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Will tween girls buy into “Smart is the new Cool” and Project: Mc2?

If you’ve noticed an abundance of girl-themed posts on this blog, allow me to explain. I’m currently completing my MA in Communication and Culture, with an interest in researching the evolution of children’s cultures as well as media programming.

Part of the reason for making this leap, after many great years spent producing TV professionally for children’s audiences, is I began to notice a shift in the popular genres of content.

While I truly believe the quality of content created in this country is incredible, inventive, and a testament to the great storytelling minds we nurture, I am lamenting the steady decline of content that I grew up with and that I subsequently spent many years producing: documentary style and educational-blended-with-entertainment content.

In the entertainment biz, you’re only as good as your last project. But for me, my very first project epitomizes why I pursued this profession in the first place, although it’s taken me a number of years to come to this realization. I co-created the series with university colleagues while completely my undergraduate degree at Toronto’s Ryerson University. SWAP-TV is a documentary series with a simple premise: two children trade places for a weekend to experience of ‘walking in another child’s shoes.’ The show allowed children to explore new communities, try out new hobbies and activities in a safe space, to dispel myths and stereotypes, encourage compassion and empathy and explore a common humanity while having fun and learning. I am fiercely proud of this show which ran on TVOntario for many years and won a Gemini for Best Children’s or Youth Non-Fiction Program. A turning point in my life happened a few years ago, when I crossed paths with one of our tween participants from the show. More than ten years later, she had graduated from university and was completing a TV producing internship. She mentioned to me that her experience working with our team when she was just a tween gave her a nudge towards what she would ultimately pursue as a career!

I firmly believe that inspiring children to chase their dreams is a powerful gift in this time of great turmoil and struggle around the world. At its very core, I’ve always believed that TV content, regardless of genre, should always leave us with a glimmer of hope and of promise for the future, because … in the words of Scarlett O’Hara, the heroine of my all-time favourite movie Gone With the Wind:

The reason we don’t have more diverse content has a very complicated, layered explanation involving policy regulations, living next to the US, and the need for Canadian independent production companies to recoup production costs by selling internationally; the latter is the most significant reason: it just doesn’t make economical sense. In other words: only certain genres demand international sales, sure-fire merchandizing spin-offs, and so on.

AwesomenessTV, the digital media company I wrote about recently, seems to offer a glimmer of hope. It joins some remarkably innovative digital content offerings from organizations like the Khan Academy and MIT’s Scratch program… but with a seemingly better balance between entertainment and education This hope lies with an interesting content experiment that speaks to the very core of what I feel TV should offer for tweens, especially girls.

The show is called Project: Mc2.

Anyone working or researching in children’s education knows that there has been a great push towards S.T.E.M. learning (an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) particularly for young girls as a way of equipping students for the job market of the future.

In an interview with Fortune magazine, Isaac Larian, the creator (CEO of MGA Entertainment who also created the controversially popular Bratz dolls) said that his civil engineering graduating class in the late 70s had only 2 women out of 50 students and was disappointed to see that today, numbers of women are only in the 15% range.

The result is a show with the tagline: “Smart is the new Cool.” And with it, a brand of dolls with educational toys that now has Youtube shorts and a mini-series via AwesomenessTV and DreamworksTV. An app rounds out the digital offerings.

In August, a miniseries of three half-hour episodes premiered on Netflix featuring four brilliant, science-skilled girls who are recruited to join a top-secret spy organization with education advocate and actress Danica McKellar, best known for playing Winnie Cooper on the popular television show The Wonder Years as head spy honcho.

The show is a hybrid between the hyper-fantasy sitcom worlds of Nickelodeon and Disney and an educational series like a Popular Mechanics for Kids (have a look at this Buzzfeed homage to the show) where the protagonists are all females who are social, ethnically-diverse, and enjoy clothes as well as science and math. As one character puts it:

“We’re like a super cute version of the Pythagorean Theorum.”

The “we:”

McKeyla McAlister, a secret agent; Adrienne Attoms, a culinary chemist; Bryden Bandweth, a programming and tech expert; and Camryn Coyle, an inventor and engineering buff. It’s all very colourful, exciting, and girl-power-style and just the right bit of silly. These girls are seriously into their stuff but the show doesn’t take itself seriously.

Here’s how they spun merchandise out of the brand:

McKeyla’s doll comes with a make-a-lava-lamp kit, Bryden’s with a make-a-glow-stick kit, Camryn’s has a ‘top secret’ blueprint instructions on how to assemble her skateboard and Adrienne’s kit features an exploding volcano. It’s worth mentioning that specific efforts were made to make the girls of different heights, face shapes, etc to reflect real girls (unlike Barbie, who’s trying to reinvent herself, as I wrote about).

You can also buy the Interactive Journal, like the one we see spy McKeyla use in the show, with features like recorded messages from a secret organization NOV8 and a smartphone compartment for easy access to Netflix, YouTube’s AwesomenessTV, and our very own Project Mc2 website and free app. Additional products include a ‘Lab Kit’ and a ‘Rock Candy making kit.”

Oh, to be a tween again- I’d have been all over this!!

So, as I pursue my Grad School degree, I’m optimistic that new paths are being forged, inspiring me to look into creating my own…

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