“Recess” was a series on the Disney Channel that exemplified the adventures of six, fourth grade friends during recess. In the episode, “The Beauty Contest,” the clique of catty stereotypical girly-girls known as “the Ashley’s” plot revenge on the tomboy Spinelli by entering her in a beauty contest. Inspired by her ambitious African American jock friend, Vince, Spinelli becomes determined to win the beauty contest. As Spinelli’s self-proclaimed coach, Vince oversees her transformation into a sure beauty pageant winner. During the contest, however, Spinelli is overcome by a great sense of morality and individualism which drives her to admit to the judges that she is in fact a tomboy and not an artificial girly-girl. Moved by her honesty, the judges award Spinelli the first prize for “Being herself.” This particular episode of “Recess” harbors inferential racism which portrays all of the characters of color in a negative light, thus promoting multiple subtle hegemonic images. However, this same episode also exposes multiple commonly exaggerated female character tropes and proves them to be inadequate and artificial, thereby airing an overtly counter hegemonic message.
All of the girls who are labeled as “Ashley’s” share multiple common attributes; they are all portrayed as upper class, catty, synthetic, and manipulative. These girls seek to humiliate the tomboy, Spinelli, by entering her in the pageant. They specifically stage interactions with her on multiple occasions just so they can belittle and ridicule her. In fact, one of the Ashley’s even trips Spinelli during the beauty contest. Eventually, the blonde Caucasian Ashley visits Spinelli after the finalists are announced, and congratulates her opponent on her transformation, “I mean, before you were just a regular, low class kid. But now, you’re just like one of us,” she gushes.
Spinelli’s transformation supposedly allows her to “emerge from the chrysalis a beautiful butterfly,” as her friend Mickey puts it. However, the transformation shows Spinelli modifying purely physical characteristics: her walk, her hair, her clothes, and her manner of speech. Pozner explains this behavior by recognizing that girls can win beauty competitions or become “perfect tens simply for (sic) being pretty, passive and intellectually unthreatening.” (Pozner, 98) In the episode under question Spinelli does exactly this. She transitions from an “untamed,” aggressive smart-mouth to a makeup and hair-product laden, submissive, pageant doll. Spinelli’s new image almost verbatim fits the promiscuous, antagonistic, manipulative “harem girl” of the reality world described by Opener, “In this unreal world, women aren’t just stupid-they’re also catty and bitchy” he claims. (Pozner, 98)
David Newman a well-known Sociologist explains, “More generally, television continues to present stereotypes that show women as shallow, vain, and materialistic characters whose looks overshadow all else.” (Newman, 92) He also asserts that, “The media-most notably, television-play a significant role in providing the public with often inaccurate and oversimplified information that indirectly shapes attitudes.” (Newman, 104)
However, as Stuart Hall delineates in his essay “The Whites of Their Eyes,” “If critics of the media subscribe to too simple or reductive view of their operations, this inevitably lacks credibility and weakens the case they are making because the theories and critiques they are making don’t square with reality.” (Hall, 89) In other words, overt sexism and oversimplification in this particular case strips the “harem-girl” character trope of its credibility. Because an honest tomboy wins the beauty contest over passive aggressive, calculating drones, young girls learn through positive affirmation that it is OK to possess rugged, manly qualities.
Although the episode tackles sexism in a head on, counter hegemonic fashion, it addresses race in a much more inferential and inconspicuous manner. In fact, the audience is exposed to exactly three ethnically diverse characters, all of whom have negative ulterior motives. Furthermore, two out of four of the antagonists, “the Ashley’s” are of color. Of these four Ashley’s, two are Caucasian, one is African American (with kinky hair), and one appears to be
Similarly, Pozner observed that in most reality TV shows, “women of color are tokenized and often eliminated shortly after each series debut.” (Pozner, 98) This episode of a children’s TV show is no exception. The two racially diverse Ashley’s are the first to be eliminated from the beauty contest.
The inferential racism is further propagated by the fact that all three of the judges arbitrating the competition are all Caucasian individuals. This episode of Recess provides a prime example of Newman’s idea that the normative group is able to define and pass judgment on minority groups. It does so by reinforcing repression and subjugation of different races to grossly misconstrued and negative representations that are inevitably unsuccessful. It is in this way that “Media spectacles demonstrate who has power and who is powerless…They dramatize and legitimate the power of the forces that be and show the powerless that they must stay in their places or be oppressed.” (Kellner, 9)
American youth are unknowingly subjected to racist ideas through shows such as “Recess” which have “inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions. These enable racist statements to be formulated without ever bringing into awareness the racist predicates on which the statements are grounded.” (Hall, 91)
Although the episode “The Beauty Contest” of the Disney channel TV series “Recess” conveys subtle directives against racial diversity that support hegemony, it does openly addresses sexist images propagating counter hegemony and encouraging young women to “be themselves.” Such dual messaging allows media companies to further camouflage racist ideas. Bifurcated portrayals are able to pass unquestioned by mass audiences making it easier for such subtle messages to reach American youth. Much like the Trojan horse, this episode of children’s media presents kids with subtle and hegemonic racist messages gift wrapped in a blatant counter hegemonic anti sexist plotline. (What media companies are really trying to say is “Be yourself”-as long as you are white”)
Pozner, Jennifer L. "The Unreal World." Learning Gender. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 96-99.
Newman, David M. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender,
and Sexuality. N.p.: McGraw-Hill Companies, n.d.
Hall, Stuart. "The Whites of Their Eyea, Racist Ideologies and the Media." Gender Race and Class in Media, A Text-Reader. 2003. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M Humez. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003. 89-93.
Kellner, Douglas. "Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture." Gender Race and Class in Media, A Text-Reader. 2003. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M Humez. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003. 9-20.
Lull, James. "Hegemony." Gender Race and Class in Media, A Text-Reader. 2003. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M Humez. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003. 61-66.