Smells Like an Ethnically Divided Teen Star System

January 15, 2010
By | 6 Comments

I was perusing this month’s Vanity Fair (drawn in, admittedly, by the racialized, sexed-up photo of Tiger Woods on the cover, but that’s a different post), and came across a photo of another star I’ve found of interest of late, Selena Gomez. I’m fascinated with the selling of Gomez, a teen actress of Mexican and Italian American heritage who plays a half-Mexican teen wizard on Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place. Given the rising proportion of Latinos in the U.S. population and particularly among American youth— one in five youth under 18 and one in four children under 5 are now Latino— I view Gomez as one of Disney’s strategic maneuvers in response.   While much could be said about contemporary Latina representation in relation to Gomez’s appeal to the American public, one thing I find most interesting is how she’s being promoted. She’s clearly being groomed for greater stardom through the activities of what might be called a neo-studio system of teen stardom, such as Lindsay Hogan Garrison has described in her research.

It wasn’t just this that struck me in the Vanity Fair photo spread, which featured Gomez, her fellow Disney-ite Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical fame, and four other young actresses, however. Notably, the photos of the six actresses, all trumpeted as stars on the verge, were displayed in such a way that Gomez, Hudgens, who is of partial Filipino, Chinese, and Native American descent, and Zoë Kravitz, the daughter of biracial actress and musician Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz, were positioned on pages opposite lighter skinned, “white” actresses Lily Collins, Isabel Lucas, and Amber Heard. The editor who chose to display the photos in this manner might argue it was simply artful to play up contrasts.  And it’s not to argue that the “ethnic” stars have particularly dark skin (this is Hollywood, after all), just that they are racialized as not exactly white, and the positioning next to “whiter” stars makes this assertion stronger.  Moreover, the juxtaposition eerily echoes the way in which leaked gossip in 2008 characterized Selena Gomez and Hannah Montana actress and singer Miley Cyrus (the arguably All-American daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus) as unfriendly rivals and ultimately positioned Gomez and purported BFF Demi Lovato, another Disney actress and singer also of half-Mexican heritage, in a separate camp from their more EuroAmerican counterparts at Disney.  Is the conglomerate thinking of teen celebrity promotion in relation to ethnic blocs? If so, I wonder how executives might refer to these different stables of triple-threat wonders.  “All-American” versus, say, “E.A.”?  Gomez, Lovato, and Hudgens would certainly fit the moniker E.A., an acronym coined by journalist Ruth La Ferla to describe the new generation–Generation E.A., for Ethnically Ambiguous, in which youth are increasingly mixed and the rise of mixed-race actors and models has followed.  Edward Wyatt similarly has trumpeted “Generation Mix” in relation to increasing diversity in Disney and Nickelodeon programming and films.  Perhaps promoting mix is fine by the studios, as long as the centrality of whiteness is preserved through a parallel track of star promotion.


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6 Responses to “ Smells Like an Ethnically Divided Teen Star System ”

  1. Lindsay H. Garrison on January 15, 2010 at 6:21 PM

    Great post. Thanks for this, Mary.

    You touch on it briefly, but your post brings to mind way in which Miley Cyrus’ whiteness is often constructed as something tied to rural, “down-home” America, particularly in relation to the Hannah Montana franchise. Of course, her father’s earlier success as a country music singer is at play here, but what’s also interesting is the way that the rural (often in the form of Miley’s “true” home of Tennessee) is positioned in contrast with the “big city;” her grandmother’s country house instills her with values, where the big city (aka Hollywood) taints her with materialism, greed, and selfishness. It’s hardly a new theme, but it’s certainly important in maintaining her “grounded,” safe status as a young star. I.e. when she gets swept up in Hollywood, her family in Tennessee reminds her of her roots and what it is to be a “normal girl.” That’s important for her star image, and also one that I think is important when thinking about just how the “All-AMerican” might be differentiated from “E.A.” If part of Hudgens or Lovato’s show or star narratives, might the urban v. rural theme have a completely different dynamic? How are concerns about stardom (and the excesses that Hollywood might bring) disarmed for Hudgens or Lovato? Do their “roots” play a part in that?

  2. Annie Petersen on January 15, 2010 at 9:51 PM

    As an admitted interloper in the teen celebrity-industrial-complex, I’m immediately struck by the *lack* of ‘E.A.’ representation on the male side of the spectrum. We get the Jonas Brothers, who are what — curly haired? And Zac Efron, who’s simply aspiring-James-Dean meets Frankie. Even on ‘late teen’/crossover texts like *Gossip Girl* and *Vampire Diaries,* you get female E.A. characters…yet still stereotypical whiteness for all the male characters. The most obvious conclusion, resting on highly reductive racial history, is that the E.A. character is attributed with the alluring and sexual connotations of “darker” races, while the male E.A. would be associated with fear, danger, sexual threat, etc.

    Somewhat tangentially, I’ve been reading Mia Mask’s recent book *Divas on Screen,* which retreads and reconsiders some of the ways in which Dorothy Dandridge (and other black film stars, including Halle Berry) were able to become such huge stars in part because of their role as idols of consumption, especially within the burgeoning black middle class (both in the 1950s and today). In other words, Disney knows that it needs stars to whom young Latinas can identity, because it knows that said girls will buy products, whether their own (DVDs, records, dolls) or those of their conglomerate subsidiaries and advertisers. Boys, on the other hand, can’t be relied upon to be consuming subjects — unless we’re talking video games.

    Also interesting: wouldn’t girls and young women of color want or appreciate a male protagonist/object of affection whose background is similar to their own, or, to be less prescriptive, not ALWAYS WHITE?

    • Myles McNutt on January 15, 2010 at 11:42 PM

      It’s not the best example considering the show was canceled, but The CW did briefly have Corbin Bleu on The Beautiful Life in what was effectively (at least from what little I saw of the show) the male lead. Of course, that show failed, and Bleu is a fine example of marginalization in terms of his start as “Zac Efron’s Black friend” in High School Musical.

      • Jonathan Gray on January 16, 2010 at 9:50 AM

        And Bleu was on the tweenie Lost, Flight 29 Down before HSM.

        Though The Beautiful Life was canceled, it’s perhaps worth noting that a partially naked Bleu figured heavily in its advertising (see my post here for an image), so he garnered a little more prominence (though I can’t get a grip on how to critically position that poster — display of black body, yes, though not threatening, and arguably coded by his intertextual history. I’ll let someone else solve its semiotics …).

        • Mary Beltran on January 16, 2010 at 11:16 AM

          Excellent points; thank you for all of the provocative comments. I agree with Lindsay that associations with the rural vs. urban are being invoked in these performers’ promotion, with “urban” perhaps viewed as a palatable stand-in for ethnic or class difference or ambiguity. It’s likely no coincidence that the Russos of *Wizards of Waverly Place* live in the gentrified Waverly Place neighborhood of Greenwich Village, for instance. And Annie’s point regarding the lack of e.a. or non-white teen male stars strikes me as important. When teen males of color do appear, they’re also typically in circumscribed, under-developed friend roles not likely to help promote the actors’ stardom. Percy Daggs III in *Veronica Mars* comes to mind, while the Latino teen character Weevil wasn’t even played by a Latino actor. I’ll have to check out Corbin Bleu in old episodes of *Beautiful Life*.
          Taylor Lautner is one exception I can think of. But in his case the casting of a non-white actor as Jacob Black was necessary, given the storyline of the *Twilight* novels. Interestingly, I just read that he’s now the highest paid teen actor in Hollywood.

  3. […] stars. Jen (the same Jen as above) passed on a link she realized would be relevant to my interests: Smells Like an Ethnically Divided Teen Star System The editor who chose to display the photos in this manner might argue it was simply artful to play […]