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Bubblegum Machine: When I Was a Tween

By Lisa M. Puskarcik, Crimson Staff Writer

I never thought I’d be one of those people who, at age 20, would start the obnoxious “when I was your age…” whine, lamenting that I didn’t own a cell phone with polyphonic ring tones or some other type of adolescent necessity when I was 14 years old. But what I do feel justified in saying is that when I was a tween—a category that roughly encompasses ages ten through 14—the number of media sources and cultural products that spoke to me were much fewer and more marginalized than they are today.

Whereas I had to glean wisdom from only Teen, Seventeen and YM magazines in an effort to haphazardly shape my adolescent identity, tweens can now read Teen People, Teen Vogue, Cosmo Girl and Elle Girl—publications which together form a more comprehensive account of the lives of those with birth years between 1988 and 1990. Whereas those of us who are now college-aged might have helped form a cult-like following of Claire Danes’ angst-ridden character in My So-Called Life, today’s tweens have icons who are universally recognized as celebrities with a mainstream following in multiple genres. Today’s tween stars now have the same net worth and carry the same media clout as any star twice (or for that matter, quadruple) their age.

Today’s superstar tweens have mastered the fine art of celebrity by marketing themselves not simply as sitcom princesses or bubblegum pop singers, but instead as the complete package of movie star, television personality, pop singer, dancer, cover girl, spokesperson and—in some cases—charity advocate in one. They’ve learned from Britney and Christina to remain at least somewhat wholesome (or keep up the image of wholesomeness) for as long as possible, especially during the fragile transition from tween to teen category, a time where hormones rage and innocent kids who hit it big switch from bubbly to bratty faster than the time it takes to grow facial hair or a bra size.

These stars embrace their girl or boy-next-door image and successfully market such “aw shucks” qualities to tweens and tween parents alike. They know to tread lightly on the teen waters, with each media move strategically planned by a legion of media managers—sponsor a milk or Pepsi ad, yes; appear in a racy, possibly cleavage-exposing Guess Jeans spread, no. Over the course of a year these tweens save whales, design clothing lines, tour for their albums, promote new movies, pose for magazine covers and appear at see-and-be-seen tween events like Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards. Their media calendars are packed and their comments on Letterman or Leno are rehearsed more thoroughly than Miss America contestant interviews. Is it possible to keep up the facade indefinitely? Some have proved it possible.

Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, for example, have set the gold standard for the tween media package. Now 17, the twins are worth an estimated $150 million each, making their story seem more like a business school case study than a fairytale. Having begun their career at the ripe old age of nine months as the character Michelle on the sitcom “Full House,” Mary Kate and Ashley have developed a “brand consciousness” that compares to Barbie in terms of their name recognition.

What makes the twins so interesting, however, is that while Barbie is an inanimate object livened and shaped by the powers-that-be at Mattel, Mary Kate and Ashley are actually human. They are well aware of top-notch marketing—not just of themselves, but of other people as brands. They admitted in a Vanity Fair profile, for example, that one of the people they admire the most is Martha Stewart, “because of, like, everything she has created with her brand.” And VF writer James Wolcott couldn’t help but be impressed by the twins and their aura, concluding that, “Unlike the Bush daughters or the Hilton sisters, who always look as if they were about to pop out of a bachelor-party cake, M-K and Ash, as they’re known in the hood, are modest, demure, able to walk without weaving.” The very fact that Vanity Fair interviewed the twins in the first place is telling of the indelible mark they have made on American culture.

Not far behind M-K and Ash is 16 year-old Hilary Duff, also known as Lizzie McGuire from the Disney Channel television series and feature film. In addition to her media career expansion into music—her album Metamorphosis was released this summer and catchy single “So Yesterday” continues to climb top-40 charts—Duff now also serves as the spokesperson for an organization that protects wild horses. And though the “So Yesterday” lyrics tell the heart-wrenching tale of a love lost and soon to be forgotten, demand for the Duff brand in all its blonde-haired cheerfulness isn’t likely to be “so yesterday” for a while. After all, what tweenage girl could possibly resist the opportunity to choreograph group dance routines to Duff’s songs at slumber parties?

Thus far, Vanity Fair assesses that Mary Kay and Ashley have only left one rock unturned—education. It has made national headlines that the twins have started studying for the SATs and have begun a preliminary college search. Back in the day when I was a tween, I saw Claire Danes head off to Yale. What could better complete the twins’ package, further attaching another symbol and brand to their tween identity, than Harvard itself? Imagine viewers’ reactions as the girls move their stuff into their Grays middle suite during first-year move-in day 2005. It would make a great ABC special.

—Crimson Arts columnist Lisa Puskarcik can be reached at puskarc@fas.harvard.edu.

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