Jamie Donnelly, Olivia Newton-John, Didi Conn, Stockard Channing, and Dinah Manoff in Grease.(Paramount Pictures via IMDB)
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Our celebrity-obsessed culture is depriving children of the lessons learned through playing bit parts

Marjorie Ingall
May 24, 2011
Jamie Donnelly, Olivia Newton-John, Didi Conn, Stockard Channing, and Dinah Manoff in Grease.(Paramount Pictures via IMDB)

When I was 11, I became the youngest theater impresario of Providence, R.I. My big production was Grease. I saw the movie six or seven times, then painstakingly hand-wrote the entire script in a shiny, hot pink loose-leaf binder. I cast all the neighborhood kids in my production, taking a risk on my Danny Zuko with an 8-year-old who was short for his age but totally had the best hair. I cast Laura Page as Sandy, the Olivia Newton-John part, because she was blonde. Everyone knows female leads should be blonde.

And I cast myself as Rizzo. I knew I couldn’t be the ingénue. I was two heads taller than the other girls in my class. I had no idea how to be cute and flirty. I didn’t have gorgeous, long-lashed blue eyes like Laura Page. I was bossy—hence my forcing the entire neighborhood to fulfill my artistic vision. I wasn’t leading lady material, and I knew it even then.

Part of me was sorry. But most of me embraced being Rizzo. The tough and sarcastic leader of the Pink Ladies, played by Stockard Channing in the film, Rizzo was blustery but vulnerable, someone who knew she wasn’t the prettiest girl in school but found power and agency anyway. Rizzo didn’t have nearly as many songs as Sandy, but she got to sing the excellent, snarky “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” I had no idea what “lousy with virginity” meant, but it was obviously something to roll one’s eyes about. And Rizzo had a wounded heart under all that cheap pink satin. Another of her songs, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” was about being perceived as a slut when she really wasn’t and refusing to give anyone the satisfaction of knowing they’ve hurt her with name-calling. The sexual references went right over my head, but I completely understood the emotions fueling the song. Rizzo was a much more nuanced character than Sandy, the star.

I kept doing plays (and eventually became the lead drama counselor at two Jewish camps), but I played exactly two leading roles in my entire theatrical life: a chain-smoking, mentally ill, Russian would-be assassin in a pretentious Harvard black-box production, and Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web in fifth grade.

But I learned so much playing small parts. I learned to create a character and be a team player, and I swear I became less bossy as I got older. I learned to see myself as part of an ensemble. My dad once sent a letter to the director of Camp Ramah in New England asking why I always seemed to play whores, but I liked playing whores. (My dad said he just wondered whether the camp was trying to tell him anything.) I learned that small parts can be memorable parts. Ado Annie gets more laughs in Oklahoma! than Laurey.

But I worry that our culture now tells kids they shouldn’t accept anything less than top billing. Nowadays, after all, almost every tween TV show is about kids becoming stars. We adulate celebrities even if they don’t do anything. The Real Housewives are famous for screaming at each other. Kim Kardashian became famous for making a sex tape, then morphed into being polymorphously famous for being famous. Now she has her own shoe collection, her own fitness DVD, and her own perfume. (“It probably smells like Taco Bell and Valtrex,” says a friend of a friend.)

I’m not going to join in the mocking of Rebecca Black, the 13-year-old girl who made a vanity video called “Friday” (her mom paid $4,000 to a production company that specializes in such things) that went viral on YouTube and has been derided as “the worst song ever.” Granted, the song—about a Friday in the life of a teenager—is moronic: “Gotta go downstairs/gotta have my bowl/gotta have cereal,” go the lyrics, and “Partyin’, partyin’/partyin’, partyin’/fun fun fun fun/lookin’ forward to the weekend.” But it’s not fair to make fun of a 13-year-old, talented or not, for wanting to be a star. We live in a world in which that’s the message that fuels every medium. And in fact, it’s sort of fascinating to watch a video of a song that glorifies what every kid does every day in every suburb across our fair land: Eat a bowl of cereal, wait for the bus, try to decide where to sit—these things become deserving of fame because the person doing them has been packaged by a company that packages pretend-fame to anyone with $4,000. The head, it spins.

Commenting is disabled on the video; people said nasty things, as people do on the Internet. But here’s the thing: Black has become an actual star; the TV show Glee recently covered “Friday.” She does have a relationship with fame; it doesn’t matter whether it’s a love-hate relationship. It doesn’t matter that she’s a placeholder around whom a cheesy production swirls. It’s what she wanted. Now she can star in bigger productions in which she’s an object.

As a moral lesson, this is cruddy. The educator Alfie Kohn wrote a book called Punished by Rewards in which he argued that kids should be intrinsically motivated to succeed. Some of Kohn’s ideas are too radical for me, but not this. Stardom is not in itself a worthy goal. Yet too many kids are told that every painting they make is a Picasso, that they should be in the starting lineup, even if it is only their first year on the team, that the only reason they didn’t get an A is that the teacher is lame.

The message here is that stardom is every child’s God-given right, and being less than No. 1 is unacceptable. But you learn from being on the JV team, playing the second banana, not getting an A. Kids should enjoy performing, playing sports, reading, or playing chess for their own sake, not as tools to get something else.

Last year, when my daughter Josie was cast as the third orphan from the left in Oliver!, she was disappointed. She’d wanted “a part with a name.” But there was a teachable moment there. And guess what: Josie loved being in the chorus. This year, she’s Grandma Tzeitl in Fiddler on the Roof—a larger role, but still a supporting one. Maybe next year she’ll have a bigger part, maybe not. Part of me hopes not. Because the female leads in most mass-market entertainments are mostly objects, more looked at and acted upon than creators of their own destiny. As my girls get older, I’d rather have them play character roles that don’t define them by their looks or desirability.

I say “girls” because Maxie, at 6, loves theater too. She recently wrote at school that she wants to be “an actris.” I asked her, “Maxie, didn’t you say that you wanted to be a writer?” She quickly answered, “I want to be both. I’ll be a playwright and write parts for myself.” I hope those parts will be more fully dimensional than most parts for women now. And if they’re small parts, that’s just fine.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.