December 2, 2019

PARK | ‘Victorious’ and the Suppression of Female Ambition

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Correction: A previous version of this column made incorrect claims about Dan Schneider. The article has been updated.

In the pilot of Victorious, the titular character, Tori, is thrust onto stage at a showcase for a performing arts high school she does not attend by a guidance counselor who does not know her and has literally no incentive to do so. As the spotlight hits Tori, she looks fearful and timid, although she’s probably pissed because all she was trying to do was support her comedically untalented sister, Trina. And she would have never come had she known that Trina would be unable to perform and despite flat-out refusing to sing in Trina’s place and trying to run away, she would be physically restrained and forced on stage by a guidance counselor who, based on his judgment in their brief encounter, should not be giving guidance to anyone.

But once she hears the opening chords to the theme song of the series, her pure talent is awakened. Somehow, despite never showing any interest or desire in singing, the girl who tried to run off stage only moments ago knows all the lyrics and hits every note in her rousing and perfectly choreographed performance of “Make It Shine.” And watching this nearly a decade since the premiere, with all the sagacity post-middle school life has granted me, this is a bunch of bullshit.

This month we have been graced with the gift of four seasons of Victorious on Netflix. For the uninitiated, this nearly impeccable show follows Tori, a teenage girl who is thrust, literally, into the strange and incredible world of a performing arts high school, Hollywood Arts. My middle school self loved watching Tori and her ensemble of talented friends embark on wild, adolescent adventures. But after this deeply unsatisfying opening to the show, I, naturally, had to watch the entire series to see if it was as good as I had remembered (update: it was). Admittedly, a few of the storylines sound like they were crafted by throwing word magnets at a refrigerator and seeing what sticks, particularly the one where Tori’s friends escape from imprisonment on a fictional island run by a military coup using only the powers of Michael Jackson. But to me, nothing was more ridiculous than this moment in the pilot.

As Tori belted out “Make It Shine,” a song about overcoming fear to realize one’s dreams, the irony was not lost on me. This performance resulted in her invitation to attend Hollywood Arts, the entire basis for the show. But instead of making it shine, Tori took absolutely no initiative to make it happen. She actually actively fought against it. This female protagonist just happened upon everything she wanted after vigorous physical duress of some man with incredibly questionable judgment.

I couldn’t help but think about what imprint this left on my 13-year-old self. What were the good people at Nickelodeon trying to teach me? That I should take absolutely no initiative in pursuing my dreams? That my deepest desires will only be realized once someone picks me out in a crowd? That my calling will just one day be awakened?

I started thinking about all the female-centered shows I loved so much growing up. A trend began to emerge: Disney- and Nickelodeon-curated tropes of girls who are seemingly unaware of their immense talents and just happen upon vast success after the approval, encouragement or permission of an often male character, who somehow sees something inside them that they don’t.

Carly only decides to start iCarly after tech-savvy Freddie posts a video of an unknowing Carly messing around with her best friend Sam. Miley only becomes Hannah Montana after the encouragement of her famous pop star father. True Jackson only becomes Vice President of a fashion line after being noticed on the street by a fashion designer.

We see girls who aren’t allowed to want things for themselves, to be ambitious. In fact, the ambitious girls often get antagonized or ridiculed. Sharpay is vilified for knowing what she wants and going after it (albeit also for being a little morally bankrupt). Trina becomes a walking punchline for wanting success and believing in herself, without the skills to back it up, while the four boys in Big Time Rush who are terrible at dancing, singing and cooperating audition at a talent search and, at once, become stars.

And I understand that these are just shows and they’re supposed to be somewhat fantastic, because we don’t need a screen to experience a girl struggle for years despite endless setbacks in pursuit of her aspirations: we could just live that. Perhaps I loved these stories so much because I wanted to be in them. These are extensions of the fairy tales I was told growing up about being seen and being saved. And there is something so comforting about the idea that we don’t have to believe in our own dreams for them to be realized.

Or maybe the writers just wanted to accurately reflect our world where women don’t feel as entitled to positions of power, where we feel we must be invited to sit at the table, run for a position or apply to a job. But in the years since my Disney days, I’ve learned better from the real-life women who inspire me — the finance snake who grew up homeless and decided to pursue a seat of power historically occupied by men, the child of immigrants who doesn’t need permission to decide to become the first doctor in her family, the girl who decided to pursue a college degree to own a hotel in a country where girls are often uneducated. Because if we don’t believe in ourselves, how can we expect anyone else to? It’s time we start teaching our young girls the same.

Sarah Park is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at sarahpark@cornellsun.com or likely somewhere in Libe Cafe. Spark Notes runs every other Monday this semester.