Katherine HeiglLeading

LA Times Article: WB Covers a Trend Too Well

Thanks to Lindsay for sending this in!

From The LA Times:

WB Covers a Trend Too Well
When sexy women portray teens, what messages are conveyed to young viewers?


First, a disclaimer: Love looking at women. The word “prude” wouldn’t come up in a personality test, nor do I often use “gratuitous” and “sex” in the same sentence. My wife has even suggested I fall into something approaching a trance upon nearing a Victoria’s Secret store.

It’s different, however, when it comes to looking at girls–or at least those who play them on TV.

This came to mind when the WB network recently sent out a photo spread from Maxim, one of those men’s magazines that talks a lot about fashion and style but is really just an excuse to look at beautiful young women in almost-naked poses. The June cover girl is 21-year-old Katherine Heigl, the undeniably eye-catching co-star of “Roswell,” a series the WB just renewed for a second season by the skin (pardon the expression) of its low-rated teeth.

The WB’s accompanying letter pointed out that Heigl is “in contrast to many of today’s stars . . . a voluptuous natural beauty,” which amounts to code for the fact several prominent prime-time actresses look like they need to be force-fed a couple of protein shakes and a package of Fig Newtons.

OK, so one might be inclined to cut the WB a bit of slack, and not because (here’s another disclaimer) the network is part-owned by the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times. After all, when you’re trying to generate attention for a program that finished the year averaging 3.6 million viewers and No. 142 out of 170-some-odd network series, the options range from scantily clad women to psychics and carnival acts.

What is unsettling, and even a little creepy, is that Heigl portrays a teenage girl on “Roswell,” and Maxim presents her, along with pictures of other WB stars in their underwear, under the heading “Grovel Before the WB Girls.”

Like Heigl, most of these women are in their 20s but play high school students on shows wildly popular among teenage girls; indeed, the WB ranks first among broadcast networks within that narrow demographic–the one that howls at ‘N Sync and flocked to “Titanic” often enough to sink an armada of cruise ships.

It’s easy to wonder, then, about what message girls take away from their weekly exposure to the likes of Heigl, “Dawson Creek’s” Katie Holmes (22), “Angel’s” Charisma Carpenter (26 when introduced as a teen on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) or Leslie Bibb, the 25-year-old star of “Popular.” Are 14- and 15-year-old females out there thinking they should look good enough to model lingerie in a magazine aimed, in essence, at men whose wives or wardens won’t let them buy Playboy?

“That’s holding out an unrealistic sort of appearance expectation for these young viewers,” said Martha Lauzen, a professor of communications at San Diego State University, who has studied the dearth of roles for older women in prime time.

“It really fetish-izes young girls,” added Karen Sternheimer, a sociology professor at USC. “On one hand, we’re outraged by sexual predators, but on the other hand, our culture is almost encouraging it by sexualizing very young girls.”

As Sternheimer noted, this trend is hardly confined to television. Belly-baring teen acts such as former Mouseketeers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera are all the rage on the music scene, and an inordinate number of movies target an audience born after Nixon resigned. Even recent Oscar winner “American Beauty” hinged on an adult man’s obsession with his daughter’s teenage friend, played by 21-year-old Mena Suvari.

Nor is it new to see teenage characters portrayed by actors well into adulthood. Consider “Grease,” where most of the Rydell High gang could have just as easily been cast as guidance counselors.

Still, the emphasis on teen-themed projects has clearly risen in recent years, drawn to their demonstrable buying power. Yet many of the characters depicted are adults, cast as teens because they are better actors or the producers don’t want to endure the hassles of tutors as well as production limitations associated with employing minors.

These women are invariably more comfortable flaunting their sexuality and willing to appear in venues such as Maxim, communicating that it’s acceptable to view them as sexual objects–even though their true age may be a distinction lost on the girls who watch these shows or some of the men who read these magazines.

“In the public consciousness, we know them as teenagers,” Lauzen said.

Casting adults as teenagers robs programs of some realism–an observation made by some of the girls who participated in a teen panel assembled by The Times last fall. Small wonder that critics gravitate to shows such as “My So-Called Life” and “Freaks and Geeks,” where the youthful characters not only acted their age but, at least in several key roles, actually looked it.

Teens, however, have embraced series such as “Dawson’s Creek” and “Popular” that feature older actors in teen roles–perhaps in part because those zit-free, beautiful, impossibly articulate characters project the qualities to which teen viewers aspire. Not surprisingly, reality usually falls short–all the better to sell acne treatments and cosmetics.

“There’s so much money to be made in making women and girls feel inadequate,” Sternheimer noted. “If you look at all the advertisements that come in between those programs, they’re for products that can remedy that insecurity.”

Part of the solution, if there is one, involves fostering greater awareness of messages the media conveys. Sternheimer, in fact, will conduct a seminar for educators next month, “The Power of Image: Women and Girls in the Media,” sponsored by the Center for Media Literacy, whose goal is to teach critical viewing skills as part of the school curriculum.

Helping kids recognize that the actors playing many of the TV characters they admire and identify with could be in graduate school might be a start, but it doesn’t address the sheer ickiness of seeing Heigl wearing nothing but a strategically placed hand above her waist, next to a quote saying, “I prefer a kiss that is so much more than just a tongue in your mouth.” Such romance. What’s next: “Pok�mon’s Turn-On Techniques”?

Granted, Heigl plays an alien on “Roswell,” so maybe that’s how men perceive teenagers on her planet. Somehow, though, you suspect the National Organization for Women–which has taken an interest in the images networks are proffering–will be inclined to set phasers on “stun” for executives who indulge such fantasies. At the least, it’s worth asking them two questions: How would you like men to look at your teenage daughter, and do you really want her gazing into the mirror expecting to see a gorgeous 25-year-old woman looking back?