Sex sells, and in today’s times its market is getting younger and younger. But what happens when rising forces of conservatism butt heads with an increasing sexualisation of young girls? SALIENT feature Writer Brannavan Gnanalingam does his best to make sense of a whole heap of mixed messages.
Britney Spears when she filmed her Hit Me Baby One More Time music video: sixteen.
Maria Sharapova when she won Wimbledon: seventeen.
Lindsay Lohan when she moved in with her boyfriend and subjected herself to intense media attention: seventeen.
Age of consent in a large proportion of the United States: eighteen.
Perhaps when you get to the wrong side of twenty you suddenly start getting crotchety or, heaven forbid, prudish. All of a sudden you think that people like the Olsen twins shouldn’t really be releasing books for under-twelves entitled How to Flunk Your First Date, To Snoop or Not to Snoop or Calling All Boys. Or worse yet, release pre-bras so young girls can get used to wearing bras. All this seems to bring despair to a lot of older people. But are they just lamenting their lost youth? Is the media and society all of a sudden finding itself over-sexualising young girls? Are we turning people who are traditionally seen as pure, innocent, and in need of protection into people who are more aware of sexuality? Are we in a process of Lolitalisation?
This is not an easy topic to tackle. As Anita Brady, lecturer in the Media Studies Department says, “it’s a really difficult topic to talk about, because how do you go between critiquing what might be a problematic gender representation, a potentially problematic representation of sexuality, and at the same time assume that young people do not have any sexuality? This produces its own prohibitions and all sorts of problems.” This is an issue that’s obviously going to involve varying personal morals and backgrounds.
Brady: “it’s a really difficult topic to talk about, because how do you go between critiquing what might be a problematic gender representation, a potentially problematic representation of sexuality, and at the same time assume that young people do not have any sexuality?
There is no doubt that the media does use sexual images to sell products. As Media Studies lecturer Sue Abel notes, “research shows that the late 70s when women’s lib – that’s a terrible phrase – when that came in and said ‘enough of women images being at home’, they’ve gone down enormously, but sexualised images have gone up.” You only need to browse through most ‘mainstream’ papers to see how this works – especially considering the predominantly male control over most of the media. The front-page/prime-time news focus on Lisa Lewis was not because it was unusual that someone decided to run on the field during an All Black test, but rather, because she was a young, attractive, blonde woman with big breasts in a bikini. Most people are able, hopefully, to recognise that women are sexualised in the media a lot more than men.
Pick up a copy of Dolly, for example, and you may see a similar process occurring in media that’s targeted at a far younger (and arguably more impressionable) audience. The July Dolly magazine featured a lingerie spread with a model who looked like she was 15, guides on how to flirt, and how to deal with pregnancy, while featuring photos of thirteen and fourteen year old readers. One of the major reasons why Russian author Nabakov’s Lolita (1955) was so controversial was that it featured a twelve year old as a sexual object, yet that’s only a year or two difference from the readers of magazines like Dolly. When Britney Spears was cavorting around in a schoolgirl outfit was being lapped up, not only by girls of her age or younger, but by all ages of men. The immense focus on Spears’ virginity suggested another type of sexual characterisation according to Brady. In other words, the ‘is-she’ or ‘is-she-not’ debate maintained a sharp focus on Spears sexuality right from the start, despite her age. And take any media pictures of women’s tennis, you can guarantee a very, very large proportion of them are of Maria Sharapova (and she’s still only nineteen).
But does this necessarily mean that young girls will necessarily follow all the messages they see in the media; that they should be aware of sex from a young age, and therefore follow what they see? Abel, whose PhD and focus is on audience reception, even concedes, “how do you ever know? I set out wanting to know how women changed their thought processes – I can’t do that. They can tell me what they’re saying but I have no idea what’s going on in their minds.” In fact film studies, media studies, cultural studies – basically anything that analyses texts – still have little idea how something will be received by someone, let alone a large group of people. In spite of all this confusion, it is hard to argue that the constant bombardment of texts in a person’s life has no impact whatsoever. Brady says this can have a number of effects. “I think there’s an increasing awareness amongst media users and media users of a younger and younger age about how the media does actually operate. It’s not necessarily young people watching it and going ‘oh I need to be like that’. [However] that’s not to say that the media doesn’t have an effect. I think it does, and I think we can overstate the savviness of youth.”
Humbert Humbert doesn’t seem so abhorrent in falling in love with the twelve year old Lolita. Lolita could have been a veteran.
But is this necessarily a bad thing? The idea of putting a prohibition on talking about sex until your parents decide to give their uncomfortable talk and teachers clinically teach the insand- outs is a very dated concept. Young people have sex. Only a naïve person would argue otherwise. Brady says: “I think opening up discussion of youth sexuality is a really important thing.” The idea of making things taboo only serves to perpetuate misinformation or confusion, so perhaps in contemporary society we’re willing to acknowledge their existence. Having a look through Dolly, the magazine gives what appears to be well-considered and presumably helpful advice on issues such as how to deal with periods, dealing with sexual abuse, pregnancy, contraception and relationships. Whereas previously girl magazines from as little as twenty years ago focused on the idea that teenagers were after romance with the ‘one’ and wanted to hold hands, today’s magazines are far more realistic.
A major issue with how all this discourse about sexuality is expressed though is also considering what all this information is put alongside? It may be accurate to argue that girls are more open and better informed by sex. But what about other issues like commercialization? As already mentioned, sex sells. Abel’s PhD thesis involved the study of young girls and their response to advertising. In a group of private school girls aged sixteen to seventeen, she found their reaction to advertisements featuring sexual women was invariably that “‘advertising has to do what it has to do. I might object to it, but then I’m not the target audience’. So they weren’t concerned on that ground. They just said that sex sells but they weren’t not the audience. They were perfectly comfortable.” This suggests that these images of objectified women had become naturalised, normal, and everyday. While sixteen year olds may indeed be a lot more savvy about sex, they appear to have also accepted already that objectification is normal.
Another issue that both Abel and Brady acknowledge is that this freedom of sexuality has been influenced by modern capitalist imperatives. It has allowed for an increase in markets for products purporting to make young girls feel ‘sexier’. The pre-bras being sold by the Warehouse were sold to ease girls into wearing bras. Does that not sound a little creepy? What’s next?
The whole idea of “tweenies” has become a profitable market, where people like the Olsen twins have found great success exploiting the idea of youth sexuality and turning it into a market (and note their target audience are people younger than Lolita). What makes this most disquieting is that these young girls are being made into quasi-sexual objects, and willingly so by parents or friends in the name of commerce and capitalism. There are also ideas that heterosexuality is the only way to go – even a magazine like Dolly does not seem to acknowledge anything other than cute, white guys as potential partners. Add all this to the increasing awareness of sex and suddenly Humbert Humbert doesn’t seem so abhorrent in falling in love with the twelve year old Lolita. Lolita could have been a veteran.
Brady highlights that media ethics should be more involved. “There is a question there about media responsibility obviously, because if you’re going to create a space where youth are sexualised, do you then have a responsibility to inform them about what they have to do with that sort of stuff? There’d be the idea that we can ignore it – that hasn’t worked either, so I think it becomes a question in the everyday media business of where the buck stops.” However that may be unlikely in an environment that seems to be increasingly dominated by sleazy old men. Who’s the more famous tennis player? Anna Kournikova or Justine Henin-Hardenne? Who’s the more famous singer? Beyoncé or Jill Scott? What about rugby exploits? Lisa Lewis or Monique Hirovanaa?
Who’s the more famous tennis player? Anna Kournikova or Justine Henin-Hardenne? Who’s the more famous singer? Beyoncé or Jill Scott?
This media irresponsibility is even more confused considering the moral panics they institute over paedophiles. This isn’t simply the media as well – the town residents of Blackball in the West Coast were not particularly tolerant when they chased out a convicted paedophile who’d done his time and moved to the town. Of course, there is a huge difference between young girls knowing details about sexuality and a person who preys on vulnerable children. This is not trying to defend paedophiles. However, if a fifty-year old man who ogled Britney during Hit Me Baby One More Time did something about it and slept with Britney, in most American states he would be guilty of a sex crime. The fear of paedophilia also often touches at what the media deems to be problems in society. Often, the media can be accused of contradictorily portraying young people as potential victims (i.e. see all the “debates” about youth STD rates, internet chat rooms, seating children next to men on planes). By appealing to our obvious concern for our children’s well being, the media can use it to attack, without any real justification, things like class, technology and homosexuality by accusing them of being the problem. Brady says these double standards could be explained by our current social climate. “It’s this weird moment of culture where you’ve got on the one hand this rise of real conservatism but on the other hand much more sexually explicit representations in the media, so there’s this bizarre clash.”
Anita Brady: “It’s this weird moment of culture where you’ve got on the one hand this rise of real conservatism but on the other hand much more sexually explicit representations in the media, so there’s this bizarre clash.”
Perhaps it’s easier to explain all this by tying it into societal changes. Sexual morality is always relative to each human society. Western society became more and more repressed sexually over the last few hundred years, which coincided with a change in the discourse around sexuality. Areas like the law, commerce, religion and medicine all changed how they described sex and unsurprisingly society changed their idea about sex. We moved from Ancient Greece, which openly tolerated and accepted homosexuality, to the early 20th century where homosexuals were seen as mentally ill and could be locked up indefinitely without trial. Young girls in societies like India were commonly arranged to be married pre-puberty, but as India modernises, they are getting married later. You can find examples if you study any social history. Young girls in Western society have not escaped this societal change.
Prior to the twentieth century not many people really lived that long. If you were going to be having your mid-life crisis at 20, why bother spending your teenage years experimenting in sex, drugs and rock and roll before settling down in an office job when you graduate at the age of twenty-two. In fact, this whole idea of adolescence didn’t even exist – you’re a child, then you’re an adult. This whole protected idea of adolescence only came in once people started living long enough to have this buffer-zone free from work and marriage. If you don’t believe me you only have to read Romeo and Juliet and see that Juliet (one of literature’s most famous lovers) was thirteen, or know that the imposition of a 12 year old drinking age in 19th Century England was deemed unfair because it would affect the eleven year olds in the factories who couldn’t enjoy a beer after work. Suddenly (though bear in mind that religious morality still played a strong role) we created in society an age group where everyone had to go to school, no one could drink alcohol, and above all, no one should have sex. So society moves within the space of a couple of centuries from creating an idea that people between the ages of 13 and 18 should not be having sex, but instead be doing other things. Sexual conservatism became normal and managed to help repress younger people’s sexuality.
Perhaps all this explains the contradictory position that exists today. It isn’t hard to see that girls are acknowledging their sexuality in some way. Contrary to what we may think, it’s nothing new – it’s something that has occurred in most societies throughout human history. What has changed is how, and what, girls are learning about sex. Girls are being told to express their sexuality in different ways – on the one hand openly and with good information but on the other hand via commercialism, heterosexism, patriarchalism and through being objectified. Perhaps the latter way is the one to be worried about if you’re a little nervous about the state of young girls today and wondering what images will exist for our children. The biggest concern should not be the fact young girls are sexualised. The biggest concern should be how they are being sexualised.