Sunday, September 30, 2001

I Wanna Be Like Her

From clothes to hairstyles, from speech to hand gestures, kids like nothing more than to emulate the people they see in the movies, in music videos and in sports. While there is a certain element of hero worship, to be sure, it is as much about being a fan as it is about simply growing up. That's because at a time when young adults are struggling to find their identity, it's easier to appropriate traits than to define your own. The result is that kids sport Kobe Bryant sneakers, Madonna tee-shirts and Julia Roberts hair.

What's more, youngsters don't always differentiate between the personalities themselves and the parts they play. They want to be as cool as all of the characters on "Dawson's Creek," forgetting that they're watching actors playing roles which are sketched out for dramatic effect. They forget that this is fantasyland: on a day-to-day basis, it's difficult to wear jeans that tight or hair that moussed.

Yet to ignore the effect that these characters have on viewers is to bury your head in the sand. And so recognizing the power that these images have kids, especially young girls, the National Organization of Women, or NOW, decided to shine its own light on one particular image maker, the world of prime time television. To that end, it compiled a list of programs that offer positive role models to young women in today's culture.

Rather than approach the task anecdotally, it created a rating system, bestowing points and demerits in various categories. Over the past year. It has been tracking gender composition, violence, sexual exploitation and social responsibility as it applies to women portrayed on the broadcast networks. Well, the results are in... and supporting the notion that there are lies, damn lies and statistics, the results don't always play out the way NOW might have liked.

Not surprisingly, the highest marks we're given to "The Gilmore Girls," a show on The WB that focuses on a single young mom and her intelligent daughter. The show features sensitive story lines, realistic scenarios and likeable characters... just the kind of family friendly fare for growing adults. After that, however, the fun begins. For when you do it by objectively by the numbers and ignore the gestalt of the show itself, you come up with some interesting rankings.

Coming in at number two is "Sabrina the Teenage Witch." Now, what exactly do we have here? An empowered young lady in the lead? Check. She has a number of strong female companions? Check. There's a lack of overt violence? Check. But forget the bullet points and look at the big picture. At its heart, it's a show about a female who only triumphs because she has magical powers. Now, there's something your daughter can relate to: using eye of newt to get the lead in the school play. At least she something to shoot for: when she grows up, she can be in "Charmed," a show about 3 attractive witches who dress in lots of spandex and who use their powers on warlocks, demons and boyfriends. Unfortunately, that kind of activity drops "Charmed" to 27th in the rankings.

Also near the top was "Felicity," a show centered on a college student coping with the rigors of school and the big city. Again, from an objective standpoint, the show has lots of positives. A female lead, a lack of violence in favor of intelligence, a focus on using hard work and study to get ahead. But once again, even the raters commented that majority of the lead characters were "thin, conventionally attractive, young and presented in a way that highlighted their physical attributes." The message: a 4.0 grade average is important, but so is a skin tight "Baby Pfat" tee-shirt.

Number five on the list was "Popstars," also on The WB. First, the good news: this chronicle of the building of a new girl group had no violence, lots of females from diverse backgrounds and showed them working hard to get ahead. But then there's the rub: it's all in pursuit of being a starlet in a band whose entire image is based on sex and beauty. Oops... they did it again.

A quick scan through the rest of the scores and the notes in the margins reveals similar conundrums. With the possible exception of Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager," almost all shows that feature women in lead roles also focus on their physical attractiveness. IN "CSI," one of the lead investigators is a smart female... who almost always dresses in skin tight black slacks. In "Law And Order," the female lead wins cases... always dressed in a tight skirt. And in "The Weakest Link" the appeal of the program rises or falls on the quick repartee of the woman host... who dresses exclusively in tight pants and a long black leather coat. In TV land, power for women obviously comes by being wrapped very tightly... physically, that is.

Will the trend continue? Well, this fall will see Kim Delaney of "NYPD Blue" as a defense attorney-single mom and Jill Hennesy of "Law and Order" as a medical examiner. Odds are that they'll play strong, gutsy parts, while also wearing blouses that are a shade smaller than they should be. And Jason Alexander will have a comedy where he portrays a motivational speaker... opening the door to another show about a not-so-good looking guy with gorgeous women surrounding him.

But then again, perhaps we shouldn't expect much. We're talking entertainment here. Male or female, no on wants their kids following the example of Homer Simpson. When I kick on the tube, its to be entertained, not lectured too. Or as Mark Twain said, "Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example."


Marc Wollin of Bedford still studies "MASH" reruns for Hawkeye Pierce behavioral tips. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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