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What We Need to Teach Our Daughters About Labels in Pop Culture and Beyond

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Growing up, I was known as the “quiet one.” I never said much in elementary and middle school, and it wasn’t until high school that I found my niche, my clique. And in that clique we had labels. I continued to be the “silent one,” while there was the “outgoing one,” the “smart one,” the “athletic one,” etc…

Labels are everywhere in our culture, from the playground, to the work place, to sitcoms and popular TV franchises. Let’s take Monster High for example. Although the fashion doll web series has about a dozen or so main characters, there’s Frankie Stein (the popular one), Clawdeen Wolf, (the fashionista), Draculaura (the vegan one), and Ghoulia Yelps (the smart one). Many young girls relate to these fictional characters not only by their style and personal likes, but by their labels as well. But what are these labels doing to our daughters?

While many of my daughter’s friends in kindergarten and first grade haven’t been able to personally identify themselves by their unique characteristics yet, playing with Monster High dolls and watching the web series just might lead them to identify themselves through one of the characters’ labels. I mean, I myself wanted to be the bubble-gummed pink lead singer in Jem when I was 6 years old. There was something about Jem that attracted me to her — her looks, her popularity, and of course, her social status with her friends. It’s crazy to think that even as a young elementary-schooler, I was already concerned with popularity and looks.

And while I was never the lead singer of my own Jem band, it was my first introduction to labels and how I can identify others based on their personality traits, as well as myself. We can criticize it as much as we want, but it’s something that stayed with me all throughout my school years and even into adulthood.

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As for the history of labels in animated cartoons and sitcoms, we can go on and list them forever. Who can forget Kelly Kapowski from Saved by the Bell being labeled as the “flirty, cheerleader one” or Phoebe Buffay as the “quirky one” in Friends. Another great pop-culture reference in labeling is with The Office. The cast was full of unique characters including Angelina (the uptight Christian), Kevin (the dim-witted, but lovable one), Meredith (the promiscuous alcoholic), Kelly (the talkative one), and so on. And while we might have been laughing with them (or at them during some episodes), I think the reason why these quirky if not stereotypical characters worked so well is because we could relate to them. Who has never had a Michael Scott moment of insecurity or doubt or known an eccentric yet oftentimes shrewd Dwight Shrute? While these characters were sometimes complex, they weren’t too far off from the actual people we know in reality who had the same personalities as they did on the small-screen.

While categorically labeling people does have its pros and cons, the long-term consequences of labeling a child “smart” or “slow” are profound. In social terms, labels represent a way of differentiating and identifying people that is considered by many to be a form of prejudice and discrimination. As parents, it is up to us to make sure we communicate with our children the difference between celebrating one’s uniqueness and discriminating them because of it.

Photos via YouTube

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