Pick Me! Pick Me!

On MTV's 'Miss Seventeen' goody-goodies finally get to make themselves look bad

Miss Seventeen
9:30 p.m. Mondays
MTV

Pity the Olson Twins; they've had it harder than you know. Perhaps the only thing worse than having to be a teenage girl is being a teenage girl on TV. Here is a realm where the adolescent female is either a peaches 'n' cream nymphet who guards her hymen with Doberman-like vigilance (Joey on Dawson's Creek); a dopey vixen who looks like, well, the singer from Vixen (Kelly Bundy); or a fashion-obsessed idiot (Mallory Keaton, Vanessa Huxtable, Donna Martin). While iconic young male characters like Zack (Morris), Mike (Seaver), and Charles (In Charge) could be enterprising wiseacres, their distaff counterparts have been stuck in roles as cute tutors, varsity rah-rah girls, and Girls Who Won't Go All the Way (At Least Until the Prom Episode).

A face that only a magazine editor could love? The contestants of 'Miss Seventeen'
Photos courtesy of MTV
A face that only a magazine editor could love? The contestants of 'Miss Seventeen'

One of the few female teenage characters who dared to identify herself as a feminist--Jessie Spano on Saved by the Bell--eventually succumbed to the muscular embrace of Slater, a leering, sexist jock who addressed her as "Mama." (Hear this, young feminists: Strident pleas for equality will only result in lukewarm Mario Lopez action.) My So-Called Life, a show that actually depicted high school girls as multidimensional people and not shrill mannequins, was rewarded with the axe after one thrillingly gloomy season.

The reality TV boom initially seemed like the ideal tonic for this blatant teenybopper stereotyping. With the cameras turned inward, America could finally observe authentic teenage girls and see them being brilliant, funny, rational, and/or compassionate--or so I hoped. Then Laguna Beach--along with just about every other teencentric "reality" offering on MTV--dashed those hopes. If anything, the real-life girls on Laguna are actually dumber than their fictional predecessors.

Which is why I had high--well, middling--hopes for Miss Seventeen, a new MTV reality offering that claims to have culled the nation's best and brightest teenage girls from a huge pool of applicants. The winner, handpicked by Seventeen editor-in-chief Atoosa Rubenstein, will appear on the cover of the magazine, which we're repeatedly reminded is where Cameron Diaz got her start.

I have to confess that the show's premise made me nostalgic for the spring of 1992, when I entered Sassy magazine's thematically similar "Sassiest Girl in America" contest. I wrote an earnest letter explaining that I deserved to win because I cared about the "enviroment" [sic] and wanted to be a comic book artist and was therefore infinitely sassier than all the preppy, water-wasting sheep at my junior high. Two agonizing months later, I received a letter saying I'd made it to the final 30(!) before being cut--which means there can only be 29 people in America who are sassier than me. Suck on that!

Anyway, Miss Seventeen impressed me initially with its cornucopia of overachievers. One of the contestants is even a congressional page--can you imagine Casey from Laguna Beach rubbing shoulders with congressmen? (Don't answer that.) Another one of the girls was voted "High School Journalist of the Year," albeit in Montana. Valedictorians and other Type-A diorama-builders populate the cast, as well as a few token cheerleader types who actually seem like underdogs compared to their plainer-but-brainier peers.

The contest's aim is unclear. Rubenstein says that Miss Seventeen needs to have a face that can sell magazines, then insists in the same breath that achievement and intellect are essential. Hasn't she ever watched TV before? Doesn't she know that "pretty" and "smart" are mutually exclusive?

In the first episode, the girls arrive at their pimped-out New York loft (which is now standard issue on all competitive reality shows) and squeal predictably over the "sophisticated" decor and cheap freebies. In keeping with the competition, everyone's trying to seem well-informed and intelligent: I have to admit, this was a lemony-fresh palate cleanser after the Laguna Beach rerun I'd just suffered through. The contestants' first challenge is an embarrassingly stagy dinner with Rubenstein in which they each have to share something about themselves that no one else knows.

Hilariously, most of the girls opt for grandiose, ass-kissy statements, rather than the dark secrets Rubenstein seems to be soliciting. One girl offers, "I'm very upset about how women are portrayed in the media." How deeply personal! Homecoming queen Jessica reveals that she's "very interested in art." Boring! I keep waiting for a girl to say, "I once masturbated with a tennis racket" or something similarly candid, but it doesn't happen. Rubenstein looks bored and underwhelmed and I can't blame her. The only memorable contestant is Sasha, who stands up and recites slam poetry while her timid peers gape.

The next day, a whopping seven girls are eliminated--via teleconference, no less! Rubenstein explains that she's sure they're all wonderful girls, but that she had to make a sweeping cut based on first impressions, i.e. one sentence per contestant. "I guess that's it," student council president Caroline murmurs, staring blankly at the screen that doesn't bear her name. The losers shuffle out while the winners, accustomed to being approved of, beam awkwardly.

Superficially, Miss Seventeen seems like a girl-positive show. It rewards ambition and spotlights young women who recognize the importance of critical thinking. In a sense, however, these girls seem as phony as the Laguna ladies. There's not a single rogue or rebel here, just a bunch of wholesome honor rollers who seem transparently desperate to please. As with the teenage girls we've been seeing on TV for decades, the program presents these contestants as sanitized, carefully assembled bundles of traits approved for mass consumption. Would it really be so unjust if, instead of winning an airbrushed magazine cover, they actually scored a date with Mario Lopez?

 
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