Sunday, 25 February 2007

Little Grown Ups, or, Good Luck Girlfriend!

Over the last month of two, I have gathered every magazine title I encounter in a newsagent or supermarket which seems to be pitched at the tween girl audience. Buying and reading them has been a pretty scary experience, for a number of reasons, which I'll go into in a moment. Personally, I don't believe it's up to young girls to reject these publications - not at all. They're designed to appeal to girls, and would be irresistable to almost any girl shopping with her parents, sitting in the rack by the register, packaged in a celophane bag with shiny cosmetic gifts like stickers, costume jewellery and nail polish. The idea I have is to give the girl something a lot more intellectually and personally stimulating to consume, while packaging it in the desirable design for a tween girl.

Just loosely for now...


I believe it would be valuable to do a complete and thorough content analysis of the titles I've selected here, particularly from an aesthetic and written communication perspective, for my own purposes particularly, but also to weave into my written research. What lesssons can I learn from these publications about desirability, while modifying the content to make my project more age appropriate? I think if I can keep my feminist ire suppressed long enough, I may be able to learn something, because they're doing something right; Total Girl's circulation is 306,000 girls aged 8-11. Little Angel rather armlingly identifies their demographic as girls aged 5 - 8. Needless to say, the content is the same as in the other magazines.

Each magazine came packaged in a celophane envelope with a free gift inside - including in the small sample I purchased, a nail polish, nail decals, stickers, button badges, a nail file and a plastic ring. From a design perspective, colour dominates, as does clutter. Each issue is a full-frontal visual assult of girlish vivacity and not a single area is left unadorned. Every spare inch of available space on every page is filled with heart, star and daisy motifs. Brightly coloured sans serif typefaces predominate, along with several decorative faces, and hand-generated fonts, all compteing for attention. This general fluffy chaos fails to support the traditional left-to-right reading of a page, and so the copy and pictures can only be explored in a loose, anarchic way which infers a casual tone. Copy is distributed across boxes and bubbles, and no particular style ever pervades or informs the entirety of a page.

The content

What I believe they do in publications such as Total Girl, is lure girls with the sorts of things that interest them, then introduce consumables that they don't need. It's a sort of bait and switch - something that I know I wasn't subjected to as a child. I see clearly now that girls aged between 8 and 12 are some hotly contested commercial turf. In terms of the sneaky bait and switch, the magazines run features on crafts, but also talk to adult celebrities about their hair and make-up. They run features on pets, but then advertise bras. Girls in the tween demographic generally do not need bras, but that doesn't stop these publications making them think that its normal and that they do need them. Evidence of this is that the bras advertised don't actually have a cup in them, they're more of a bandeau.

Much is made of the "in between" nature of the demographic (see below in the magazine's own comments), of the girls being somewhere between child and teenager, but I am beginning to supect that tween girls aren't a demographic at all - in our society, there are children, and there are teenagers, and teenaged, or adult content is not appropriate for children.

It's no secret that marketers see the tween demographic as a new commercial segment, that they can parcel out as separate and new, and then sell things to that they haven't had the opportunity to before. Advertising and marketing people talk about this quite frankly. By this I mean, taking a demographic chunk out of later childhood, renaming it "tween", and shilling teenaged or adult stuff to them, because it's new to them, and they aspire to adulthood.

But a good question to ask, is have kids really changed the way people who want to sell them stuff tell us they are? Saying that kids aspire to adulthood isn't excuse enough though - I think we have a duty of care to make the things sold to children age-appropriate. Selling things to kids in this way is just exploitative because they can't know that it isn't normal for a child without breats to wear a bra is the media they consume tells them so. Child development experts can help me understand age-appropriate for the purposes of my writing, but I'm going to make a guess right now that they will not say that part of an eight year old gilr's development involves the purchasing of bras, make-up and developing"crushes" on adult men.

I suspect this post is going to present some cynical reading, but I've taken as much of an objective look at them, and I found it hard to isolate valuable, age appropriate content. When I say "valuable" I mean assisting in personal development in areas such as literacy, self esteem, personal expression and creativity, and learning new things about the wider world.

Here are the publications. I've taken a few pictures, just to give a sense of what I'm talking about. I will make proper scans shortly... looking at the images as I post them, I realise I may have compressed them a little too far, so apologies for the poor quality.

Clockwise from top left: Barbie Girl, Disney Girl, Total Girl, Little Angel.

Here are a few of my observations as I flipped through the mags.

Fashion craft project inspired by Paris Hilton. As far as I know, Paris is mainly famous for the leak of a sex tape and partying. I'm really not sure what the relevance to your average nine year old girl is. She is presented as a style icon, but considering she rarely wears a lot of clothing, I'm still struggling to draw the relevance.

Lots of craft projects, mainly concerning the application of make-up or modifying clothing. I would have to say they're not the most challenging of projects but for a little girl - fun, certainly. When not a single project ever pertains to personal expression, creating something unique, learning something new about life and the world, an opportunity is lost and another brick is cemented into the wall of how-you-look-is-all-that-matters.

I'm really, really trying to not be too judgemental about all this, but I do think it's sad. If we agree as a society that self worth is about more than how we look, how do girls ever receive that message? You could tell a girl over and over that she is more valuable than the external alone, but these magazines present messages which are stronger, more mind-numbingly repetitive, and more consistent than any you could preach at home. You'd really have to go completely Amish to avoid it. I truly feel sorry for girls who grow up today looking at this stuff - at least for me it only really began in earnest when I was about 16 years of age and began reading Dolly magazine.

More craft projects - glueing bows into a pair of thongs. Again, not the most challenging of projects. Where do girls ever get the desire to be painters, teachers, designers, scientists, or anything else for that matter with this kind of patronising crap passing for intellectual or creative stimulation?

An interesting jutaposition which elucidates the precarious developmental transition the tween girl is travelling. On the left, a feature entitled "What's in Your Shopping Bag" - a vox pop-style feature, with tween girls who have been shopping displaying their fashion and toy purchases, and on the right an ad for Care Bears, a child's toy.

An article entitled "Totally Embarrassing!". Tween girls are encouraged to write in stories of ways thet they've been embarrassed. A nice way to share the experiences of growing up, I suppose. Do they have features like this in the equivalent boys magazines?

I didn't have too many crushes on boys when I was 7 years old and I certainly didn't fancy adult male celebrities. Why are girls encouraged so heavily to think it normal to desire adult males while they're still children? Could it be that the adult males produce records, films and television programs for consumption? I think so.

This was genuinely not a part of the culture when I was a child, and I think it alarming now. In her report "Corporate Paedophilia", Emma Rush at the Australia Institute agrees with me. In discussing the harms of early sexualisation of girls, the mixed messages of girls aspiring to womanhood before they're ready is discussed at length as a catalyst to early sexual activity. In our society we also tell adult men that children, both girls and boys, are sexually unavailable - why then do we also encourage girls to dress and act older than their years?

Stuck in the middle: Children's contest prizes, among them a tween girl doll, PG rated DVD packs, doll's pram and a pack of merchandise from Fifi Flowerpot, a toddler's TV program.

Fashion and make-up spread for the pre-pubescent girl highlighting non-existent or budding secondary sexual characteristics. The girl is encouraged thorough the use of clothing and make-up to draw attention to zones generally coded for adult sexual attraction, such as the breasts or hips, even though the child doesn't have them yet, while the use of make-up simulates arrousal, just as it does in adult women.

Features of this kind normalise the concept for both parents and children that children seeking attention using their phyical attractiveness is a normal thing. In the past, these kinds of gender entrenched behaviours were play-acted using pretend make-up, or costume jewellery, but now it seems girls are encouraged to role-play adulthood in a very real way, long before they're able to cope with the realities of adult sexuality.

Again, appearance is king in the magazine, and nothing much else matters.

Core Values:

I believe that the core values of these magazines are the ubiquity of hetrosexuality, the joy in the consumption of goods, the value of a prescribed form of attractiveness, and the adulation of fame and celebrity over more usual careers, of which there is no mention. On a somewhat more positive front, they also enshrine family relationships, friendship, and pets - feminised domestic concerns, but suitable at least to pre-adolescent girls whose loyalty is generally transitioning between family and friends. In this insular context, missing is any kind of diversity, educational value, challenge, internal life, wider world context, or encouragement for the imagination or personal expression.

In a way, it's futile and redundant to critique these magazines from the perspective of any benefit given to the child, because they don't exist for the child's benefit. The main concern of the magazine is to sell to the child.

What the magazine subscription sites, or the magazine's own web sites say about the magazines:

Little Angel

Little Angel is for girls aged 5 to 8, who love fun and aren't in a hurry to grow up - we aim to reach the unchartered territory between girls who watch The Wiggles and girls who wear makeup and like to dress up. Little Angel is about having fun, getting involved and staying a kid while you still can! Every issue come with FREE gifts too!

Disney GIRL

DisneyGiRL is about fun, fashion and friends. From celebrity gossip to DIY beauty tricks, DisneyGiRL is the magazine for young girls who want to know about the hottest trends and fashion.

Barbie Magazine

Barbie mag is packed with heaps of hot fashion, pretty beauty bits, unreal activities, all the latest entertainment news and incredible competitions! It's inspirational, cool and most importantly, lots & lots of fun. Barbie magazine really is a girl's best friend!

Total Girl

To discover the latest trends, entertainment news, cool activities and friendship advice more Australian tween girls buy Total Girl each month than any other tween girl's magazine Total Girl understands tween girls and creates a girls only zone - a kind of secret club - that boys and parents don't understand.

And finally, some market research from Total Girl's own web page:

Reaching Tween Girls - In one month Total Girl reaches more girls 8-11 (35%) than Disney Girl and Barbie combined (24%) - In 4 months Total Girl reaches 56%or 306,000 girls 8-11 - 53% of Total Girl readers do not read either Barbie or Disney Girl

Shopping - Total Girl readers receive an average of $9.03 per week in pocket money - With their pocket money Total Girl readers buy magazines (50%), CDs (46%), clothing (45%), toys (42%)and books (24%) - Total Girl readers know what they want and choose which magazines (66%), toys (63%), CDs (59%)games (51%) that they buy or their parents buy for them. - Our readers also help their parents with purchasing decisions for clothing (41%), shoes (38%), video/DVD hire (44%), fruit (34%), school lunch snacks (28%) and breakfast cereal (29%)

Food - Total Girl readers decide themselves or help their parents choose specific products or brands of chips (63%), lunch drinks (59%), dinner foods (27%), ice cream (50%), cereal (78%), lunch snacks (59%) and fruit (46%) - Our readers’ favourite foods are hot chips (90%), pizza (87%), chicken nuggets (82%) and fish & chips(81%)

Toys & Games - Total Girl readers favourite toys and games are make-up and jewellery (68%), craft stuff (66%), stickers (59%), stationery (54%) and board games (51%)*

Beauty Products - The beauty products Total Girl readers have used in the last four weeks are lip gloss (93%), nail polish (66%), bubble bath (59%), glitter (56%), body spray (54%) and moisturiser (47%)* - Total Girl readers have used the following hair products in the last four weeks, fun hair bands (81%), clips(73%), hair spray (55%), gel (31%) and mousse (20%)*
Everything in the magazine and more including polls - 70% of Total Girl readers used the internet in the last 4 weeks and 73% of those have internet access at home - 44% of readers use the net to look at websites for fun - 125,000 tweens have visited the Total Girl website in the last 4 weeks - Total Girl is the top website for girls 8-11, with twice as many visitors than closest competitor, Barbie

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