fret as even toddlers love 'High School'
June 17, 2008
NEW YORK (AP) — Talya
Appelbaum recently had a "High School Musical" birthday
party. She got special balloons and a slice of cake
decorated with the spoiled Sharpay, her favorite
character because "she's with Ryan."
Jemma Fox has an HSM karaoke microphone and trading
cards of the East High gang.
Talya and Jemma are 3 years old. They have tot-sized
insights but large obsessions with the wildly popular
Disney franchise that has jumped from TV show to hit
song factory to merchandising mania since 2006, when the
Wildcats first took kid culture by storm.
But it's high school, and now senior year at that. Do
Talya and Jemma need to "bop to the top" or demand "all
things fabulous?" And what about the kissing, the
backbiting and the big-kid fashions?
With the October release of the third HSM movie — this
one in theaters rather than on the Disney Channel —
parents of extra young aficionados are debating whether
the phenom is innocent dance-'til-you-drop fun or not
"It really is insipid and Disney starts early and has
some clever ways to get to the kids who don't even watch
movies, listen to the radio or read," said Jemma's mom,
Jennifer Hawkins of New York.
Talya's mom, Melanie Appelbaum of Harrison, N.Y., has
three older kids, including a 4-year-old daughter. All
are HSM fans. Appelbaum isn't sure she could shield her
youngest, even if she wanted to. But HSM's popularity
among young children, along with similar adolescent fare
like Hannah Montana — the other Disney mega-franchise —
isn't limited to those exposed through older siblings.
Jemma, who has a 2-year-old brother, stumbled on HSM at
a Target store, where Hawkins bought "what I thought was
an innocent toy." She didn't know the microphone was
preprogrammed with two HSM songs and admits: "I didn't
really look at the packaging."
Five-year-old Valencia White got hooked after dad bought
tickets to "High School Musical: The Ice Tour" last
"She went straight from Disney princess to 'High School
Musical,'" said her mother, Virginia Duplessis of El
Cerrito, Calif. "The child has never seen the movies,
yet she knew the songs immediately. It just got to a
point where it's everywhere and the more we were trying
to make it this forbidden fruit, the more interested she
Therein lies the parenting challenge, said Jean Twenge,
a social psychologist and associate professor at San
Diego State University who studied young people and pop
culture for her book, "Generation Me."
The pressure to succeed, materialism, an emphasis on
outer beauty, narcissism, romance trouble and other
issues faced by high schoolers may not be what draw in
young children, but the issues are there nonetheless,
"How do you even talk to a 3-year-old about this stuff?
Think before you leap. If you've leapt, then cut her
off. There are things you have to take a stand on," she
Any hint of parody or sarcastic nuance is most likely
lost on the very young, Twenge said.
Consider Sharpay, the brash and popular HSM schemer who
wants heartthrob Troy to herself and makes dark-haired,
brainy Gabriella miserable in the process. While Sharpay
may learn some life lessons on the way, her journey
might be difficult for the very young to process.
Like 3-year-old Talya, Duplessis' daughter Valencia is a
"I say she seems kind of mean, and she says, `Oh but
she's so pretty and I really like that song
"Fabulous."'" Duplessis said. "It's the focus on
clothes, appearance. That's what bothers me the most.
It's good clean fun with Jimmy Choo flip flops, perfect
hair and makeup. I would just rather her focus on being
a kid and having fun and getting dirty."
Before "High School Musical" entered their lives,
Duplessis and her husband, David White, restricted their
kindergartner's TV-watching mostly to PBS in their
crunchy liberal area just outside Berkeley. Now
Valencia's grandparents, aunts and uncles have bought
her HSM notepads, a backpack, cups and a T-shirt.
Disney spokeswoman Patti McTeague said children younger
than 6 have an eight-hour dose of Playhouse Disney
geared just for them on the Disney Channel.
"We recognize that younger siblings most often watch
Disney Channel with their older brother or sister and
that some aspects of our programming, including the
music of `High School Musical' and `Hannah Montana,' can
strike a responsive chord with younger kids," she says,
but she adds that outside of Playhouse Disney, most
shows "reflect themes more relevant to kids age 6-14."
Appelbaum doesn't worry about the teen themes.
"They don't really kiss until the end of the second
movie," she says. "So much of what people are worried
about is going over their heads. I think you can
Selling products to the very young is perhaps the bigger
danger, said Juliet Schor, a psychology professor at
Boston College who explored the effects of marketing on
children in her book "Born to Buy: The Commercialized
Child and the New Consumer Culture."
Hawkins agrees. The microphone Jemma has is bright pink,
"looks like a baby toy" and was placed on a low store
shelf in a section for young children, she said. And
this year's big-screen movie release "High School
Musical: Senior Year" includes three new sophomore
Wildcats aimed at keeping the franchise fresh.
"They're trying to appeal to a much younger child in
order to prepare them for being hooked in," Hawkins
said. "One piece of the scenario leads to the next."
While social psychology has much to say on the extension
of adolescence through one's 20s, Twenge said, there's
an extension down the age ladder as well.
"Pretty soon adolescence is going to last from age 5 to
age 35," she said.
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