Hollywood tweens

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Apr 27, 2004 12:00 AM
How does Hollywood look at your young daughter?

The New York Times provides a rare glimpse of the insiders' point of view in a recent story about the disappointing performance of a string of movies aimed at young girls this spring.

"Chasing Liberty," about the first daughter's rush to escape her father's control (not to mention the Secret Service) took in just $12 million in January. "Ella Enchanted," starring the beautiful Anne Hathaway, cost $35 million to make and has taken in just under $17 million since opening in early April. Other box office disappointments include "The Prince and Me," "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen" and "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!"

Hollywood has a vested interest in figuring out what makes your little girl tick. Specifically, what makes her cough out your hard-earned money at the theater. After the success of girl movies like "Freaky Friday" and "The Princess Diaries," and the failure of recent imitations, Hollywood is scratching its head to figure out what young girls want.

Some analysts are going so far as to declare the death of Cinderella. "I think in today's universe, fairy tales are much more difficult to get the tweener to go to because they're much more sophisticated," said Rob Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount's motion picture group.

Tweeners, in case you are wondering, are children between the ages of 8 and 12.

Sophisticated 8-year-olds?

"Cinderella itself is too soft," confirmed Lynda Obst, producer of "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days." "If you're going to get it in Nickelodeon cartoons -- which, by the way, are pretty edgy -- why make a soft tweener movie? I think they like edgy. And I think the tweeners are as sophisticated as the teens. They're growing up very fast."

Just one small glimpse into a larger reality. Marketers are out there trying to figure out how to get your money out of your child. "Edgy" sells in a way that "sugar and spice" does not. What is the effect of pushing the boundaries of adolescent rebellion downward into the 8-year-old set? Marketers don't care. And to be fair, of course, marketers live in a world where they have to compete with other marketers. Individually, they don't make up what little girls want. Collectively, they push the margins of taste downward.

And figuring out what little girls want is complicated. There are movies tween girls want to see with their mothers. And there are movies they want to see with their friends. Children tempted by the desire to appear adolescent, they weave back and forth between the security of Mom and the excitement of the teen world endlessly marketed to them.

"Mean Girls," rated PG-13, may break the string of failures of girl flicks because (says The New York Times) "It is a much harder-edged film set in high school with frequent references to sex."

Just in case you were wondering what exactly "edgy" means.

"Edgy" movies for children are just one tiny part of a larger social trend: a blurring of all social boundaries that once set "scripts" for life. Children had a special status -- protected from the outside world -- and they dressed for the part in a way that made that special status immediately visible to themselves and the adults. Of course they chafed at the boundaries. Children always do. In the '60s, parents were told to let their teens rebel, explore their boundaries. Increasingly the same message is being given to the parents of tweens.

In today's world, marketers reach inside the home and attempt to figure out not what's good for your daughter, because that is not their business, but what deep desires they can manipulate, stimulate and ostensibly satisfy in order to produce cold, hard cash.

No evil geniuses here. Just creative businessmen doing what businessmen are supposed to do.