The Case for JoJo

Have you heard of JoJo Siwa?  I was vaguely aware of her, having seen her merchandise in Target.  My daughter has some of her signature hair bows.  However, last October, when I took my daughter to the store for a Halloween costume, she found this:


This is where our true introduction to JoJo began.

My daughter planned to wear this to her Halloween dance class.  Her teacher expects them to try and emulate their character, so we took to JoJo’s YouTube channel for inspiration.  It didn’t take long before my daughter declared, “I love her!”

JoJo is a sixteen-year-old girl from Nebraska who appeared on Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition at age 9.  From there, she joined the cast of Dance Moms during 2015 – 2016.  She now has a contract with Nickelodeon, where she makes guest appearances on various shows, has her own cartoon, and they market seemingly endless merchandise with her face and name attached.  Somewhere along the way, she started a YouTube channel, which currently boasts 10.6 million subscribers.  She also makes music videos which are targeted at her main audience – little girls.

In 2019, she embarked on an international tour – JoJo Siwa D.R.E.A.M. the Tour, where she performed to mostly sold-out audiences, earning a reported $27 million.  While on tour, she was also recognized as the youngest person ever to headline at London’s O2 Arena.  Shortly afterwards, it was announced that Nickelodeon had added 50 more dates for 2020.

After my daughter became one of her fans, I noticed a trend in people’s responses to her name.  Some people say, “My daughter likes her, too,” but a surprising amount of people say, “Ugh, JoJo” with a roll of their eyes.  I find that response strange.  I get that we all have different personalities and therefore, will be drawn to different people, including celebrities.  Why would someone criticize a child, though?

When I first watched some of her videos with my daughter, she reminded me of one of my own childhood favorites:


Punky Brewster (played by Soleil Moon Frye) was a spunky ‘80s television character who wore multi-colored clothes, had a raspy voice, and as she got older, rocked a side ponytail.  They have some traits in common.  My impression of JoJo is that she is a cute, talented, outgoing teenage girl who is full of joy.

Her content is marketed towards children, so her YouTube and music videos are family friendly.  In fact, she has made a promise to her audience to keep her content that way.  She encourages her fans to work hard, be true to themselves, treat others with kindness, and rather than fight back against their detractors, to simply brush criticism off and keep reaching for your goals.  Why would anyone have a problem with that?

As I pondered this, I looked at some of the criticism.  Recently, she purchased a $3.4 million mansion in California to live in with her mother, father and brother.  Afterwards, I saw a lot of online comments that easily could be chalked up to plain old jealousy.  Someone devoted a whole article to bemoaning the current state of the world, where materialism and greed can be so embodied in a trend like JoJo.  Personally, I’ve never had a mansion and probably never will, but it doesn’t bother me if someone who has made an honest living can afford to do so.  If you’ve ever watched her YouTube videos, though, you’d see that she engages in random acts of generosity to strangers.

Another common criticism is of the tight ponytail she wears.  It’s her head!  She should wear her hair however she likes.

Some people say that she’s loud and obnoxious.  I would say that God designed her to be a performer.  She’s confident, which is necessary to succeed in the entertainment industry.  She has a big personality, which is a bonus, too, especially on a platform like YouTube, where you are basically a one-person show.  Even her loud voice may have been by design – God knew she’d been onstage one day in front of thousands of screaming children, after all.

The criticism that really bothers me, though, is that she should “act her age”.  First of all, her main audience is children.  She dresses, dances, and sings lyrics that any little girl can emulate, and a parent can feel comfortable with.  I read one article where a father complained about the horrible experience of taking his daughters to a JoJo concert.  He said that she told the audience to scream, talked about candy, his girls loved it, and he didn’t understand why.  Well, he isn’t supposed to understand.  It’s not designed to entertain him!  Why can’t kids just have their own entertainment?  I remember in the early ‘90s, when I was raising my oldest child, how it became cool to criticize Barney the dinosaur.  My toddler loved Barney and had a stuffed version that she was holding when we went to the store one day.  An adult looked straight at her and declared, “I hate Barney!”  I’m still angry about that.  Let kids be kids and have their own shows that they enjoy.  It’s not about you.

The darker side of that is what I suspect people really mean when they say that she should “act her age.”  There’s been a string of teenage entertainers who, when they reached JoJo’s age, were suddenly expected to transition from cute child stars to sex symbols.  For some of those girls, it led to a spike in fame, but eventually ended in a downward spiral in their lives and careers.  That shouldn’t be a surprise.  A sixteen-year-old is still a child emotionally, regardless if their body is maturing.  Dressing them up like an adult and treating them like an object is taking advantage of them, using them as a commodity to be devoured instead of celebrating them for who they are inside, with all their God-created uniqueness and inner beauty.  True maturity isn’t flaunting your goods for the world.  Taking responsibility for oneself and working hard are real marks of maturity, and these are traits that JoJo possesses.  She is involved intricately in every aspect of her career, to a level that other young stars usually aren’t.  She’s learning what it really means to be a grown-up.

One day, while reading the Hans Christian Anderson tale, “The Snow Queen,” to my children, these passages from the story stood out to me:

“One day he (an evil goblin) was in a very good humour, for he had made a mirror that had this peculiarity: everything good and beautiful that was reflected in it shrank into almost nothing, while all that was worthless and ugly was magnified and looked even worse than before.  The most lovely landscapes looked like boiled spinach and the nicest people looked hideous.”

“Then the mirror trembled so much that it slipped out of their hands and fell to earth, where it shattered into a hundred million billion splinters, or perhaps even more.  That caused a greater misfortune than before, for some of the splinters were no bigger than a grain of sand and were scattered all over the world.  Whenever they flew into anyone’s eye, they stuck there and made the person see everything distorted, for every fragment had retained the same power as the whole mirror.”

Often, I feel like that is the world we are living in today.  I read a profile of another famous teenager in a magazine recently.  I was disappointed and a bit disturbed by the picture the reporter was trying to paint of her.  He talked about her frequent use of profanity and disrespect for her parents, as though he was creating a character that is very edgy and cool.  I would have focused the piece on her talent, independent spirit, and how she has overcome adversity instead.  It seemed like he was reducing her down to a set of the “right” traits to meet the public’s approval in the mocking atmosphere that we currently live in.

Part of what I think children respond to in JoJo is that she’s genuine.  She’s just herself, unapologetically.  She doesn’t put on airs of being something that she’s not to impress people.  Meanwhile, she encourages children to be true to themselves as well.

I think that the criticism she receives is really a reflection of what is wrong with the world today, instead of her.  Except, in addition to the good things looking hideous to people, the negative things are held up as beautiful.  Like the hero in “The Snow Queen,” who has the splinter of glass in his eye that prevents him from seeing true beauty, we are disgusted by truth and joy.

JoJo’s been given a unique opportunity to influence a whole generation of young girls.  I, for one, am glad that the messages she is sending to them are positive.  My daughter’s favorite Christmas present this year was tickets to the D.R.E.A.M. Tour, which we’ll be attending in May, ready to cheer her on.

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