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Tween Intimacy and the Problem of Public Life in Children’s Media: “Having It All” on the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana
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Tween Intimacy and the Problem of Public Life in Children’s Media:
“Having It All” on the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana

Contradictions of public participation pervade the everyday lives of contemporary children and those around them. In the past two decades, the children’s media and consumer industries have expanded and dramatically transformed, especially through the development and consolidation of “tweens”—people ages nine to thirteen, not yet “teenagers” but no longer quite “children”—as a key consumer demographic (Cook and Kaiser 2004). Commentators increasingly bemoan the destabilization of age identities, pointing to children’s purportedly more “mature” taste in music, clothes, and media as evidence of a process of “kids getting older younger” (Schor 2004), and to adults’ consumer practices as evidence of their infantilization (Barber 2007). Tween discourses focus especially on girls, for whom the boundary between childhood innocence and adolescent or adult independence is fraught with moral panic around sexuality, which only heightens anxieties about changing age identities. Girls’ consumption and media participation increasingly involve performances in the relatively public spaces of social media, mobile media, and the Internet (Banet-Weiser 2011; Bickford, in press; Kearney 2007), so the public sphere of consumption is full of exuberant participation in mass-mediated publics. Beyond literal performances online and on social media, even everyday unmediated consumption—of toys, clothes, food, and entertainment—is fraught with contradictory meanings invoking children’s public image as symbols of domesticity, innocence, and the family and anxiety about children’s intense affiliation with peer communities outside the family (Pugh 2009). Participation in the sphere of [End Page 66] consumption entails a form of publicness that is in stark contrast to a traditional construction of childhood as private, innocent, and islanded in domestic spaces.

In this context, the Disney Channel sitcom Hannah Montana is a seminal text. Hannah Montana aired from 2006 to 2011 and ushered in a new era of children’s media. Along with the television movie High School Musical and the rock act the Jonas Brothers, Hannah Montana returned Disney to a level of commercial dominance with young audiences that it had lost since its heyday of animated musical films in the 1990s, when musical features such as The Lion King and The Little Mermaid topped movie and music sales charts and transformed the home video market (Graser 2009). In 2007 the Hannah Montana soundtrack album debuted at number one and spent seventy-eight weeks on the Billboard 200 chart (Billboard 2014). A national concert tour sold out in minutes (Kaufman 2007), and a concert film sold out theaters nationally (Bowles 2008), earning sixty-five million dollars and setting box office records for normally slow winter releases (Box Office Mojo 2014). The show transformed Disney’s music business and accelerated a decade-long shift toward pop music genres and multimedia tie-ins across the children’s music industry (Chmielewski 2007; Bickford 2012). Hannah Montana built on earlier Disney Channel successes like That’s So Raven and Lizzie McGuire, as well as 1990s teen pop, heavily marketed to children, such as Britney Spears and NSYNC. But it combined and transformed these predecessors, establishing a model of hugely successful multimedia celebrity acts, bridging film, television, and popular music and focused entirely on preadolescent child audiences. In the changing fields of tween media and children’s consumer culture, then, Hannah Montana is a genre-defining text.

Hannah Montana intervenes directly in discourses about childhood, publicness, and consumerism. Its premise is that fourteen-year-old pop sensation Hannah Montana lives a normal life as middle school student Miley Stewart.1 The show’s narrative conflict builds around tensions between Miley’s public and private life, exploring in detail how Miley’s public life disrupts her “normal” childhood and threatens her intimate friendships. This conflict seems to broadly allegorize children’s changing relationship to media and public culture, but rather than reinventing the wheel in applying such questions to children, Hannah Montana adapts its approach from another sphere with a long tradition of dramatizing cultural anxiety around changing social boundaries: the postfeminist problem [End Page 67] of “having it all” and women’s changing relationship to domestic and waged work.

Having it all...