I’m actually not so much well read as just plain opinionated – I used to study but I don’t particularly any more. The points I make and opinions I have are more observational than anything else. That said, I appreciate you taking the time to point me in the right direction resource-wise, and I’ll definitely follow that up.

    Emma,
    The idea of setting a male-orientated equivalent site up is a brilliant idea. I wouldn’t know where to start though – how did you guys set this site up? I only stumbled across it via May’s facebook page. I would definitely consider taking the idea forward and any tips you could give would be much appreciated. You can e-mail me at dan.donovan@ntlworld.com.

    Thanks to both of you for your time and I’ve really enjoyed the debate on here. Apologies if I have taken it off topic! Initially i just read may’s article without really understanding the audience.
    As I have gotten to know it, I must say I am impressed by the site what it is trying to achieve, even if I might have one or two alternative opinions.

    Thanks again,

    Dan

  11. Coming at this from across the pond, where we are inundated with all things Hannah and Disney, I have to say that Hannah Montana has redeeming qualities that are lacking in a lot of other tween fare.

    After all, a major theme in Hannah Montana is that it is not okay to allow celebrity and materialism to overwhelm your life — that you need an education, you need to nurture friendships, and you need the guidance of parents. Other tween shows on Disney and Nick (the major cable networks in the U.S. aimed at tweens ) celebrate being cute but stupid (Wizards of Waverly Place) or mean and catty (iCarly). Lord knows none of these shows is perfect, but I wouldn’t pick on Hannah Montana as the worst offender.

    As to your point about Hannah lacking agency and having her choices made for her — it’s a complicated issue to address when the character is at an age when she shouldn’t in fact be relying entirely on her own judgment. iCarly is an example of a show that indulges in the teen/tween fantasy of independence. There, the tween girls achieve agency through bad or absent parenting. Sam has a negligent, absent mother, and Carly has an absent father and is in the care of an eccentric, irresponsible older brother. On that show, the parent who is involved in her kid’s life is portrayed as domineering and neurotic (Freddy’s mom). (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I think iCarly is a really funny show — but the message is really inappropriate for younger kids.)

    And then there are the Cheetah Girls, featured in a series of Disney TV movies. I find them to be a total celebration of celebrity and materialism — the emphasis is entirely on fame and clothes — with a very thin veneer of “OMG BFFs ROCK!” Ew.

    (Can you tell I have a 9-year-old daughter?)

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