Not friends again

This article in The Australian by Rosemary Neill is more a report on the lay of the land than a way forward but what it does do is spell out nicely the latest split to occur in feminism. Once again the split is about sex (oh how we feminists have visited that ground a few hundred times before), only this time it involves the objectification of children rather than women. More specifically, it is the split between those feminists who think something is very amiss with marketing aimed at young girls these days and those feminists who think that worrying about the sexualisation of children symbolises a sneaky resurrection of female purity obsessions.

You probably know that I do not find myself in the middle ground on this debate. In fact you could summarise my opinion as believing that there are those who can see the bleeding obvious and those who haven’t had to shop for clothes for a pre-teen girl lately. Unfortunately, taking this side in the media debate I have found my views are more often than not represented by feminists (and others) I don’t much agree with. It can be hard to barrack for your side in a panel debate when your side are the guest wowsers and they’re busy knee-jerking and finger-wagging their way through otherwise valid points.

But surely there is a way of slamming the sexualisation of children without robbing young women (or even children) of their sexuality. I know, maybe for starters we could stop compressing children’s and adult’s identities in this debate, maybe we could resist commercial ventures to collapse childhood into a very sexualised and commodified adolescence? Maybe fully-informed agency in a fourteen year old is very different for a four year old?

P.S. Also check out this discussion of Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Rosemary Neill in the same edition of The Australian.

Today, it’s Walter who is crash-tackling others’ complacency. She has noticed that even among her educated peers, parents are embracing gender stereotypes – girls love ballet, boys love the biff – a reflection, she reckons, of how biological determinism is making a comeback. In the second half of Living Dolls, she documents the resurgence of the view that genes and hormones can explain away everything from gender inequality in science and politics to girls’ apparent fascination with pink.

She says she is shocked by the rise of such ideas in the 21st century, even though many are based on old stereotypes rather than sound new science: “I am very uneasy about the way that the media has sort of pounced on biological determinism as the [scientific] consensus, when it isn’t.”

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: gender & feminism, media, parenting, Sociology

Tags: , ,

11 replies

  1. Right on. Folks who think “worrying about the sexualisation of children symbolises a sneaky resurrection of female purity obsessions” have not been paying close attention to the way the media has been using sexuality to objectify and harm young girls and have missed the important distinction between sexuality as chosen by women and sexuality used by others to control women.
    I have young kids and work in a co-op preschool (the moms and dads all work in the preschool and attend monthly parent education meetings). The co-op system recently hosted a talk by the author of So Sexy So Soon (cited below). And I was happy to see that the local parenting magazine took on the issue. Here’s the link:
    and here are some highlights:
    “A 2003 analysis of TV sitcoms found gender harassment in nearly every episode. Most common: jokes about women’s sexuality or women’s bodies, and comments that characterized
    women as sex objects. And according to the 2007 Report of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, ‘Massive exposure to media among youth creates the potential for massive exposure to portrayals that sexualize women and girls and teach girls that women are sexual objects.’
    “Those messages can be harmful to kids because they make sex seem common — even normal — among younger and younger kids. In So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, co-authors Diane E. Levin, Ph.D., and Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., write that ‘sex in commercial culture has far more to do with trivializing and objectifying sex than with promoting it, more to do with consuming than with connecting. The problem is not that sex as portrayed in the media is sinful, but that it is synthetic and cynical.’”
    The article is great generally, but it is disappointing that it suggests only individual solutions to a society-wide problem.

  2. Great post. maybe for starters we could stop compressing children’s and adult’s identities in this debate, maybe we could resist commercial ventures to collapse childhood into a very sexualised and commodified adolescence? Nailed it.

  3. Yep. I’m with you.
    Why do the people who say we’re trying to stop young girls from trying on their mum’s bras not get that this is an entirely different thing to owning their own size 3 ‘bralette’? Why? Bleeding obvious indeed. *forehead slap*

  4. Great post, bluemilk. I despair at times at the general public’s incapacity to grasp nuance, and then I remember that the Powers That Be actively discourage the imparting of critical thinking skills in general public education and I get outraged at the PTB instead.
    Spilt Milk’s comment reminds me of the furore recently over Katy Price aka Jordan giving her toddler daughter some makeup “just like mummy” at home, which happened to be caught on camera because she’s doing a reality show. The little girl wasn’t otherwise dressed up inappropriately for her age, she just had eyeshadow, fake eyelashes and lipstick on. I’m not a makeup fan myself, but as you say, this is a fairly common thing for a little girl to want to do when she sees mum do it all the time! Yet Price was lambasted as if she’d taken the tot out to a party wearing makeup like that with a micromini, which there was no indication at all that she was planning to do.
    There Is A Difference between little kids dressing up in adult-style clothes for play and little kids parading around in public dressed as if they are sexually aware adolescents. It’s only the second one that is problematic.

  5. When it comes to advertising my benchmark is: if you replaced the girls with women in bikinis would the poses look like something out of a mens’ magazine? Unfortunately in some advertising, the answer is yes. I would like to think that this is more a case of a lazy photographer than anything else, but the problem is that it’s not being picked up by the commissioning editor.

  6. I have no connection with the company, but I do like their clothes and I like they way the show the kids wearing them. Note: the product pages show the clothes flat without models, and I haven’t been through every page to see whether they sell “bralettes”.

  7. Great. Compulsory heterosexuality at four now even more (re-) enforced! Yes, sweetie, you can grow up to be a lawyer, as long as you look like a man’s best plaything at the same time. Don’t eat too much of that ice-cream now! You want to be pretty, don’t you?

  8. Great post, Blue Milk.
    One of the things that struck me about about Natasha Walton is that when she was a younger women, it was all about her own sexuality being empowered, but now that she’s a parent of a daughter who is nearing adolescence, she’s concerned about the sexual pressures on girls. The personal is political, neh? Not that I mind parenting being a source of radicalisation. Just that it would be good if some of the proponents of raunch-culture-as-sex-positive could see that there are dangers in it too.
    @Mindy, and anyone else who is interested – I’m thrilled to wrk out that I can get JK clothes here in Australia. I bought them for years in NZ, preferring them to other clothing brands because they make great clothes: sturdy and imaginative. The best clothing items my girls have had came from JK. I can’t recall ever finding bralettes there, ‘though I do recall good quality singlets. Nor did they have swathes of flamingo-vomit pink everywhere. I focused on clothes for girls, but as far as I can recall, the clothes for boys were well designed, and a bit more interesting than the usual khaki and camo stuff. NB: I have no connection to the company whatsoever, other than having shopped there for about 10 years, and still shopping there whenever I get back to NZ.

  9. “She has noticed that even among her educated peers, parents are embracing gender stereotypes – girls love ballet, boys love the biff”
    — I studied graphic design for a year at a school that had a pretty strong focus on the marketing side of the discipline. Whenever we had an assignment that started out with picking a target demographic, the standard examples (and also what most of the students picked) were always some combination of gender and age.
    If they wanted to get more complicated, they’d throw in income level and education as well — and no one made any strong objections when I wanted to target a sub-culture in stead — but the standard solution always seemed to start out with something like “we’re targeting women between 25 and 35″ or “boys between 4 and 7″

  10. I don’t care how much my kid pouts, but they’re not getting “bralettes” until they got boobs to put in them. I had to wait until I was 13 going on 14 for my first sort-of-bra.
    Now, to go back on the subject – aaaargh! I think the perfect illustration of what the pressures of commercialism are doing to gender essentialism and the sexualisation of images in the childrens’ market – look at what they did to Dora the Explorer! A pudgy little 3/4 year old in shoes, shorts and a t-shirt, goes on adventures.
    A couple of years later her hair’s long, she’s in a dress and she’s not exploring anymore. SHENANIGANS!

  11. Oh, I hear ya. I have complained to the ABC and started a thread on their forum because the “News on 3″ featured an item on pole dancing as a potential olympic sport.
    The forum participants tell me that pole dancing i’s “mainstream” fitness now, so I should ”get those kids of yours a pole”. This after I said my boys were 3 and 7.

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