The Consumer Republic: Girls Will Be Girlz

Just when you thought the old rule of pink for girls and blue for boys had been rendered passƒ in the cross-dressing ’90s, along comes Fox to resurrect the color line on digital TV. Late last month, Rich Cronin, president of the Fox Family Channel, announced the birth of twin channels: the Boyz Channel, which will serve puppy dog tails to 2-14 year-old males, and the Girlz Channel, which will treat their sisters to sugar, spice and everything nice. This separate-but-equal treatment will be crowned at 9 p.m. with gender-specific parenting tips–good news for those who think that the people who brought us the worm-eaters and noseless wonders of Guinness World Records: Primetime, The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and now girlz with a “z” are qualified to raise our children.
Whether advertisers, let alone girls and boys, need to be “superserved” (to use Cronin’s words) by two more kids’ channels is besides the point. The television dial abhors a
vacuum, and the black hole of 300-plus channels of digital TV is sure to suck every bit of available programming matter into its vast yaw. Just as cable attracted audiences with broadcast reruns, so digital channels will repurpose cable reruns. Arts & Entertainment, with more than 10 years of product in the vault, has announced the Biography Channel. The History Channel is considering a channel focused on international history. Surely it’s only a matter of time before we have the Dogz Channel and the Catz Channel (no-brainer spinoffs of Animal Planet, which is itself a spinoff of the Discovery Channel), not to mention the inevitable ESPN3-24.
The mind boggles at all the demographic slivers and hobby tribes crying out to be superserved: soccer moms, single dads, bowlers, organic gardeners, Rastafarians. Although Fox’s Boyz and Girlz gambit is just the next logical step in the fragmentation of TV viewership (as well as an approach taken by the magazine industry for decades), the prospect of kidvid-gender apartheid immediately drew flack from feminists and educators. Up until now, kids’ cable programming, under self-conscious feminists such as Geraldine Laybourne, the founding spirit of Nickelodeon, has been a model of gender-neutral inclusiveness. The world of cable kid-dom is a PC oasis, as reflected in a sweetly infectious ad for Nickelodeon now airing: A rainbow coalition of kids and parents in unisex T-shirts shaking their booty alongside the animated Rugrats, chanting the anthem of child empowerment: “A kid’s gotta do what a kid’s gotta do.”
It happens, however, that the same generation who pioneered the noble cause of gender-neutral child-rearing has found that, upon having kids of their own, it’s not so simple. Legions of boomer parents will testify that their sons act like boys and their daughters like girls pretty much from the moment they leave the womb. This doesn’t mean that girls are destined to be kitchen-bound helpmates and boys to be captains of industry. It does often mean, however, that, given a choice, boys and girls will gravitate to different toys, hobbies and TV shows. Indeed, one doesn’t have to be an 8-year-old girl to have different viewing preferences than the boy next door. As any heterosexual couple with one remote control between them knows, the war between the sexes is fought every evening in front of the TV. We can hardly blame Fox for noticing.
Yet for those concerned that superserving boys and girls will result in programming built upon G.I. Joe-versus-Barbie gender conventions, allow me to confirm your worst fears. Of course, such programming will be stereotyped; there’s no other way to redefine the genders as marketing niches except through such clichƒs. The same could be said of adult viewing options such as the Romance Channel (a.k.a. the Grown-Up Girlz Channel) or even Oxygen, Laybourne’s new cable network for women. After all, it is impossible to create programming for women without beginning with some preconceived notion of the needs, interests and sensibilities that constitute “womanitude.” Stereotyping is the soul of niche marketing.
Put boys and girls, kids and adults, black and white in front of mass entertainment and each group will take from such one-size-fits-all diversions whatever it wants. The bonds forged by mass culture reach far, but bind the audience loosely, giving them freedom to respond as individuals. Superserved boyz, on the other hand, are tightly chained together by their shared tastes, with no exit from a confined world delimited by their own focus group responses. It may be that in the 21st century, we’ll find that individuality flourishes not in the brave new world of tribal loyalties, each with its assigned TV channel, but in the old days of the mass market, which at least gave us all the breathing room to figure out on our own who we were as individuals.