Too old for toys too young for boys: the in-betweens

UNCW professors Donna King and Shannon Silva wrote, directed and produced “It’s a Girl Thing: Tween Queens and the Commodification of Girlhood,” a documentary that explores the creation, exploitation and commoditization of a demographic of young women we refer to as “tweens.”

When Silva arrived at UNCW as a new associate professor in the film studies department, she brought along the idea of doing an experimental film about Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. She ran the idea by a few people and no one really got it. She was told to talk to King, assistant professor in UNCW’s department of sociology and criminology. 

Silva wanted to explore the way the Olsens were being sold as products. Silva said she was interested because they were twins and looked like one person but were being sold as two products.

“The TV shows these girls were in used their real names and personalities,” said Silva. “If a girl is more of a tom-boy then she can identify with one twin, and if she is more feminine she can identify with the other.” 

Silva said this identification opened more opportunity for marketers to make money. 

King teaches courses about media and popular culture. She understood the cultural significance of making such a film. Time progressed and the idea changed and broadened to include the issue of girls becoming commodities in the media. 

“We worked intensively together for about a year and a half,” said King. “We interviewed experts who had written about the commercialization of culture and its impact on girls.” 

While they were working on the film, the Olsen twins became less popular and were replaced with new tween celebrities. Silva said that is how the film turned from a documentary on Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen into a film about the commoditization of girlhood. 

“These real girls are being used up and thrown away like old toys,” said Silva.

King said the film is a combination of Silva’s creative and experimental style and a traditional documentary style. The film includes animation as well as interviews from pop-culture experts and focuses primarily on the phenomenon of girls becoming moneymaking tools. 

“The main theme is looking at how girlhood has been hijacked by marketers,” said King. “It focuses on this fake demographic called ‘tweens’ that was created by marketers because they want to exploit a new market to sell products.”

King and Silva found that marketers had researched ways to sell products to pre-teens and children. While conducting their research, they discovered marketers found that younger girls look up to and mimic older girls. This realization led to the creation of a new demographic of consumers. 

“They figured out that they could take teenage themes and aim it at younger girls, and so that’s where this tween demographic was created,” said King. 

According to King, the goal of these marketers is to look at teenage styles and sell them to children as young as 8 years old. Now, instead of being kids, they are worrying about shopping and clothes and their body shape.

This shifting mindset has led to a new trend in pop-culture. Actresses who were once used to selling products to younger girls are now departing from the Disney tween queen role and finding themselves in more adult roles where a different commodity is sold – sex. 

“Our focus has been on the marketing, the focus on spending money, but the sexualization of girls is a huge problem in media so they go hand in hand,” said King. “It seems like it is very difficult for some of these girls who grow up as Disney characters to make that transition without going into the next step which is ‘now I’m sexy, I’m hot’ because our culture promotes that.”

Silva says the solution is complex but starts with educating girls; letting them know that when they are watching a half hour TV show they are also watching a 30 minute commercial. 

“They just need to know that they are being marketed to all the time,” said Silva.