“Tween” — a youngster between the ages of 11 and 14 — currently represents the most obnoxious commercial demographic since post-feminist chauvinism gave us “The Man Show.” In other words, what is the world coming to?
I need to preface this column by saying that I love my sister very much. I know several other 13-year-olds like her. I tolerate them. They’re not bad kids, just very, very confused.
My sister was born in 1990, which you would already know if you are good at math and reading comprehension. She doesn’t remember the first Gulf War, Ace of Base or the OJ Trial, much like I don’t remember the Reagan Administration, typewriters or big hair metal — I suppress these memories. Life without the Internet is totally inconceivable for her. She’s known what AIDS is and how to avoid it (a vague idea of what not to do, I’m sure) since elementary school. All of this is mind-boggling to me because though only eight years separate us, I feel like we’re of entirely different generations.
For our generation (I suppose I can include even the freshmen in this group), cool has always been defined as “what the Big Kids are doing.” The world was divided between Little Kids and Big Kids and at 13 I knew, much like a 21-year-old Britney Spears recently realized, “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.” For middle school girls, further categorization put you in either the pre or post-boobal growth subset. That made it easier to know when to start looking like a teenager, but you were still on your own figuring out how to act it. I would often wonder, am I destined for oversexed melodrama a la Brenda Walsh or the hilarious hijinks of a Blossom?
In 1995, when I was 13, I discovered radio, the old school portal into cultural maturity. The Bay Area’s alternative (remember when that word actually had meaning?) station, 98.5 KOME, catered to the brightening outlook of the grunge generation by mixing it up with Radiohead, Weezer and Pearl Jam. In other words, it was the coolest Big Kid’s station of all time. The clues were there: Big Kids listened to Loveline and sang “The Sweater Song” at lunch.
My sister and her friends have inherited a mind-numbingly more complicated world. It includes not just Big Kids and Little Kids, but Kids Who Are Neither: Tweens. Tweens have a stereotype all their own, for better or for worse, and that means the Big Kid world stays a little further off. Why jump ahead when the media machine wants to sell you your reality right now?
The Olsen twins, Hillary Duff and Amanda Bynes are supposedly putting a face on a powerful new consumer demographic. The problem is the homogeneous, saccharin and utterly vapid quality the image represents. In an effort to be both wholesome and yet sexy enough to sell, Tween entertainment is dumbed-down and totally contrived. Take “Dawson’s Creek.” Has any portrayal of high school life been less realistic? Since when do 15-year-olds say, “If you and I aren’t meant to be, then I don’t know anything?”
My point is that when we were 13, we got to experience the Big Kids’ world on our own terms, without having a prescribed mold of our age group that we needed to fit. We watched the 25-year-olds portraying high schoolers and knew it wasn’t us. Nowadays members of my sister’s generation are fed the Disney Channel’s inanely unrealistic portrait of what their lives supposed to be right now, resulting in an ever-more-powerful pressure to conform.
Cable television has indeed vastly widened the media’s access to young adolescents. I got nothing but “Sesame Street” when I was kid, but Lil’ Sis is the quintessential child of Nickelodeon. While I first encountered Big Kid TV in the form of “90210” and “My So-Called Life” (a big jump from PBS), the wonders of DirecTV have brought foreign programs such as “Degrassi Junior High: the Next Generation” into our home for my sister’s eager consumption. How is she going to figure out Big Kid cool through those thick Canadian accents?
Maybe the Tweens will overcome the marketing machine designed to numb their cultural curiosity and grow into hip Big Kids. Maybe then I will have a conversation with one that doesn’t feel as culturally alien as a sweat lodge.
Catherine Halaby admits that she actually really, really likes “Degrassi: TNG.” A lot. Like, more than she should.