Modeling itself on teen sexuality

At WB, the network that brings you 'Buffy' and 'Dawson's Creek,' image is everything.

July 25, 1999|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- I am sitting at a table for two at the very trendy Il Fornaio restaurant in Pasadena's very trendy Old Town listening to a very young actor you probably never heard of named Brendan Fehr.

Rest assured you will hear of Fehr by September, because he's one of the stars of "Roswell," the hot, new, can't-you-already-hear-the-buzz? series this fall on the WB.

This is the WB All-Star Party I am sitting at, and if you are between the ages of, say, 12 and 26 and into looks, this is heaven. The WB is the teen girl network, the network of Felicity, Buffy and all those impossibly beautiful people on "Dawson's Creek." And most of them are here tonight, looking almost as good in person as they do on screen.

To me, it's not exactly heaven. It's mainly loud -- so loud I can hardly hear what Fehr is saying, not that I'm listening that much anymore.

But, just as I'm about to totally tune out, he says something about his modeling career. He modeled "sportswear" (read: underwear) before getting his break. As he talks about how modeling prepared him for TV acting, the hundreds of images and thousands of words about the WB that had washed over me during the daylong presentation start making some sense. I'd call it an epiphany, but it might have been just the triple espresso I'd downed a few minutes earlier trying to match the room's incredible energy level.

The secret to the WB's stranglehold on the teen imagination is in the way its cameras sexualize its young stars. It photographs them like models in Calvin Klein ads. It is all about pictures, imagery and iconography. It has almost nothing to do with words or what we traditionally think of as "messages."

The critics and reporters on the annual summer press tour had been questioning the WB executives, producers and stars all day about such matters as "social responsibility" and "teen culture." Hanging over the room was the shadow of Columbine High School.

In response to our questions, the WB executives were saying all the right things.

"From day one, we've done a lot of soul searching about our responsibility to put shows on where teen-agers are empowered," said Susanne Daniels, WB president.

"Every time we develop a show or look at a pilot, I always ask myself, 'Is this something you can feel good about? Is this something you want on the air?' " said Jamie Kellner, the CEO who has built the WB into a cultural powerhouse.

But we were asking the wrong questions.

For me, the most powerful moment of the WB day was the opening image in a promotional film less than four minutes long that the WB marketing department produced.

The film shows 23-year-old Keri Russell, the star of "Felicity," lying on her stomach on a velvet-covered couch. Russell is surrounded by four men and women who appear to be applying makeup and combing her long hair. They scurry away as the camera moves toward Russell to give us a better look.

The camera stops and lingers to let us gaze upon this beauty, who seems lost in her own thoughts as she lazily raises and lowers her long dancer's legs behind her.

Russell is oblivious to the camera. As it starts moving toward her, she arches her neck and looks upward, providing a close-up of her perfect profile. Then the camera moves on, encountering other beautiful WB teen stars such as Sarah Michelle Geller (Buffy), Katie Holmes (Joey Potter in "Dawson's Creek"), and Michelle Williams (Jennifer Lindley in "Dawson's Creek").

This is pure voyeurism. No words, just one dreamy, sensual, fantasy-charged image after another. It is the distillation of what the WB does with its teen stars each week in prime time.

The feature film industry has a long history of such images. In fact, looking at Russell on the divan, you thought of Cleopatra, or of the way Alfred Hitchcock's camera followed Grace Kelley throughout "Rear Window."

But no one has done it before with teen-agers and television, certainly not with the mesmerizing skill of the WB week in and week out.

This is what is different from the television that previous generations grew up with. It isn't the violence. With wall-to-wall Westerns like "The Rifleman," there was enough violence in prime-time during the late '50s and early '60s. But teen stars like Patty Duke or Annette Funicello or Ricky Nelson were not sexualized in this way during their era of prime-time popularity.

One thing we know about kids and TV is that kids always watch "up," that is, watch and identify with shows featuring characters older than themselves. So, what do 10- or 12-year-old boys and girls make of such images? And why do we allow our children to be turned into objects of desire or creatures of longing?

The stars of the WB are the children of the Calvin Klein ads, brought to prime time for our viewing pleasure. In that sense, Fehr is oh so right: There is no better training for such an actor or actress than modeling underwear.

Pub Date: 07/25/99

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