For a good portion of my early adolescence, my primary goal was to be just like Miley in the Disney Channel show “Hannah Montana.” In the show, Miley is an awkward, unpopular high school student who has a huge secret: She’s actually international pop superstar Hannah Montana. Somehow, nobody at her school knows her secret identity because when she performs as Hannah, she wears a blonde wig. In fifth grade, I had my pop star alter ego all figured out. I had given her a name (Pinkberry … yep, like the frozen yogurt place) and sketched a wig in my journal. I was ready for fame.
Retrospectively, it makes perfect sense that I would resonate with a character like Miley. I was the tallest girl in my school, which is not fun at an age when fitting in is so important. I was clumsy and unathletic, always embarrassing myself in gym class, and my social skills were exceptionally lacking. Simply put, I was the weird girl in school. I wanted desperately to fit in.
Miley appealed to me because the show always made it abundantly clear that she wasn’t well-liked in school. In the pilot episode, the popular girls, Amber and Ashley, tell Miley she has to sit at “the loser table” at lunch. Scenes like that made me identify with Miley; she wasn’t some untouchable celebrity, she was a girl like me. But, unlike me, Miley rose above her circumstances. She worked hard and became a famous singer, and whenever Amber and Ashley made fun of her, she could look them in the eyes with the knowledge that she was more successful than they’d ever be.
I wanted the security that Miley had. I wanted to know that, despite having nowhere to sit at lunch, and despite no boy ever having a crush on me, I was achieving big things and living my dream. The problem? I was not, and am not, cut out to be an international pop superstar.
For the record, I tried. I joined choir. I acted in plays. I even took private voice lessons for a little bit. I saved up and bought a bubblegum-pink Daisy Rock acoustic guitar (the same brand that Miley uses). I wrote songs about boyfriends and breakups, as if I had ever experienced either. But anyone who was in the vicinity of my middle school cafeteria the day of the talent show can tell you that God didn’t create me to write songs, and he most certainly didn’t create me to sing them.
I wonder how my middle school career would’ve turned out if Miley’s glamorous alter ego Hannah Montana was a famous author, not a famous singer. Why? Because I was good at writing, and I actually enjoyed it enough that, had I set the goal of writing a book, I would’ve been willing to put in the necessary work to achieve that goal. But, in my mind, writing was nerdy and unglamorous; it was the kind of thing that would make me less popular than I already was. So I sat with my little “teach yourself guitar” book, bored out of my mind, until a string finally broke and I gave up for good.
Can you blame my younger self for wanting to be a pop star? I certainly can’t. Even today, I tend to idolize the characters I see on my TV screen. Has anyone ever watched “Legally Blonde” and not been subsequently inspired to start studying for the LSAT?
However, my story tells a valuable lesson about the power of female role models on television, and representation in general. According to a study by Amy I. Nathanson, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Ohio State University, girls who watch more TV are more likely to have an interest in traditionally feminine jobs, such as that of secretary, dancer, model … or teen pop sensation. This makes perfect sense. From ages 11 to 13, CNN reports, children “feel self-conscious about physical changes and feel pressure to conform to cultural gender norms.” When you’re an insecure middle school student, and a character like Hannah Montana looks glamorous and beautiful every time she steps onstage, of course you’re going to aspire to be like her, even if your interests lie elsewhere. But what if Miley’s alter ego was a glamorous, world-famous, beloved engineer? How many more women would be enrolled in the College of Engineering right now?
Representation doesn’t just mean representation of a broad range of careers for women. Frankly, I was extremely lucky in middle school because I had a role model on television at all. I was raised in a sociocultural context in which I was able to identify simply as a “girl,” and therefore felt that I could view all female characters as role models. Others, depending on the circumstances in which they were raised, might identify not simply by their gender, but by their race, ability, socioeconomic status, etc. This makes it even harder to find role models on television. If I feel I was limited because I saw only “pop star” as a viable career option, then imagine how much more limited I would have been if I only saw my race represented as the “sidekick best friend” character in most shows.
Luckily, I’m no longer 11 years old and wildly insecure. Perhaps even more luckily, I’m no longer attempting to make a career out of a voice that was simply not meant to carry a tune. Now I’m studying at a world-renowned university, putting the skills God gave me to work and setting goals that are meant for me and me alone. Oh, and my social life is slightly more exciting than it was in fifth grade. Honestly, I think that if my 11-year-old self could see me now, she would think I’m even cooler than Hannah Montana.
The bad news? Stereotypes still largely prevail in television, and probably still affect the career goals of insecure young girls. The good news? The entertainment world is getting better. Every day, more and more kids’ shows come out featuring more characters of color, more women in STEM, more sensitive men and career-oriented women. I’d like to think that, as students at the University of Michigan, we’re a part of that; by working hard to achieve goals we’re passionate about, by following the dreams that we once didn’t know we could have, we’re driving the change. We’re the role models we didn’t have when we were younger. I just wish that I could go back and tell my 11-year-old self to dream a little bigger than international pop superstar.