In last night’s episode of the children’s show Hannah Montana (1), aimed at the demographic of girls between the ages of 8 and 12, the main characters – Miley and her best friend Lily – dealt with the issue of gender identity in adolescent girls. The situation set-up is one in which Miley feels that Lily, in order to lead a “normal” social life, needs to embrace a more stereotypical female mode of behavior.

It should be noted that while Lily’s “tomboyish” antics are put forth to the audience as her interest in sports and her disregard for table manners, she is very feminine in appearance. She wears her blonde hair long, and her clothes – while not “girly” in appearance – are of the norm for females her age. Indeed, the character of Lily looks much like most of the show’s target audience: cargo shorts, t-shirts of the “girly-fit” variety, skateboarding sneakers, and the occasional colorful knit cap. There is nothing in Lily’s appearance that would immediately suggest any masculine undertones, except maybe to the Amish (2) who believe that women should not wear pants.

Still, Miley feels that Lily needs to “learn how to be a girl.” The implications that a) there is one specific way to be a girl and b) that it is something that can be “learned” are troubling at best. Gender expression is unique to every individual and there is no right or wrong way to express being male, female, anything in between, or completely different. I am personally acquainted with individuals who express zir gender identity as “giraffe,” but that is neither here nor there. Lily’s personal expression of what it means to her to be female are every bit as valid as Miley’s more “mainstream” expressions of femininity. One might go so far as to assert that by having a successful musical career and living a secret double life รก la Clark Kent (3) that Miley herself is challenging gender conventions, in addition of the conventions of what it means to be a “normal” teen.

As an aside, this episode of the show is every bit as wrong-headed about its ideas of traditional male adolescent gender identity as it is about its female counterpart. Boys on this show are depicted as burping, grunting, food-fighting, sports-obsessed, inarticulate slobs. While this is certainly true of a great number of adolescent boys that I have encountered, they are certainly forgetting about the sensitive souls that lurk somewhere beneath all of those layers of fart jokes. What about the boys who break the norms by dying their hair black and sulking in the corners? Where are the nerds, the outcasts, the band geeks? Where are the baby-queers, meticulously ironing their Calvin Klein jeans and salmon polo shirts, drooling over the insert to the latest Justin Timberlake release? Why is my cat drinking from my water glass?

Despite the alleged drawback of being a tomboy, Lily is able to get the object of her affection – a skater boy named Matt – to take her to the big dance on Friday night. This gives Miley a brief window in which to give Lily a crash course in being “a girl.” As a brief aside: in this episode, the examples of what it means to be “a girl” are given as the girls’ nemeses, Amber and Ashley. These girls are incapable of correctly pronouncing words such as “virile,” (4) which is seen of secondary importance to being “pretty” and flirting with boys who are seen of worthy of their affection, the standards of which are dubious.

The message asserted here in regards to female gender conventions is the same message that society at large surreptitiously sends to young girls on a day-to-day basis. It is more important to be attractive than to be smart. The right clothes are more important than having fun. It is never ok to watch football, because in cheering for the team of your choice, you might break your expensively manicured nails.

Lily is given a make-over in which she dresses and, uncomfortably, tries to carry herself as a more stereotypically normative version of an adolescent girl. Miley believes this to be a stunning success when Lily is practically unrecognizable to her horde of male friends, who lose their collective mind over the “hot chick” and literally fall over themselves trying to carry her books for her. This only serves to perpetuate the myth that teenage boys will act in a considerate manner to you, a young girl, if only you are pretty enough. The sad truth of the matter is that you could be wearing all of the eyeshadow in the free world, and a boy who found you attractive would still insult you or snap your bra. Perhaps by college you might be able to find one who would carry a heavy piece of furniture for you, but chances are you are still going to be hauling your own geometry textbooks (5).

Predictably, in the realm of the half-hour format sitcom, the makeover backfires. Lily is stood up at the dance as Matt feels like she changed as a person and that the Shiny New Lily is not the one in whom he had expressed interest. He prefered Lily as her authentic self, and not as some cookie-cutter version of what she was told it meant to be feminine. Predictably, they end up gazing meaningfully into each other’s eyes as this is the Disney Channel and this is as deep a statement as they can make about adolescent sexuality.

Also predictably, Miley ends up getting covered in spaghetti and meatballs in “Teen Court” for her efforts to intervene in Lily’s life. If only this were true of all of the people who collectively try to falsely impose their own ideas of gender on others. The world would be a spaghetti-filled mess, but it would be fair, and it would be delicious.

1) Everybody, et al. Hannah Montana. Wikipedia, 2007.
2) The Internet. Plainly Dressed. What the hell, you can buy Amish clothes on the internet? That doesn’t even make any fucking sense, 2007.
3) Chris Buchner This Looks Like A Job For… Clark Kent? Holy Shit, some people over analyze things as much – if not more – than I do, 2007.
4) “Virile” is pronounced as “viral.” Not exactly the same thing. Merriam-Webster, in association with The English Language at large, 2007.
5) Geometry Textbooks. All of these are fairly heavy, 2007.