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Opinion/Ideas

She did what?

As one starlet after another goes off the rails, what kind of example are they setting for American girls? Maybe a good one. Meet a new cultural force: the anti-role model.

(Globe / John S. Dykes)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ty Burr
March 30, 2008

When is a media bad girl not a bad girl? When she's an excellent example.

Bringing up children in 21st-century America is difficult enough, given a pop culture that constantly promotes a vulgar, empty celebration of self. But do some of our starlets have to work so hard at it? The Spears sisters, Britney and Jamie Lynn, have mutated from wholesome pop tarts to whacked-out baby factories. Lindsay Lohan acts out her rebellion against the entire culture on the evening news. Paris Hilton - well, Paris Hilton. That's all you need to say.

It's enough to make a parent want to pack the kids off to a nunnery - an unplugged nunnery - and many experts and academics agree. "Even when actors get into trouble, they're glamorized on the covers of magazines, and the visual effect is to spread the message that they're beautiful and hot," says Montana Miller, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University. "Of course girls are led to want to imitate how they look, even as they get the message that their behavior isn't appropriate."

Miller is right - and yet tweener mimicry isn't always so simple. As a parent of two girls, age 11 and 13 at this writing, I should probably be wringing my hands. I'm not, because when I listen to my daughters and their friends, I hear a moral code being forged upon the paparazzi traumas of the famous and unfortunate.

There are levels of judgment going on here, moral siftings and weighings. Children are both more and less innocent than adults take them for, and they process the role models our culture hands them in complex ways.

The new bad girls, it's clear, are important figures in the culture. But they don't necessarily teach young girls how to behave - just as likely, they're teaching them how not to behave. They have become anti-role models.

As such, they act out the problems of how to grow up, what sort of behavior is appropriate, and when enough is enough. Once, these questions were worked out on the big screen, by stars like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Today those melodramas have moved from fiction to the hyperreal world of the tabloid omniverse. Some kids accept the new anti-role models at face value, others heartily disapprove, and they're hashing it out in chat rooms and lunch lines in a sort of instant-message dialectic. All a parent has to do is pay attention.

In part, that pit you feel in your stomach is generational business as usual. Mothers and fathers wonder where have all the good examples gone, forgetting that our own parents tore their hair out over the music and movies we loved. I recently gave my 11-year-old daughter grief over the bawdy lyrics to Flo Rida's "Low" just as Led Zeppelin came on the oldies station promising to "give ya every inch of my love." Game, set, match.

On the other hand - and a parent always has another hand - there was no one back in our day with the wild-child effrontery of Lohan, Spears, and Hilton, celebrities whose literal trials and tribulations, benders and burnouts, have become a demented form of entertainment in themselves. Was there?

Of course there was. The difference is that no round-the-clock Internet spigot existed to take the culture's paparazzi impulses nuclear and expose the troubles of, say, Margot Kidder, Sean Young, Whitney Houston, or Macaulay Culkin to 24-seven scrutiny. Instead of TMZ.com, Perez Hilton, and a dozen magazines braying from the supermarket racks, there was People, the then-demure Us, and various aliens-in-my-breakfast-cereal tabloids. You could avoid the spew if you wanted to.

No such luck now. Case in point: Lohan. The actress became a preteen favorite 10 years ago in Disney's remake of "The Parent Trap," then followed that up with "Freaky Friday" (2003) and "Mean Girls" (2004). She seemed poised to become her generation's Jodie Foster.

Instead, she threatens to become its Frances Farmer. Over the past two years, Lohan has flamed out with car accidents, hospitalizations, drug busts, and (the pro forma sequel) rehab. She so alienated the film industry that one producer took the unheard-of step of chastising the actress's unprofessional behavior in a public letter. And she chased off audiences with a pair of wrongheaded film roles ("Georgia Rule" and "I Know Who Killed Me") that between them made under $25 million at the box office.

My kids didn't see those movies, and they didn't need me to tsk-tsk Lohan's behavior; it percolated through appalled playground gossip. Some of their peers had seen the photo of the actress passed out in a car after a hard night's partying, and the message was clear: This was Lohan's latest movie, and it wasn't a happy one. Cruel and catty? Sure, as only adolescents can be. An invasion of privacy? Arguably. A role model? Not on your emoticon.

This cautionary arc is everywhere in their culture, and it spills over into meaty dinner-table chatter. My older daughter was a casual fan of Britney Spears in her post-Mouseketeer days, but when the singer underwent her look-I'm-a-tramp makeover at the turn of the millennium, my kid and many of her friends recoiled with distaste. They now see the wreckage of Spears's career as a hard and pertinent lesson: Fame too early, parents too greedy, spinout inevitable.

That lesson provides a necessary corrective in a world where all our daughters are told they're the stars of their own movies (and if we don't say it, Disney's right there with the full Princess clothing line). The most successful TV shows aimed at young girls today push the personal-celebrity meme with a vengeance: Nickelodeon's "iCarly" is about a schoolgirl with a globally popular website, and in the omnipresent, omnipotent "Hannah Montana," Miley Cyrus plays an average kid by day who's a rock 'n' roll superstar by night. For millions of tweenage girls singing into their hairbrushes in front of mirrors, this isn't fantasy - it's their inner lives sold like shirts at Delia's.

I hate to break the bad news, but not all girls are princesses (except mine, of course) and roughly 99.9 percent of them won't grow up to be superstars. Surgeon general's warning: Telling them they will may lead to crushing disappointment down the road.

On the other hand (there's that other hand again), Lohan and Spears themselves embody the argument that princesses can become their own worst enemies. So does Hilton, a vapid "brand-name" celebrity with nothing to celebrate but the mockery that everyone's clued into except her.

So, too, do the spoiled brats on MTV's "My Super Sweet 16," the reality series that sends camera crews to cover over-the-top teenage birthday parties. On one level, the show appears to represent media peer pressure at its most crass, implying that any sweet-16 celebration where the guests don't come away with iPods is a social fiasco.

Listening to the talk in the back of the minivan, though, it's clear that many kids watch "16" the way George Harrison said he watched the teenybopper TV show in "A Hard Day's Night" - they turn down the sound and say rude things. That, in fact, is what's entertaining about it. Intentionally or not, "My Super Sweet 16" teaches the dangers of overindulgent parenting, conspicuous consumption, and being a massive teenage airhead.

Kids, of course, are desperate to figure out what's "good" and what's "bad," and that tips naturally into a consideration of who's good and bad. Fairly or not, assigning a celebrity to the ranks of skank can shore up one's own nascent sense of self.

So what happens when a young star jumps from one persona to another? A wrenching, not unwelcome disorientation.

Until late last year, my daughters and their friends thought of Jamie Lynn Spears as "the good Spears," the levelheaded star of Nick's "Zoey 101." The news of the 16-year-old's pregnancy may have been shocking to parents, but to the tweener audience it was a fragmentation bomb. One of my more interesting recent moments as a father was listening to a restaurant table of 12-year-old girls parse the moral issues involved. The discussion was articulate, impassioned, and outraged, and neither Spears nor Nickelodeon (which decided to continue with the final season of "Zoey") came off well.

There are other harsh lessons from the gossip omnisphere. When "High School Musical" star Vanessa Anne Hudgens sent a nudie pic of herself to her boyfriend last year, of course it ended up on the Web, and even the kids who didn't get a gander for themselves (thank you, Google SafeSearch) learned a lot about reckless behavior and personal stupidity in the Internet age.

What's curious is that while girls seem to disapprove of the real-life misadventures of their media role models, they still gobble up fictional depictions of the same behavior. Bowling Green's Miller points to such recent pop artifacts as "Gossip Girl" (both book and TV series) and the hit movie "Juno" as deepening the multiple-identity construct that's already daily life for kids with more than one screen name.

" 'Juno' is such a great example of this paradoxical role that the teenage girl has in our culture right now," she says. "She's pregnant and 16, which we all agree is a bad thing, but she's considered angelic for doing the same thing Jamie Lynn Spears has done. There's a very judgmental attitude toward Jamie Lynn, yet 'Juno' gets nominated for an Oscar."

Perhaps, as Miller points out, the most truthful moment in that film comes when Juno confesses, "I don't know what kind of girl I am." It's a rare admission of uncertainty in a culture that insists our kids know what role they're playing at all times.

Among those roles - and always part of the mix - are the models older children and teenagers still come back to, like comfort food at grandma's house. There's a whole other article to be written about how Audrey Hepburn has in recent years become a "princess image" to be trusted, sold to the tweener market on T-shirts and calendars. (The T-shirts usually show her as the upscale call girl of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," but we'll take what we can get.)

My daughters have followed Miranda Cosgrove, too, from "School of Rock" to Nick's "Drake and Josh" to her current starring role in "iCarly," and they see her as a smart, capable Mary Richards for their generation. (Correction, I see it that way. Remind me to bring home the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" DVD boxed set soon.) Keira Knightley's another example: Whether playing soccer in "Bend It Like Beckham," Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice," or wielding a cutlass in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, the actress seems self-possessed and sure of herself.

Yet all the little girls have been burned enough times now to take their role models with a pound of salt, a development both necessary and more than a little sad. We were talking in the car the other day about Miley Cyrus and how, whatever you think of her music or her show or her dad, the kid seems like she's taking superstardom in stride. Like she might even make it to adulthood in one piece.

From the back seat, my youngest piped up: "Wait."

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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