Monday, January 31, 2011

Commercials and the Future I Can't Avoid

The other day the program I work for held a workshop. One of my students had to bring her (very well-behaved and absolutely adorable) four-year-old daughter. Since I wasn't leading the workshop and I wanted my student to get all she could from it, I sat in the back of the room with the little girl while she watched Nick Jr. video clips.

Now, this wasn't all bad. I haven't had any exposure to contemporary kid's shows since they looked like this:

And, despite my many worries about exposing my daughter to television and all of its ills. I tend to remember Nickelodeon fondly. If nothing else, at least the network pushed some boundaries with diversity.  As illustrated by the not-lily-white and necessarily-stick-thin cast of All That and the concept of Gullah Gullah Island.

As I watched some of these clips, I was pleased to see that the cartoons were things I would approve of. They seemed educational and forward-thinking. The female characters had equal footing, there was racial diversity, and overall I could see myself being content with my daughter watching them.

Then the commercials started. Commercials fascinate me. As a rhetoric scholar, I watch them the way scientists eye petri dishes, but I also know their power. They make us buy things we do not want, let alone need. They have the power to reinvent our image of whole segments of the market. They are invasive little mind worms, and they terrify me as a parent.

The commercials between the Nick Jr segments seemed innocuous at first (skin care products, shampoo), but I had this nagging feeling about them. So I went home and thought about it.

My reaction is two-fold: general and specific.

In general, I don't like the idea that my pre-school aged daughter is being filled with these industry standards for beauty while watching some innocent cartoons. The cartoons themselves seem to be doing a pretty good job of portraying realistic body images (or as realistic as a cartoon's body can be). So why let the commercials show women of unrealistically thin proportions as beautiful? Plus, beauty products sell for one reason: women think they need them to be beautiful. The whole premise of the commercials is to make the viewers feel that they are lacking something in the looks department and need to open their wallets to fill the void. Fine for an adult who can analyze this decision, not fine for a child.

Now, onto the specific. One of the commercials (which I can't find a clip for--sorry!) is for Herbal Essences. At the end of it, the voice over says it will make your hair "soft and shiny--the way nature intended." (They make the same claim on this website.) This voice over accompanies a woman running her hands through her silky and smooth brown hair. My daughter is biracial, and her hair is likely never ever going to look like that. Not only is this commercial setting up standards of beauty that she'll be unlikely to meet, it's telling her that those standards of beauty are the way nature intended. I do believe nature intended my daughter's hair to be exactly what it is, and that's every bit as beautiful as the woman's in the commercial. How can we start indoctrinating her otherwise in commercials playing during shows intended for preschoolers? Can't we give our kids a running start at feeling good about themselves? 

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