Last July, we discussed here the struggles Miley Cyrus was having in her transition from a child into an adult. It was theorized that a major contributing factor to her difficulties was the fact that her formative years were stunted via Disney imposing a heavily-regulated teenhood in order to maximize her marketability.
She is not the first teenager to be put through the Disney teen idol machine and not come out quite right on the other side. Nor is she the last.
Just ask Demi Lovato, one of the next teen idols in line. Her vehicles are the series Sonny With A Chance, and the movie series Camp Rock, in which she co-starred with the Jonas Brothers. In October, during a world tour with the Jonas Brothers, Lovato cracked. Lovato had been bullied so badly in school that she pulled out and took up home schooling. Self-image problems had led to her cutting herself, an incident that her camp passed off as candy jewelry leaving an indent. Further teasing during the tour, in which she was called 'Demi Drama', plus the fact that she had recently broken up with Joe Jonas but still had to share a concert tour with him, plus a promotional blitz for Camp Rock 2, eventually all proved too much, culminating in an airport in Peru where Lovato reportedly got into an "altercation" with a backup dancer and made threats to Joe's new girlfriend.
Unlike other Disney teen idols, though, Lovato did not sweep the incident under the rug so as to continue the tour and the show. Instead, she pulled out of the tour, cleared her schedule completely, and on November 1, she checked into a treatment center in Chicago, spending three months pulling herself back together, remaining at the center even while she won two People's Choice Awards in absentia. Yesterday, Lovato completed her stay in the treatment center and will now begin an outpatient program back at home in Los Angeles; she reportedly appeared fairly chipper upon her return. There is no timetable for her return to Sonny With A Chance as of yet; it's not yet certain that there will even be a return.
I'm proud of her for sticking to the program, and more importantly, I'm proud of her having the guts to admit she needed help. That's an extremely hard thing to admit for a lot of people. But at the same time, I can't comfortably stomach the prospect of her returning to Sonny With A Chance. She'd be going back into the Disney machine that put her into the treatment center in the first place. I don't want them to do that to her again. It's a bit scary that, in their story about her release, the Examiner asked "How happy are you that Demi is back in a more accessible position yet again?", a question that carries some troubling connotations.
Maybe it's the fact that I'm not a kid anymore myself. When you're the age that Disney is targeting with these shows- when you're the age to star in these shows- you don't know any better. You're really not supposed to. You're just asked to sit and enjoy the childhood escapist 'what do you want to be when you grow up' fantasy of being a rock star or a wizard or a psychic or the object of affection for a cute guy or girl. You're asked to cheer on these little kids who are big stars, made possible through Disney. But when you grow out of it, when you enter college or the workforce, those fantasies fade. You can't be a teenage rock star. You're not a teenager. What do you want to be when you grow up? You're grown up now and you're some schlub flipping burgers at McDonald's.
I remember when I had that epiphany. For me, it was Chuck E. Cheese's. Back in my childhood, we'd go there for my birthday, unless I got sick, which was fairly often because my luck with such matters was awful back then. We'd go a couple other times as well, and when we did, it was the most fun in the world- the ball pit, the pizza, the arcade games, and there was Chuck E. Cheese himself singing on stage.
Then after a hiatus, we went one last time in my early-mid teens, I want to say around age 15. This last time, though, things seemed... different. The ball pit seemed too small. That's odd, it seemed so much bigger last time. The games seemed fairly expensive. That's strange, I never noticed the price before. Chuck E. Cheese wasn't singing anything good, and also, he was some stupid animatronic robot. And this pizza is terrible. How do people eat this stuff?! The prizes you could buy with the tickets you won at the games weren't even any good, even though they were largely the same kind of prizes as last time.
I may have only been in my teens, but I spent the next few days feeling very, very old.
In a similar way, with age came altered feelings about teen idols. Once, they were the stars of shows I knew and... well, not really loved; I was more about Nickelodeon back then- Salute Your Shorts, Clarissa Explains It All, Hey Dude, Secret World of Alex Mack. The basic concept is the same, though. I knew them almost by heart at the time. But as time progressed, the older names faded (quick, who played Alex Mack? What's she done since?), and I became more aware of the kind of all-consuming vortex that a child had to step into in order to achieve that kind of ultimately temporary stardom, I went from cheering them on as a peer, to finding them annoying as a comparative elder, to ultimately feeling sorry for them, hoping less that their respective vehicles do well and more that the stars can merely hang on and come out of the other end of the machine as well-adjusted adults.
They're kids. They never had any idea what being a teen idol actually entailed. They didn't know any better.
They were never really supposed to.