Okay, so Paris Hilton isn't my favorite person. But she's not destroying America by herself. Her fame is surfing on a greater wave, one that made Anna Kournikova leave tennis for a babyfaced modeling career; had the internet holding its collective breath in the countdown to Olson twins' legality; and led to the popularity of the Forever 21 clothing chain, with patrons from 10 to 50, but scarcely a member of the title age group: the sex appeal of youth.
Don't get me wrong: the idea of childish innocence is usually both patronizing and naïve. A backlash against the stuffy Victorian ideals of Eisenhower-era sitcoms in our enlightened times is totally understandable, like in the satire Pleasantville, where Reese Witherspoon enters the world of a '50s TV show and turns the sexless black-and-white world into color by sleeping with one of the local boys. Sex = modernity. The newest white knight for the stodgy wholesomeness of yesteryear is the new Nancy Drew, whose film opened this past weekend and debuted at #7--not exactly a stirring endorsement.
However, the cliché that sex sells is, at this point, basically preposterous. Remember the Kathy Bates nude scene in About Schmidt? The hotel wrestling scene in Borat? Nude bodies in close proximity aren't always titillating. Truth is, it's youth that really sells -- sex appeal divorced from the body underneath the rouge. I'm not trying to prescribe the way consenting adults should live their lives. Older women who want to look young, resorting to tummy tucks and facelifts to keep their figure have long been a fixture, and laughingstock, of popular culture. It's the other half of Forever 21's clientele that frightens me, young girls who want to look young and hot, daughters who want breast implants for their bat mitzvah. South Park spoofed the phenomenon with their Paris Hilton episode, "Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset," in which the 10-year old girls in the show are so taken with Paris as a role model that they decide to follow her lead in making sex videos. (Which reminds me, Paris Hilton isn't "famous for being famous." She's famous for starring in internet porn. There's a difference.)
So now we have tweens and young teens dolled up to look older than their age, represented on countless Nickelodeon and Disney Channel shows, like Lizzie McGuire, Hannah Montana, Zoey 101, whose 15- and 16-year old heroines wear clothes that wouldn't look out of place at a frat party. (Neither would the actresses.) Moreover, two of the three stars belong to celebrity families: Hannah is played by Billy Ray Cyrus' daughter, and Zoey is played by Britney Spears' sister. No wonder putting on makeup came so naturally.
I would never advocate repressing the hormones of 16 year olds. It's hard enough to wake them up for school. But the majority of the fans of these shows aren't the age of the characters in them. They're tweens, 9, 10, 11 years old, like the girls in South Park, and I'd frankly rather see those girls dressed like Nancy Drew than like a member of the Spears family. Still, Zoey and Lizzie are miles better than the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad line of dolls called Bratz. They have sultry lips, lipsticked faces, tight skirts, and are marketed to 3rd-graders as "teens with a passion for fashion" -- think Barbie dressed like Carmen Elektra. They've expanded into animated movies, computer games, pop albums, and coloring books for 7-year olds, for God's sake, and this summer you'll be able to see them in a full-length, live-action feature film starring Paula Abdul. I'd offer a pithy remark, but honestly I get nauseous just thinking about it.
So what hope does Nancy have, dressed in penny loafers and knee socks? Can she offer a counter-role model strong enough to compete with the painted preteens on TV? Am I crazy to hope?