May 18th, 2012

Sophia Grace and Rosie: YouTube Stardom and the Commercialization of Childhood

Plenty of young people in the past decade have risen to (sometimes brief) stardom on YouTube. Various stars, from Justin Bieber to Soulja Boy, were discovered on the Internet after having publicly posted their performances on the site. Search through the millions of videos on YouTube and you’ll see the many teens, tweens, children, and adults who’ve posted videos of themselves (or their pets) online in hopes of getting famous. It’s a practice that’s become more and more ingrained in American culture: the pursuit of posting a video that might go viral.

This is exactly what happened to Sophia Grace and Rosie, two little girls from the U.K. who Ellen DeGeneres has turned into regulars for her show. They were first seen in a YouTube video that their parents posted featuring the two girls dancing, singing and rapping to Nicki Minaj’s “Superbass”   (see lyrics here). When they first appeared on Ellen, they had the chance to meet Nicki Minaj who offered the advice, “Music is beautiful but I want you to stay in school, okay? Put your books first and singing second.” The girls listened, then twirled with excitement while the audience applauded and they shrieked. DeGeneres and Minaj followed up the advice by dressing the girls in the wigs and jewelry, telling them the popstar would take them on a shopping spree the next day. “I want to take you on a shopping spree to get all the stuff that you want whether it’s books, bookbags, pencils, clothes, guitars, whatever you want, okay?” Minaj assured them.  “Cars?” DeGeneres teased.

Sophia Grace Brownlee and Rosie McClelland on "Ellen." Photo from celebrity-gossip.net

After seeing this clip I went on a Google rampage, searching for every video possible that contained these two little girls. Along the way, I read comments and articles on them praising them for their cuteness and spunk and Sophia Grace for her bold talent. The girls are admittedly spunky, witty, and brave for offering a presence in front of a camera that most adults could never muster. Yet after far too much time spent with these little girls and their fans in cyberspace, I left feeling like I generally do after a TRHW marathon: uncomfortable. It’s taken me a few weeks to come to articulate exactly why and, in the end, I realize my discomfort isn’t actually about these little girls in the first place. In fact, it’s a much bigger issue.

Youth are consumed by the commercialization of childhood and the notion that the combination of fame, wealth and celebrity is the ultimate identity. In many ways, this Sophia Grace and Rosie video embodies these challenges, and they’re just 8 and 5 years old. It’s no wonder, since YouTube offers a potentially instant audience, that it’s become an audition platform for aspiring young celebrities looking to be discovered. The more likes your video has, the more famous you might be. For some that can be bittersweet, especially when comment sections so easily give voice to discrimination and stereotyping. It’s clear that popularized videos help create social discourse through YouTube and the media it interacts with. In essence, the popularization of Sophia Grace and Rosie is contrasted with a backdrop of social inequality in a country whose society says girls and women’s bodies are far more important than their brains. When we look at how media discourse has framed this performance of these two little girls, it seems the advice Minaj gave to them upon their meeting was set aside, seen as less important than the number of viewers gained by their charisma and talent while interviewing the stars and appearing on Ellen.

Social oppression affects all aspects of this country and since media is such a pervasive tool, youth tend to follow its behaviors. So until Ellen DeGeneres invites The LAMP onto her show (and takes us on a shopping spree?) I think we’ve got our work cut out for us.

–Emily Breitkopf

Emily Breitkopf is a contributing writer to The LAMPpost. You can read more of her work on her blog, Kids and Gender and follow her on Twitter @emilybreitkopf.

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