Sweet 16 and Spoiled Rotten

TV Arts

For rich teens, the hottest birthday present is a six-figure helping of 

In the future, everyone will be famous for $15,000. WITH the emergence of 
a whole industry devoted to re-creating celebrity culture for anyone who 
can afford it, fame is a commodity like any other, although it's true 
that no matter how much you spend, you'll probably sacrifice your dignity 
as well.

Actually, $15,000 is a lowball estimate, since that would barely cover 
the event-space rental tab for the kind of lavish spectacles that have 
become prime-time fare on MTV's highly rated My Super Sweet 16. The show 
documents the excesses of privileged youths commemorating the mighty 
achievement of making it through their 16th year. Shell-shocked 
parents--always uttering the mantra "It was worth it"--typically peel off 
checks for upwards of $200,000. We learn that from the Sun Belt to Erie, 
Pa., the lack of taste knows no ethnic, religious or cultural bounds. You 
give teenagers $200,000, and they will spend it exactly as you would 
expect. The parties are the aesthetic equivalent of Hilary Duff MP3s.

Every culture has its coming-of-age rituals. A child is inducted into the 
adult realm through a transformative experience, whether it's becoming 
more steeped in religion or killing a deer or having a vision. It's true 
that I would be happy to send any of the children of My Super Sweet 16 
into the desert by themselves for a while. Their blingy flings are not 
celebrations of accomplishment; they're celebrations of self. What used 
to mark the end of childhood now seems only an excuse to prolong the 
whiny, self-centered greediness that gives infantile a bad name. Far from 
joining polite society like the debutants of the past, the kids gleefully 
rip through social graces, alienating friends and sacrificing tact all in 
the name of creating a VIP room filled with people too young to drive 
themselves home.

The protagonists' excesses alone make for lurid, enjoyably outraged 
viewing. (Surely one celebrant's decision to dye her poodles pink should 
have prompted a call to the A.S.P.C.A.) A precocious celebutant makes her 
entrance via helicopter. A self-proclaimed "divo" (like diva but 
different) rents out the mall to stage a faux fashion show (prompting a 
backstage catfight over a limited supply of bustiers). There are hired 
dancers, a raj-like litter hoisted by hand-picked hotties and an apparent 
contractual obligation for someone to arrive in a stretch Hummer. I had 
no idea so many stretch Hummers even existed. No wonder we had to go to 
war in Iraq.

The series is like an infomercial for class war, and should the 
revolution come, an episode guide will provide a handy, illustrated list 
of who should go up against the wall. My Super Sweet 16 had its 
third-season premiere last week, building up to the broadcast with a 
drumroll of conspicuous consumption: four two-hour blocks of episodes 
drawn from the show's previous seasons. To witness such unself-conscious 
acquisitiveness in one sitting is like eating an entire normal-kid 
birthday-party sheet cake, wax decorative candles and all. There's the 
same queasy sense of monochromatic excess because all the shows are 
alike, from the fake panic that the party may not happen to the 
scary-sexy dry humping on the dance floor. And no matter what the nominal 
theme of the party--California beach party, Moulin Rouge, the color 
pink--each guest of honor is really after only one thing. "I feel famous. 
I love it," says one. Another: "I definitely felt like I was famous." Yet 
one more: "I felt like such a star." The teenagers take on all the tics 
of fame, from tiny dogs to referring to oneself in the third person. We 
are all Paris Hilton now.

My Super Sweet 16 isn't even the most visible or popular iteration of our 
democratized just-in-time celebrity culture. Club Libby Lu, a 
fast-growing chain of mall stores owned by Saks, provides the setting and 
accessories for elaborate makeover parties for girls as young as 4 at a 
relatively reasonable $21 a head. They can strut down a catwalk, don mock 
Madonna headset microphones and pester their parents to buy Role Model 
perfume or a LOCAL CELEBRITY T shirt. It would be easy to bemoan the 
trend as the end of childhood or the corruption of innocence. But the 
hunger for recognition doesn't end with the acquisition of a driver's 
license. As popular culture divides into ever more finely split niches, 
with Yahoo Groups and blogs touting the cream of whatever subculture you 
can think of a domain name for, famous is just a matter of answering your 

The irony, of course, is that the easier it is to become famous--whether 
in a really famous fashion or simply as a queen for a day--the more 
irrelevant the meaning of celebrity becomes. As a diminutive diva on My 
Super Sweet 16 guilelessly observes, "We're like celebrities but not 
famous." Exactly. Autographs, please.

Ana Marie Cox writes a weekly column that appears on time.com
It says a lot about the parents (none of it good)
who would indulge their spoiled children this way.