Hitting the Small Time
Perhaps you've heard of 10-year-old Alec Greven, the author of a series of self-help tomes like How to Talk to Dads and How to Talk to Santa. The wee guru has appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, the Today show, CNN, The Tonight Show, and Good Morning America. In December 2008, Twentieth Century Fox announced that it had optioned How to Talk to Girls, Greven's first book and the one that launched his brand.
It's easy to see why the media has glommed on to Greven: He's adorable, nonthreatening, and he doesn't yet have any frown lines to show up in HD. He's bright, but he stumbles charmingly over his words. He's not going to freak out Meredith Vieira by talking about string theory, or intimidate viewers by solving complex math equations on air. And he's hardly the only boy wonder out there.
Other tyke titans who've arrived in the past year or two include 14-year-old conservative pundit Jonathan Krohn, who was the hit of the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference and had a weekly spot on WBAL in Baltimore, Maryland, and 17-year-old media producer Daniel Brusilovsky, the founder and CEO of Teens in Tech Networks, which boasts 274,000 Twitter followers. Then there's 13-year-old aspiring restaurant critic David Fishman, whose adventures in eating were profiled in the New York Times; he's since had his story optioned by Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. Arlo Weiner, the 8-year-old son of Mad Men creator Matthew, is a pint-size dandy whose style savvy has landed him two GQ fashion spreads. And 11-year-old journalist Damon Weaver scored an interview with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for his elementary school's TV station; he's since been profiled himself by both Anderson Cooper and Time magazine.
Arlo Weiner's "favorite outfit." From GQ
The media has always loved a smart kid, but there's a difference between the young Grevens and Weavers and the more "traditional" child prodigies that we're used to. These tyros aren't graduating at age 12 from Loyola University in Chicago and attending the Pritzker School of Medicine by age 15, like Sho Yano, or schooling chess opponents three times their age, as Bobby Fischer once did. Rather, today's boy wonders make the media rounds with their opinions on sophisticated but slippery subjects, such as fashion or politics. And like many an adult media maven, they thrive largely on hype.
Alec Greven's How to Talk to Girls, for example, began as a school project that became a human interest story for a local TV station. The producers at the Ellen DeGeneres Show caught wind of the young pickup artist, which led to a contract with HarperCollins. No doubt, Greven is a smart, personable child, but he's also the creation of a hungry horde of daytime talk shows, headline writers, and publishing conglomerates, all looking for telegenic flesh.
Alec Geven on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, February 2008
Greven is probably about as qualified as anyone to write about smooth talking—it's not something we certify or offer advanced degrees for. Though self-styled adult experts would probably cite life experience as crucial to social success, can we really say that Greven's advice isn't any better than, say, that of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus author John Gray? Moreover, we could set Jonathan Krohn against Glenn Beck in a battle of conservative hot air, and invite Arlo Weiner to a style-off against Rachel Zoe, but how would we measure who was more proficient? Like their adult counterparts, these mini-moguls are largely creatures of the media, manufactured and sustained by it, and ultimately more talking head than whiz kid. And the fact that they're all boys—and, with the exception of Damon Weaver, all white—isn't coincidental to their success.
Almost all our cultural paragons of early achievement, real or fictional, are boys: the Doogie Howsers, the Mozarts, the Bobby Fischers, the Jimmy Neutrons. Throughout history, and in much of the world today, we have poured more resources into cultivating the talents of males than those of females, thus giving them more chances to shine. Even at a day-to-day level, this is true: Parents and teachers refer twice the number of boys to gifted programs than girls, a fact brought to light in Peggy Orenstein's 1994 book Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap.
Dr. Anita Gurian, executive editor of the NYU Child Study Center's website, offers an interesting point: "The identification of gifted children often begins in third grade, a system based on the belief that enrichment programs are best instituted at this age. This practice, however, penalizes young gifted girls who are often outstanding in early childhood." Gurian notes that girls often read, talk, and start counting at an earlier age than boys do. In preschool, they generally do better on iq tests. But experts speculate that by the third grade, girls may have already internalized the message that socially, it's better to conform than to stand out, in academics or elsewhere. And the same reluctance of girls to step into the academic spotlight also hampers the progress of those who might want to become media stars; after all, visibility is part of the job of these young Krohns and Grevens.
Invisibility has been the lot of talented girls and women through history. Seizing the spotlight takes brashness and a willingness to step outside the parameters of traditional femininity and display ambition, ego, and a thirst for recognition—and, at least before the advent of child beauty pageants and reality TV, girls have rarely been encouraged by their elders to do that.
Take Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn: Born in 1805, Fanny was a gifted pianist and received a solid education in musical composition. At age 12, she wowed a private audience by playing the 24 Preludes from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier from memory. She had been given the same musical training as her younger brother, Felix, and was acknowledged to be as talented as he was. But since, at the time, respectable girls stayed out of public life, Fanny's father barred her from performing in public or from publishing her compositions.
Writing to his then–14-year-old daughter in 1820, Abraham Mendelssohn broke it down: "Music will perhaps become [Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament. We may therefore pardon him some ambition and desire to be acknowledged in a pursuit which appears very important to him, because he feels a vocation for it."
So Felix was urged to embark on what became an illustrious musical career. He performed his first public concert at age 9, and became a prolific composer. (Modern audiences may know him best for his Wedding March.) Fanny, by contrast, followed her father's wishes: She married painter William Hensel in 1829 and became a housewife. Aside from some songs that Felix issued under his name (with his sister's permission), most of the 500 works Fanny Mendelssohn penned remain unpublished.
The attitudes that caused Fanny Mendelssohn's family to devalue and hide her gifts remain with us. The complicated question of whether to allow a bright kid into the public eye (and to set the child—and his parents—up for a profitable future) becomes thornier when female sex gets added to the mix. To put it another way: If 9-year-old Alexandra Greven wrote a book called How to Talk to Boys, would we find her whip-smart, charming, and hip? How would headlines about a female "Little Pickup Artist" play? Precocity in a boy means one thing—in a girl, it means quite another.
Indeed, the media acts like a peer group, often punishing girls who stick out. Consider young Tavi Gevinson, the upstart fashion blogger who's the notable exception in the modern media boy's club. Gevinson describes herself as a "tiny 13-year-old dork that sits inside all day wearing awkward jackets and pretty hats," but the witty prose and sophisticated photos on her blog, Style Rookie, have attracted the attention of Women's Wear Daily, the New York Times Style Magazine, Harper's Bazaar, and New York magazine's fashion blog, The Cut.
Tavi Gevinson, image taken from her blog
The reaction from adults? Many of the same people who fawned over little Arlo Weiner's morning coats and velvet trousers have disdained Gevinson with terms like "gimmick" and "novelty." Others have accused her of having grown-up help; Elle's Anne Slowey, most notably, snipped to The Cut, "She's either a tween savant or she's got a Tavi team." In the same piece, Lesley M.M. Blume of The Huffington Post bristled at getting sartorial advice from a child: "I think it was insulting enough when we were expected as adult women to take our fashion cues from Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen."
The backlash against Gevinson has also extended to her parents for possibly exposing the tween blogger to hurtful comments and even online predators. In one Associated Press story, Addie Swartz, CEO of the media company B-tween Productions, stated: "I personally feel that it's not safe to have a child who's 12 or 13 have a blog and I wouldn't want my kids to do that." Negative comments generated by posts on The Cut propelled Gevinson to take a small break from her site. But her father, a teacher, told the AP he believed that kids were resilient: "I have a lot of confidence in [Tavi] and in most kids, if not all kids, that they can figure it out if they have good guidance and caring people working with them."
As for Gevinson's male media-star counterparts? Well, the boys don't have their toughness questioned, but then again, they don't encounter much scrutiny in the first place. No one has asked whether David Fishman's solo adventures in New York City restaurants expose him to predators. And Alec Greven doesn't currently have a girlfriend, but no one seems to hold it against him. If anything, interviewers have treated him with, well, kid gloves. Most of the transcripts seem to go like this:
Q. Wow, you're 10 years old?
Q. And you wrote this book?
No morning news personality wants to make a youngster sob live on television, of course, but Greven hasn't been given a reason to so much as sweat. The chat shows and general-interest magazines seem delighted because these boys are boys. Sure, they answer questions about foie gras and designer clothing—but the fun thing about them is that they're children talking about foie gras and designer clothing.
Greven, Weiner, Weaver, and the others are, despite the suits and book deals, just kids. What tickles Vanity Fair and Good Morning America about these wunderkinder is not their genius—again, it's not like they're tinkering with particle physics—but how adeptly they parrot the grown-up world, how well they play at being us.
If they do mirror our society, perhaps it isn't surprising that the composition of this precocious group skews boy-ward; it's hard enough for a woman, let alone a girl, to seize the spotlight for reasons other than her looks and sex appeal. And when faced with a young female like Gevinson, whose ambition and bold vision challenge notions of modest girlhood, perhaps it's not shocking that adult reactions range all over the place.
Or finally, maybe we're all juveniles in this picture, elevating some kids to popularity, and pressuring others to conform. Because based on how we play with the Alecs, Jonathans, Damons, and Tavis, making adults out of children makes children out of us.
Mindy Hung is a writer living in New York.
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