Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Next on the CW: Search for the Next Pussycat Doll

The new UPN/WB mash-up network, The CW, announced yesterday that they have ordered eight episodes of a reality competition series in which young women will compete to be the next member of the pop group the Pussycat Dolls. While producer McG (who also produces The O.C.) told Variety that the series would "try to explore the consequences that come with joining a group such as the Dolls," CW president Dawn Ostroff told Reuters that the series is about "female empowerment, self-discovery and personal transformation." This makes me want to vomit.

Don't get me wrong, I'm actually a fan (with reservations) of the UPN-now-CW show America's Next Top Model, which trades in the same kind of exploitation as empowerment nonsense. What I like about that show is its honesty; it's a fascinating expose of the modeling industry. By showing how difficult the job really is, it gives me a lot more respect for the models. And by showing the emotional turmoil it creates for them, I have more sympathy for this class of beautiful aliens. Instead of completely glamorizing the process, I think that the series will make anyone with dreams of becoming a model think twice about their decision.

But, at its most fatuous, America's Next Top Model does incorporate themes of transformation and growth that are usually reserved for coming-of-age fiction. They bring in host Tyra Banks's mother to have heart-to-heart conversations with the girls and help them talk about their feelings. They attempt to connect emotional maturity with one's willingness to think of themselves as a marketable brand. In short, growing up equals selling yourself. Interesting, but distressing.

I suppose this new series has the same potential to deglamorize an industry, if it can tone down the empowerment message. But I don't have high expectations. I'm all on board with the post-feminism thing. Women can be sexy and feminine and still be powerful and intelligent. The Pussycat Dolls as a burlesque show was an interesting phenomenon, a kind of reappropriation of stripper aesthetics. One can appreciate it in the same way that we can honor Bettie Page as a kind of feminist icon. But the Pussycat Dolls pop group? Which produced the song, "Don't You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me?" Not so much.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Teen Star Personas #1: Kirsten Dunst

The cable fairy visited us last week, without us even asking, and upgraded our feed to extended basic, bringing us techno-culturally into the 1980s. The first program to catch my eye during the initial channel scan was one of those VH1 nostalgia countdown shows: The 100 Greatest Teen Stars. In addition to this show being like crack to someone who grew up during the 80s, this was also serendipitous for my research. As it so happens, I had decided about a week ago to start a series on this blog examining individual teen actors.

The academic world is slow to acknowledge the importance of actors to both the production and reception of movies and television shows. We'd rather look at writers and directors, the "creative geniuses" behind artistic works. But, and this is especially true for adolescence narratives, the star may be more instrumental in getting a movie made and helping deliver an audience. And stars bring other things to these works which enrich our understanding of them: a history of past performances, a persona.

The VH1 version of the project, though fun, doesn't dig too deeply into what these stars really mean to people--it's all eye candy mixed with E! True Hollywood Story-style micro-expose. But teen stars can become icons or placeholders for an entire generation, such that understanding their persona yields insight into pervasive social models of adolescence. So, without further ado, let's look at our first specimen.

Kirsten Dunst

Breakout Role
Claudia in Interview with the Vampire
Signature Roles
Lux Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides
Torrance Shipman in Bring It On
Nicole Oakley in Crazy/Beautiful
Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man

Why Her?
Sofia Coppola cast Dunst as the title role in her upcoming film Marie Antoinette, which had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. Reviews describe the film as a modern teen movie masquerading in historical garb. Set to an anachronistic New Wave rock soundtrack, it shows the doomed French queen concerned with dramas more personal than political, while being manipulated by the adults in her life. Followers of Coppola should see the obvious continuity with her first two films, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation: a concern with female coming-of-age, the loss of innocence, and the burden of great expectations. But looked at as a Kirsten Dunst movie, it makes just as much sense.

Life on the Screen
By my reckoning Dunst's career has gone through two major phases so far. The first began with her breakout role at age 11 in Interview with the Vampire (1994) based on Anne Rice's novel. She played a child vampire developmentally frozen at a young age even while she gained the intellectual maturity and experience of an immortal. Her performance in this film was received on the level of a special effect. Much like the recent work of Dakota Fanning, she was praised for her almost eerie premature adultness. She continued to work in films like Jumanji and in a recurring role on the TV series E.R., but it wasn't until 5 years later that Dunst began to impact pop culture with a string of leading roles in high-profile films.

In 1999 she starred in the films Dick and The Virgin Suicides, films that largely prefigured the types of roles she would come to play fairly frequently (relative to her short career). From Dick, you see the apparently ditzy blonde who, due either to artless naivete or a latent intelligence, follows a path to a kind of enlightenment. This thread develops in the movies Bring It On and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. From The Virgin Suicides comes the theme of physical beauty masking deep emotional wreckage, which was continued in films like Crazy/Beautiful and the Spider-Man series. In these films, she seems to have it together, she's the image of perfection, but closer inspection reveals that something's not quite right, or she's an outright mess. In films from both threads, she's often portrayed as spoiled and affluent, but also genuine and fragile. The best of her films sample from this entire palette.

It's easy to see how Marie Antoinette potentially fits in to the Dunst ouvre (ooh, good band name). A beautiful yet naive queen who pays too high a price for her youthful dalliance, who is dehumanized and made into a scapegoat for all that is wrong with society before she even had a choice in the matter. A little bit of the ditz, a lot of the tragic teen heroine.

Icon of Teendom
So how are American teens like French royalty? Are they spoiled rotten, dismissive of the misery of others, capricious and flighty? These threads are evident in many contemporary stories about teens. But what Coppola seems to be trying to do with this movie, (though remember I haven't seen it yet), and Dunst with her career thusfar, is to comment on the unfairness of that characterization. Teenagers often carry the burden for adult disappointments. The first psychological texts on adolescence spoke to adult fears that the younger generation was corrupting civilization. Dunst has consistently chosen roles that deepen our sympathy for teens shouldered with unreasonable adult expectations.