Has there ever been a better moment for tween girls? “Hannah Montana” and “Wizards of Waverly Place” reign on the Disney Channel. Tween idol Taylor Swift rules the radio. There are even tween girls in the White House. Since mega-successes like “High School Musical,” Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers showed execs the way, pop culture has been flooded with tween girl entertainment. And yet another promising series about a cool teen girl, “Victorious,” debuts on Nickelodeon on Saturday.
But what about the boys? Some parents are asking whether the TV landscape has undergone a tween gender shift that leaves boys in the lurch. “Is it just me, or does it seem when it comes to what’s going on in the tween world, it’s mostly about the girls?” asked a parenting blogger at the website Charm City Moms.
Many of the nominees for “Nickelodeon’s 23rd Annual Kids’ Choice Awards” (airing at 8 p.m. Saturday) seem more like girls’ choice. In the favorite TV show category, nominees are “iCarly,” “Sonny With a Chance,” “The Suite Life on Deck” and “Wizards of Waverly Place,” all of which have a majority female viewership, according to the Nielsen Co.
The Kids’ Choice favorite TV actress nominees -- Miranda Cosgrove, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Keke Palmer -- are all tween girl icons. And favorite TV actor nominees Cole and Dylan Sprouse and Joe and Nick Jonas are tween girl crush objects.
Among the nominees are some shows with boy appeal, such as “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Phineas and Ferb” and “Penguins of Madagascar” -- but these are cartoons. While the range of aspirational, live- action female main characters grows, there are few real, live male heroes in evidence.
Yes, tween boys (ranging in age from 6 or 9 to 12 or 14, depending on whom you ask) have some traditionally boyish media favorites, like YouTube sensation Fred Figglehorn (who’s getting his own Nickelodeon movie later this year), and “Weird Al” Yankovic, who’s reaching a new generation of guffawing 11-year-olds via the Web and a production deal with the Cartoon Network. But boys aren’t dreaming of becoming “Weird Al” the way girls are Miley Cyrus.
Where are the boys’ boys?
Executives at Disney argue that the issue isn’t that boys aren’t being served enough boy characters, but that boys have changed and now have no problem relating to strong female leads. In other words, the world is becoming more coed, and tween TV is reflecting that.
Just look at Nick’s hit comedy “iCarly,” now in its third season, about a girl (Cosgrove) who creates a Web show with her friends Freddie and Samantha. Nick’s strategy with shows like “iCarly” and new series “Big Time Rush” has been to reach both genders with the same programming.
It’s been paying off: “iCarly” is the No. 1 live-action program on TV with all boy demos, bringing in 3,113,000 viewers on average last year, according to the Nielsen Co., of which 440,000 were tween boys and 481,000 were tween girls. “Big Time Rush,” a comedy about four teen boys who become a pop sensation, also approaches a fifty-fifty male-female tween viewership.
Marjorie Cohn, executive vice president, original programming and development for Nickelodeon, said, “We don’t feel like boys are just about action and fighting shows. We’ve found that boys, especially in recent years, have become more emotionally intelligent. They love shows about relationships and humor.”
Could it be that what we’re seeing is not a dearth of programming for boys, but social progress?
“In the same way we should celebrate Hillary Clinton,” Cohn said, “we should celebrate boys being able to talk about relationships.”
But some cultural observers argue that TV, and American culture generally, is neglecting tween boys’ developmental needs. Peg Tyre, author of the bestselling book “The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do,” believes that series like “iCarly” show boys only the way girls want to see them.
“What they want and how we see them are very different,” Tyre said. “We misunderstand boys’ fascination with violence. They’re playing with issues of loyalty, bravery and standing up for their friends -- big moral questions. These days, playing nicely and quietly is considered a ‘better’ form of play than shooting each other with sticks. I’m not sure that’s true.”
And where do boys go to shoot each other with sticks nowadays? To video games. By not offering alternatives to girl culture, Tyre said, we force boys into “the fantasy world of Grand Theft Auto, which is really unsavory.”
Disney and Nickelodeon executives insist that they know tween boys just fine, and can offer up mountains of research to justify their emphasis on relationship-driven shows.
“These [tween boys] are complex beings who are evolving,” said Gary Marsh, the president, entertainment and chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide. “They are looking for support systems -- teammates, if you will. They’re in the process of trying out new skills, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. It’s this sense of trying to ‘level up,’ in game language.”
To better serve this demographic, Disney launched a new boy-centric channel in February 2009 called Disney XD, with an emphasis on programming around teamwork and this idea of “leveling up” through effort. According to Disney XD literature, DXD has a 60-40 male-female viewership that complements Disney Channel’s 40-60.
The network is a work in progress.
The average viewership of all airings of flagship show “Aaron Stone” so far this year, according to the Nielsen Co., was 237,000 per episode. Compare that with “Hannah Montana” on the Disney Channel, which brought in 2,233,000. But other Disney XD shows have taken off, such as the cartoons “Phineas and Ferb” and “Kick Buttowski,” and the live-action shows “Zeke and Luther” and “I’m in the Band.”
Marsh said the network has an “audacious” long-term strategy: “To become the go-to destination for boys 6-14, both on TV, online and everywhere that boys consume media.”
Does that mean there’s a male Hannah Montana on the way? “These iconic heroes need to emerge from the connection the audience has to them,” Marsh said. “You can’t create a phenomenon by gritting your teeth and trying hard.” But he is hopeful that, “a year from now, we will have aspirational boy heroes emerge.”
So what is the future image of cool boyhood? The apparent consensus: renaissance men.
Nick’s Marjorie Cohn, who has two sons, said: “My boys play fighting games and then they’ll talk about their feelings.” She’s optimistic that the well-roundedness of today’s boys bodes well for the future of their media and our society.
“Our boys,” she said, “are going to be great citizens.”