Forget the Tabloid Headlines — Joe Jonas’ Essay Is About the Toxic Reality of Disney Stardom

What ever happened to the Jonas Brothers? If the need for an answer to that question has been nagging at you, then rejoice, because middle brother Joe Jonas has narrated a tell-all as-told-to essay for this week’s New York magazine. While much of the commentary about the piece has focused on its most headline-grabbing revelations — Joe smoked pot with Miley Cyrus! Joe got laid at 20! — the most interesting parts of it relate to the Jonas Brothers’ relationship with the Disney corporation.

There are few more potent symbols of American culture than Disney — Coca Cola, perhaps, or McDonald’s, but that’s pretty much it. Clearly, the Disney Corporation isn’t one great monolithic entity; it’s a sprawling maze of subsidiaries and divisions, all of which, to some extent, have their own personality. But if there’s an image that can be ascribed to the corporation, it’s Mickey Mouse: cartoonish, squeaky clean, and family friendly. In this respect, Mickey’s a perfect evocation of the whole Disney idea — as one Henry A. Giroux argues here, “What is unique about Disney, however, is its titanium-clad brand image — synonymous with a notion of childhood innocence and wholesome entertainment… As an icon of American culture and middle-class family values, Disney actively appeals to both conscientious parents and youthful fantasies as it works hard to transform every child into a lifetime consumer of Disney products and ideas.”

Clearly, the Disney ideal doesn’t reflect America as it exists today, or really as it ever existed — it’s an airbrushed, aspirational America, a world of ideals and archetypes that has very little to do with the diverse reality of a multiracial country of 300 million people. More than that, though, it’s also characterized by something the above description doesn’t touch on: a weirdly American mix of prurience and prudishness, born out of the conflict of “childhood innocence” and decidedly non-childish sexiness.

America’s attitude to its teen stars has always reflected this dichotomy: stars are made to look as desirable as possible, but also expected to be “role models,” keeping their personae squeaky clean. In this respect, Disney artists aren’t so different from the company’s original stock in trade, cartoons — they’re caricatures, archetypes, walking advertisements for the Disney way of life. The Jonas Brothers were, in their own way, the perfect expression of this archetype, marketed as sex symbols to pubescent girls, but also wielding their purity rings to reinforce the point that they were good Christian boys and forever off limits. (Which, of course, only made them more desirable.)

It’s not just them, though — look at Britney Spears, with her sexy schoolgirl chic circa “…Baby One More Time,” along with the whole ruse about her and Justin Timberlake still being virgins, for instance. The thing is, it can’t be an awful lot of fun living this out, so it’s not surprising that serving as an avatar of this ideal has taken its toll on various starlets over the years. (There’s a fascinating essay in the LA Weekly today about the difficulty of telling where persona ends and person begins, and the pressures that must bring.) Jonas’ article provides some fascinating insights into this:

We were working with Disney in 2007 when the Vanessa Hudgens nude-photo scandal happened. We heard that she had to be in the Disney offices for a whole day because they were trying to figure out how to keep her on lockdown. We’d hear execs talking about it, and they would tell us that they were so proud of us for not making the same mistakes, which made us feel like we couldn’t ever mess up. We didn’t want to disappoint anyone—our parents, our fans, our employers—so we put incredible pressure on ourselves, the kind of pressure that no teenager should be under.

and

Being a part of the Disney thing for so long will make you not want to be this perfect little puppet forever. Eventually, I hit a limit and thought, Screw all this, I’m just going to show people who I am. I think that happened to a lot of us. Disney kids are spunky in some way, and I think that’s why Disney hires them. “Look, he jumped up on the table!” Five, six, ten years later, they’re like, “Oh! What do we do?” Come on, guys. You did this to yourselves.

He’s right. When Disney’s artists finally throw off the straightjacket, they generally pour kerosene on it and then do an intentionally offensive, faux-tribal dance in their underwear around its blazing remains, all the while mainlining booze and snorting every drug in sight. The results can be productive (Christina Aguilera), hilarious (Miley Cyrus), or really rather depressing (Britney Spears, Demi Lovato). This isn’t surprising — given that Disney represents the fullest expression of the conflict between “pure” and “sexy,” it makes sense that it’s also been the ultimate crucible for these contradictions.

Of course, you can argue that the rewards — fame, love, a shitload of money — make it worth wearing what amounts to a 24/7 ideological straightjacket. Former Disney star Dylan Sprouse certainly had some choice words for Jonas to this effect, as reported this morning on The Frisky: “I think it’s bullshit that they were being robbed of choice or creativity. If they wanted too, they could have told Disney ‘NO’. Cole and I did this hundreds of times and we ended up all right. The only reason they didn’t is because, like many of the people on that channel, I think they fell for the allure of fame.”

He may or may not be right, although, as he concedes, “Cole [Sprouse] and I had been acting our entire lives, so we saw [Disney] as a means to an end (money making) rather than an opportunity to become successful.” But even though he’s arguing that what Jonas has to say is “bullshit,” he actually ends up reinforcing the latter’s point: “Nowadays artists just assume they have to do what they are told by their proprietors because there is a ‘rigid structure to achievement.’ It is nothing more than a scheme to rob you of your individuality and capitalize the gain they acquire from such treachery.”

This is pretty much exactly what Jonas was saying, the only difference being that the Jonases bought in and the Sprouses didn’t. Or, perhaps, that it took the Jonases longer to realize what the Sprouses claim they realized straight away. But then, can you blame a 16-year-old kid for not seeing anything more than a man in a suit promising to make him famous if he sticks to the rules?

It’s only later that you realize that nothing comes for free, and that the price is an inability to be anything except what the man in the suit wants you to be. It’s easy to sneer at Joe Jonas complaining about how he was treated by a multinational company that made him very famous and very rich. But that’s only if you consider being very rich and very famous to be particularly desirable. Personally, I’m glad I spent my teens in anonymity, free to fuck up as much as I wanted.