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.