I was recently tipped off by my friend Kristen, who runs the girls' studies blog Act Your Age, about Zoey 101 and iCarly creator Dan Schneider's new Nickelodeon program, Victorious. Hoping to tap the tween pop market following Disney's success with Hannah Montana, High School Musical, and launching pop stars like Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, and Demi Lovato, the series also recalls the 2004 Hilary Duff vehicle Raise Your Voice, a movie which focuses on a young girl who comes of age at a competitive performing arts program.
Victorious stars Victoria Justice as Tori Vega, a girl who gets the chance to attend Hollywood Arts High School after filling in for her older sister, Trina (Daniella Monet), at one of the school's recitals. Not only does she save her sister, who is a student at the magnate, but she dazzles the audience with her voice. While the show was met with generally negative reviews from critics who note its broad comedic style, it has tested well with Nickelodeon viewers following its premiere after the Kids' Choice Awards late last month and is predicted to be a draw for the network. For those who have not seen the show, you can view episodes here.
I'll admit that I'm not impressed with the show so far. In addition to the broadness of the show's writing and characterization, I'm particularly concerned with how Tori is depicted as a performer. Tori is above all a singer, and one who seems to be preoccupied with pop stardom over learning an instrument, becoming adept at composition, collaborating with others, and developing her musicianship. The show endorses this by not showing her in any music classes, opting instead to focus on her acting workshops. Tori is also represented as inept with the French horn in the episode "Stage Fighting."
While I don't want to suggest that pop stars are unskilled automatons or that singers aren't musicians, I take issue with representing girls as only being interested in the voice, especially as, in the narrative, Tori's singing seems to be her ticket to fame rather than a gateway to personal expression. Thus, the show seems to encourage the idea that girl singers are incapable of mastering an instrument and don't need to learn to play one anyway.
Furthermore, the only engagement Tori is shown to have with technology is through texting messages on the show's social media site, theSlap.com, thus controlling episodic narration. While this does suggest girls' engagement with technology in ways similar to iCarly and Gossip Girl, it also endorses the idea that girls are only interested in technology as tools for networking and star formation.
As a singer and burgeoning guitarist who volunteers with Girls Rock Camp Austin, I take issue with characterizing girls' relationship to music production in this way. It perpetuates the cultural assumption that only boys play instruments and are thus "true" musicians. This is illustrated by the inclusion of Tori's friend André Harris (Leon Thomas), a talented musician who plays several instruments (that he is also black suggests further stereotyping of African Americans' "inherent" musicality). I don't think girls picking up an instrument, whether it be a guitar, clarinet, or a set of turntables, inherently leads to empowerment. But I do think it opens up possibilities for self-expression, building confidence, and destabilizing gender binaries around musicianship and technology. Thus, girls' engagement with their voices, instruments, and various recording devices needs to be encouraged in both mediated representations and arts programs.
While the show doesn't focus much on Tori's interest in music, it does consider her co-hort. Amongst her classmates are André, awkward artsy girl Cat Valentine (Ariana Grande), and ventriloquist Robbie Shapiro (Matt Bennett). Shapiro's shyness and Jewish heritage is uncomfortably off-set by a racially ambiguous puppet named Rex Powers who usually mocks others with a decidedly urban patois that recalls Gob's Franklin in Arrested Development, without the critique of white racism and stereotyping.
Tori is also rivals with Jade West (Elizabeth Gilles), an insecure diva who is conveniently dating hottie Beck Oliver (Avan Jogia), who of course takes a liking to regular girl Tori. So the supporting characters are positioned against the protagonist's heightened normalcy. As Vega is part Latina (and Justice is of Puerto Rican descent), this does suggest girls of color and multiple racial and ethnic identities like Lovato, Selena Gomez, and High School Musical's Vanessa Hudgens can be role models. However, making Vega so normal renders her boring and one-dimensional.
For me, Victorious has a long way to go before I'll consider it a triumph. Plugging in may be a start, but the show has more work to do.