Thursday, May 10, 2007

Strawberry Shortcake, I deserve a sweet treat

With Shrek at the centre of the kids food ad controversy (see here and here), I've been thinking about the many ways that food enters into kids culture, and the parallels with how advertisers and the media market food to women. Feminist critics of the advertising industry have pointed out the contradictory ways women's magazines promote both dieting/fitness and high calorie foods. In her book Can't Buy My Love, Jean Kilbourne (1999, pp.121-2) writes, "Here we are surrounded by all these tempting luscious ads for food. We are told, on the one hand, give in, reward yourself, indulge. But, on the other hand, we (especially women) are told that we must be thin, indeed that there is no greater sin than being fat." With the same beloved characters promoting both Happy Meals and exercise, I see a similar, and deeply troubling, trend emerging within kids culture.

Kilbourne also describes how ads and other media present food as a way for women to show (and experience) their love and caring for others, and as a way of comforting or rewarding themselves for efforts/achievements/, disappointments/loneliness, etc. Which brings me to Strawberry Shortcake. Both the characters and the programming (television and direct-to-video) for this recently revived girls' media-brand are centred explicitly around the affective functions of food...specifically desserts. The characters are named after desserts, and a large portion of their time is spent growing ingredients for desserts and treats, or baking them, or giving them to each other to mark celebrations, for cheering up a sad or sick friend, and most of all for teaching young viewers moral lessons about sharing and caring. In this light, we can perhaps approach Strawberry Shortcake as a sort of little girls' introduction into the strange gendered relationships that commercial culture fosters between women and food. Through the narratives and the characters, gendered notions of women's function as the preparers and providers of food (nourishment) are reproduced. Tight links are made between sweets and treats and love and happiness (not that kids really need these links to be made explicit - most already love candy and desserts, and our culture already socializes kids to associate cakes with birthdays, cookies with Christmas, candy with Halloween, junk food as a reward for difficult tasks, etc.). Most of all, the brand supports the notion of desserts and sweets as "treats" -- imbuing them with an aura of specialness, of reward, or as something earned/deserved by being a kind friend and "good girl".

If you're interested in exploring the gender politics of Strawberry Shortcake any further, see Heather Hendershot's amazing article on Strawberry Shortcake and "odour" in Pat Kirkham's The Gendered Object.

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