Playing dress-up is a normal part of childhood. But simply test-driving mommy’s high heels now has to compete with sexually suggestive pint-size products from pole-dancing kits sold in the toy section to “Hooters Girl (in training)” T-shirts for toddlers to padded bras for 6-year-olds. And that’s all long before the tweens and teens, where girls face the dizzying contradictions of a popular culture that salivates over youth and tells them “if you’ve got it, flaunt it,” while sexual education in school, if it exists at all, too often consists of preaching “abstinence only.”
In her new book, M. Gigi Durham, who heads the Iowa Center for Communication Study at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, critiques the many ways that young girls’ sexuality is shaped and exploited by a marketplace where younger is better and the line between child porn and art gets ever blurrier. Durham, a self-described pro-sex feminist, also leads workshops in media literacy in schools, aiming to give kids the tools to critique the sexual images and myths that are being promoted to them.
Salon spoke with Durham, who is the mother of two daughters, ages 7 and 10, by phone at her office at the University of Iowa. Listen to the interview here.
Why is grown-up sexuality being marketed to younger and younger girls?
I don’t think that anybody can pinpoint the single reason, but I think there are a number of trends that can give us some clues about it. The ’90s were prosperous. In the mid-’90s there was a lot of disposable income floating around and tweens became a very important niche market for a number of industries. One research firm Euromonitor posits tweens spending $170 billion in 2006. So, this is a wealthy little group of people.
Marketers realized they could create cradle-to-grave consumers by marketing products to kids very early. Then, they would develop brand loyalties, and consumer practices that they would sustain throughout their lifetimes. It was very profitable to start marketing these products to very young kids.
Also, as women have made tremendous gains politically and in the workforce, grown women are moving away from this traditional model of femininity where women are supposed to be docile and passive. And little girls still conform to that very traditional ideal of femininity. So I think that increasing attention is being focused on little girls as embodying ideal femininity.
But 6-year-olds obviously don’t have money to buy padded bras. Adults have to be buying them for them. You can criticize companies for bringing out these sleazy products for kids, but if parents reject them won’t the products just go away?
It should be that way. There is some collusion on the part of the adults who are allowing, or maybe even encouraging, children to respond to these marketing practices so openly and uncritically.
You were disturbed when a 5-year-old showed up at your doorstep last Halloween dressed up in a titillating costume as a Bratz doll. Why?
Some clothes project sexual symbols. And we know what they are: fishnet hose and stilettos and corsets. They’re almost clichés of sexuality. But when you see them on a very young child, there’s that sexual overtone that to me is not appropriate. It’s not a legitimate way for a child to present herself to the world.
Everyone is sexual, and we develop sexually throughout our lives. I’m not at all insisting that children have to be innocent and sex-free or anything like that. But I think that the kinds of clothing that they’re being encouraged to wear are really associated with sex work, in particular. And that to me is a very troubling tendency.
What did you make of the Miley Cyrus Vanity Fair photos fracas?
The way that it’s being constructed in the media is parents are outraged because Miley Cyrus — Hannah Montana — is supposed to be such a pure, innocent child. She’s a role model for 6-year-olds. Then, on the other hand, the argument is: “Oh, it’s great, this is sexuality, and she has a right to do this.” I think that the reality is way more complicated than that.
She is 15, and she is in this transitional period where her body is changing, and she should be exploring and recognizing her sexuality. She’s moving into womanhood. To me, the big issue is not that she should be pure and innocent and chaste, but rather should her body be put on display?
A 15-year-old child’s body, should that be put on display as a sexual object, and aren’t there other ways for us to think about female sexuality rather than just this exhibitionist mode? At the same time, I really do think the pictures are aesthetically very appealing, but there is a question to be raised, because she is only 15.
Can you imagine an image of Miley Cyrus embracing her youthful sexuality that you would condone?
My position is just: Do we need to? Do we need to put it out there? Can’t she just grow into womanhood in kind of private and safe ways? Does it have to be exploited for commercial purposes?
What do you think is the relationship between the sexualization of young girls in pop culture, and the actual sexual exploitation of children?
I think it’s quite troubling that many of the highly sexualized images we see in fashion and beauty magazines use bodies of 12-, 13-, 14-year-old girls. Maddison Gabriel and a lot of the models are very, very young. [Last fall, there was an international furor when Gabriel, who was then 12 years old, was chosen to be the official ambassador for Gold Coast Fashion Week in Australia.]
I think in a way this mainstreaming of very young girls as sexually desirable objects is one side of the more illegitimate child pornography industry. I almost think that it tacitly condones it. Children are now being trafficked in large numbers for sexual purposes. I do think that there is a connection there, and I think we ought to be disturbed by this.
Are you advocating censorship of sexually provocative media images of young girls?
I am absolutely opposed to any form of censorship. I recognize the immense value of the First Amendment, and I support free speech. It’s possible “The Lolita Effect” would be subject to censorship because of its content and focus. So, no, censorship is not something I advocate.
On the contrary, what I call for is the opposite of censorship: I’d like to see more discussion, more public debate, and more discourse around issues of sexuality. What I’m trying to do is increase consumer consciousness so that people — including kids — can better understand and control their media environments.
What are some of the distortions that girls learn from magazines and advertising about what girls’ sexuality is all about?
If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Sex is only about baring the body, and exhibiting the body, and especially girls’ bodies. That’s a very narrow definition of what sexuality is. At the same time, you can’t express yourself, you can’t enjoy your body, you can’t feel like your body is sexual unless you’ve got this perfect, sex goddess anatomy, which is something like a Barbie body. That’s ridiculous, too. It makes girls end up hating their bodies, and not enjoying their own sensuality and sexuality. That’s a real problem.
Then, there’s this insistence that younger and younger girls are sexual. There’s this huge emphasis on linking youth with sexuality. People mature sexually throughout their lives, and there is a lot of scientific evidence that women who are past menopause really enjoy sex. Children who are 12, 13 years old are not in a position to understand or cope with their sexuality very well. Linking sex to youthfulness is really dangerous.
Girls are always supposed to be changing their bodies and dressing up in order to attract male attention. There is not much emphasis on girls enjoying their own bodies, or even any reciprocity where boys might be thinking about what they could do to please girls. It’s not very mutual.
But aren’t boys also sold a very limited ideal of what it means to be sexual, too? Like all the pop culture references to pimps?
I think that male sexuality is defined in really narrow and limiting ways as well, but in the end, it ends up giving more power to boys. It actually hands it all off to them as being the arbiters of girls’ sexuality, and the ones who can make the sexual decisions.
When you talk to girls do you find that they are pretty media savvy?
I’ve always expected them to understand a great deal about how the media works. But in fact, they don’t. I show them videos of how much images are digitally altered before they appear in magazines, and they’re stunned by that. They’ve never really thought about how if the word “glamour” is put beside a particular outfit, then the outfit becomes glamorous.
You write that the current Western beauty ideal — very slender with big breasts — is just one in a long line of cultural beauty ideals that have shifted over the centuries in different countries. So, what makes this one different from any of the others?
I think that one of the things about this one is that it’s so hard to obtain. It’s just basically a body not found in nature. You have to be extremely thin and at the same time extremely voluptuous, and those things are contradictions, because usually thin people are not voluptuous, so you have to go to all of these great artificial lengths in order to maintain a very low weight, and at the same time a very voluptuous figure. All it does is generate endless consumerism.
I’m not saying some of the beauty ideals of the past were progressive. Foot binding, for example, was just as horrible. But it just seems to me that in the 21st century we ought to have a more diverse range of the understandings of beauty.
When you talk to middle school and teen girls, you find them stuck between the cultural imperative to always look “hot,” but at the same time not be seen as a “slut” by expressing sexual desire. How do you suggest talking to teens about that?
Just pull out some of the media. Every magazine cover has “405 ways to look hot!” Just say: “What does it mean to look hot?” Once you start bringing it up, I’ve found that they’re very critical of the whole issue, and they want to be seen as multidimensional people with talents and abilities beyond this ridiculous standard of hotness. Helping them find strength in that critical voice that they have is really important.
But how can you reassure girls that it’s OK to express their own sexual desires, or even have their own sexual desires, if there is potentially this label of “slut” hanging over them?
I know. It’s so difficult. Perhaps I’m just optimistic. In an era of abstinence-only, sex becomes such a fearful thing. It just seems to be so wrong to be interested in sex. Bringing it up, normalizing it, and helping them to understand that this is part of growing up, and that it can be the most wonderful and pleasurable thing can really help a lot. It’s going to take a cultural shift.
Do you think that the whole abstinence-only environment is enforcing these dichotomous taboos?
I really do. I think it’s either no sex, or let’s just leap into it, and ignore every precaution.
Yet, at the same time, it’s really important to look hot.
To be hot, yet to abstain. They’re getting such a terrible mixed message.
How can parents encourage their daughters to critique the image of girlhood sexuality that they’re being sold without seeming like tedious scolds, condemning everything that’s “hot”?
I don’t think that condemnation ought to come into it either. Everybody wants to be attractive. Everyone wants to find love and relationships. So, I don’t think anybody should come across as just condemning popular culture. Lots of it is pleasurable and fun, and so I don’t want to deny that part of it either.
What parents ought to do is just open up conversations with their daughters. “You’re looking at Seventeen magazine. What do you think about that outfit? Do you think her body is the one that everybody ought to aspire to?” Have those conversations with girls. They’re remarkably interested in talking about it, if they don’t sense censure. Share your values, share your opinions and listen respectfully to theirs.
There are so many ways now for girls to make their own media. Do you feel like that can help girls create their own images of girlhood, rather than just consuming the ones that are being sold to them?
I really do. I think it’s a wonderful thing to encourage girls to be creators of their own media. They can blog. They can make Web sites. They can shoot videos. They can make their own magazines.
When should adults start talking to kids about what the images in the mainstream media mean to them?
I don’t think that it’s ever too early to start. You can start with very young children talking to them about advertising, and how they make things look pretty to get you to buy them.
It’s amazing how much kids understand. If you start these conversations when they’re very young, you can continue them when they’re teenagers. I think that opening those lines of communication is incredibly important.
That is young. How would you do that with a 2-year-old?
I’ve done it. If they’re watching a commercial on TV, and there is a toy, you can just start talking to them: “Do you think that toy is as good when you bring it home as it is on TV? Do you know why they make it look so fun, and like these kids are having so much fun? Because they really want you to spend money on it.”