Curious to know who the role models for youngsters are today? For a clue, check out a recent survey of 233 6-11-year-olds done for Sesame Workshop, the producers of "Sesame Street."
When asked, "If you could be a famous person (for one day), who would you be?" Close to half of the 9-11-year-old girls mentioned either Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera, singers "whose images in the media," in the survey report's words, "tend to be highly sexualized." Along with the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, Spears, 19, and Aguilera, 20, have been the leading lights in the teen-pop boom of the past few years.
Actually, for most of her career, Spears has cultivated two images at once. Offstage, she's been outspokenly Christian and chaste, but of late has been in retreat, stating that her favorite television shows are "Friends" and "Sex and the City," and claiming, according to Us magazine, that she "doesn't want to be considered a role model, especially when it comes to sex and relationships."
As regards her racy onstage persona, however, it's been full speed ahead in the past year, during which she's pranced around in a flesh-toned outfit at the MTV Video Music Awards and starred in that suggestive Pepsi ad, which also featured Bob Dole's convincing portrayal of a lech. Even before those developments, pundit Camille Paglia was describing Spears in a February 2000 People magazine story as "a glorified 1950s high school cheerleader with an undertone of perverse 1990s sexuality ... simultaneously wholesome and ripely sensual ... Lolita on aerobics."
It's not as if unscrupulous adults have manipulated Spears. The People article recounts that when her record label "wanted a cartoonish superhero theme" for the "Baby One More Time" video, she "insisted on a racier schoolgirl motif." Nigel Dick, the video's director, remarked that Spears "genuinely wanted to go down that road. It wasn't like we pushed Britney into doing anything. Most of the time you have to hold her back a bit." Spears herself has said, "I'm not going to walk around in hot pants and a bra on the street, but when you're an artist, you sometimes play a part."
Apparently, Spears will provide her young fans with even more sexual content when her first movie, "What Are Friends For," is released. In the film, she and actor Justin Long play high school pals who, in Us' words, "plot to lose their virginity on prom night."
Then there's Ms. Aguilera. Her recent chart-topping collaboration with Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink, "Lady Marmalade," glamorizes prostitution. Girls parrot its catchy French chorus, "Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" (And, yes, I'd say it's a good bet most of her young fans know what that means.)
Just as many girls will be influenced by Britney and Christina's approach to sex, so too are they already being influenced by the singers' appearance. Children's clothing stores increasingly offer skimpier outfits to satisfy the demand for Spears' belly-baring look, and salons report an influx of young clients clamoring for makeup and tanning sessions, as well as the latest hairstyles.
The good news about the boys' responses to the famous-for-a-day question was that Michael Jordan received more than twice as many mentions as anyone else. The bad news was that WWF personality The Rock finished second.
Like Spears, The Rock has been much better behaved out of the spotlight, where he's married and about to become a father, than in it, where he's the top drawing card in the vulgar spectacle that is modern pro wrestling. The problem, of course, is that it's the public Rock who is influencing those boys.
The Rock is aware that young fans often can't distinguish the real from the fake -- his mother had to explain to him when he was 5 that his father, also a wrestler, wasn't
really getting beat up in the ring -- but doesn't seem concerned over the possible results of such confusion, which are, it's important to note, more serious now than they were during The Rock's childhood, when wrestling was far less brutal. On a May broadcast of "Dateline NBC," when Stone Phillips asked about one hypothetical child injuring another by emulating something he saw on a wrestling program, The Rock replied, "I don't ever worry about that."
Children's exposure to harmful popular culture is a matter of both supply and demand. Corporate America bears most of the responsibility for the first, parents for the second. Currently, neither is close to meeting their respective obligations. But that doesn't stop either party from whining about destructive messages poisoning an entire generation of children.