Girls, sexuality, and popular culture
Talk radio makes me want to vomit. But due to some dreadful, masochistic urge, I can’t help but turn it on once in a while just to see what sort of evil tripe is being fed to its audience. “Shock jocks” seem to be proliferating at an alarming rate, like a colony of rats left undisturbed in a dark basement, and one of the favorite targets for these men seems to be adolescent girls.
In the few minutes each day that I subject myself to this torture, I have heard “shock jocks” speculate about how “hot” young adolescent stars Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen will be once they’ve developed breasts. I’ve heard them discuss how Britney Spears should be worshipped because she sports a Catholic schoolgirl outfit and is also, conveniently, of legal age. One segment, on why a 17– year-old girl is responsible for seducing her 35-year-old teacher, prompted me to seek out a Web site dedicated to Seattle-based talk show host B.J. Shea. Big mistake. The Webmaster here even goes so far as to provide a link to Washington State’s Age of Consent Laws with the heading, “This page is strictly for those who intend to have sexual relations with minors or those who want real content in their Web sites.”
It is sickening to think that this culture exists, but in some ways, it is even more disturbing that feminists who talk about revisioning sexual education curriculum for girls do not also talk about the consequences of empowering girls in a popular culture that holds these attitudes. This is hardly equality, and the sad fact is that teaching girls to be sexually aware, sexually confident, and in control without also somehow warning them about these noxious elements of popular culture is essentially putting them at risk for further damage.
In the present-day U.S. there is little differentiation between the developing sexuality of girls and the fully formed sexuality of adult women. Because of age and power disparities, girls are never in control when involved sexually with adults. Thus, girls packaged to sell products or ideas to an adult marketplace are not making an active choice to be sexual. Their very nature as sexual beings is being exploited. And this isn’t just happening on talk radio: anyone with a computer or television or magazine can find girls arrayed for heterosexual consumption.
For example, while doing Internet research on empowering girls and revisionist sexual education curricula for my Master’s thesis, I had more luck finding porn than theory. In just one “let’s see what happens” Web search on Google.com, the term “Lolita Porn” yielded upwards of 282,000 hits. A recently disbanded Internet site that featured child pornography, Landslide Productions, reportedly had over 250,000 subscribers and as much as $1.4 million in profits in a month (Marquis par. 4). (Interestingly, the word “teen” seems more likely to collect hits than “girl”: perhaps girl is someone’s daughter, whereas teen is the anonymous female body found in advertisements, waiting for a man to seduce her.)
In popular music, we find teenage girls continually marketed as highly sexualized beings, ready to cater to the whims of men. Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, and countless other teen stars parade across MTV and VH1. They are just adult enough to be available, just young enough to be non-threatening. Lyrically, when referring to relationships, the word “girl” is consistently paired with “man,” a glowing indicator of both the infantilization of adult women and the sexualization of girls.
In the film industry, the theme of the adult male who becomes infatuated with or is otherwise transformed by an adolescent female flourishes. Often, the male protagonist’s attraction to an adolescent female signifies his discontent, while the girls are innocent and naive and believe that he will eventually tumble into love. This theme appears in Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty-all directed by men. The depraved teenage seductress still rears her cleavage, ready to lure men astray in films like Alan Shapiro’s The Crush and Katt Shea’s Poison Ivy. Films that feature adolescent girls in control of their sexuality, such as Tamara Jenkins’s Slums of Beverly Hills or Sarah Jacobson’s Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, are rare and are generally released only to limited audiences. In the case of Colette Burson’s Coming Soon, a full-length feature about three girls in search of an orgasm, they are never released at all.
In this culture of heterosexual, patriarchal privilege, men are entitled to the bodies of girls. And why shouldn’t they be? Men have seen girls’ bodies in numerous sexy and emotionless displays, in everything from movies to television to advertising. There is also little distinction between real and fantasy girls. This popular culture will not acknowledge the emotional and physical consequences of its abuse because it does not see girls as human beings; instead, they are as inanimate as mountains and exist only to be conquered.
Another problem is the fact that girls are taught to exist in relation to boys and men. They are judged on their sexual appeal and thus, a girl who receives attention from an older, “wiser” man may be lulled into a false sense of security regarding power. As Naomi Wolf explains in her book Promiscuities, “Through the attentions of the grown-up men always hovering on the horizon, we went from being little girls-the most powerless of categories-to beings with power over grown middle and upper-class white males-the most influential ones” (194). Being the object of desire for an adult male is a roundabout method of obtaining power. Because girls are in a transitional state of their gender roles, they do not realize that assuming the role of seductress will limit their own sexual expression and will strip them of power, though it may feel otherwise.
Additionally, when girls internalize negative messages about sexuality, and then combine them with the annihilating messages shot out about body image by this same popular culture, they often end up mistrusting their own bodies and feelings. The body and its desires become construed as other; it is foreign, unpredictable, and must be controlled. In an essay entitled “Body and Self in Feminine Development: Implications for Eating Disorders and Delicate Self-Mutilation,” psychologist L.W. Cross notes, “A girl can achieve vicarious mastery over her own sexuality by reaming to manipulate a boy’s passions, or by establishing psychological power and moral superiority over a boy who abuses her but desires her.” In short, a girl who does not already have an understanding and control of her body may enter in an unhealthy sexual relationship in hopes of normalizing her own desire.
Cultural manifestations of this control/abuse dynamic appear in films like Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse-when the school bully threatens to rape eleven-year-old Dawn Wiener at a specific time and location, she shows up, expecting the worst but also hoping to receive a measure of power from the experience.
Compound this with the self-doubt girls might feel at an emerging physical womanhood, and we arrive at that vortex of popular culture where girl voices dissolve and disappear. It is the awful space where real girls mirror the mute two-dimensional images they see on screen and in glossy color. It is the space where the demands of the “shock jocks” really don’t seem all that unreasonable.
So what do we do? How can we introduce true adolescent female sexuality into popular culture? Can we both empower and warn girls about sexuality and media culture simultaneously? Is that even a feasible option?
While feminists are struggling to answer these questions, the right wing pounces on the chance to introduce abstinence-only education and fundamentalist thought. But the solution does not lie in skirting around the edges of the problem, but rather, diving directly in. In the present-day U.S., girls need a two-fold strategy for sexual education, one that both incorporates all the feel-good, probody teachings of the current feminist girls’ movement with the tactics of cultural revisionist feminists.
First, girls must first be taught that their sex is not shameful, dirty, or illicit, and that they are in control of their bodies. Birth control, saying no, and orgasm should not be mythical concepts loosely gleaned from discarded Playboys or late-night cable TV. Instead, girls should be introduced to these concepts by mothers, sisters, aunts, teachers or other comfortable persons before girls make a decision to become sexually active. Relationship is essential in this transaction: through direct relationship and interactions with women, girls are able to reconcile their desires against the flat, abject images presented by advertising, popular film and movies, and television.This also gives girls authority to trust their desires and be more mindful of when those desires might be correct. A seventeen-year– old girl who truly experiences that it is correct for her to be sexually active with a nineteen-year-old boy (or girl) should by all means have license to do so.
Second, girls must be clued in to the hazards and hidden pitfalls of sexual empowerment. The cultural construct of the teenage Lolita is not likely to disappear, and so girls should learn to be aware of it and analyze it. They should be aware that media images are encouraging them to adopt sexual stances at an early age, and they should also be aware of how their images are being used in the service of selling product. They should be warned about the subculture of men who would take advantage of them, and be made to understand that in no way does adult male attention offer a vision of maturity or empowerment.
Peggy Orenstein argues that we cannot improve the self-esteem of girls unless we attack the infrastructure that hurts them (Durham par. 36). Thus, erotic education for girls must necessarily include information on popular culture’s tendency to devalue and sexualize them. They must be introduced to the commodification that occurs when female bodies are positioned as product, and, perhaps most importantly, they must understand that they too are part of this media-driven, abusive culture.
Teaching girls to challenge the stereotypical boundaries of passive femininity and be in control of their own sexuality is to set them up for a lifelong battle against misrepresentation. This is essential, but it is also a lesson that must be fully integrated into sexual education curricula. Sexual education must not be simply tossed out in one health class and then forgotten. In the present-day U.S., sexual empowerment cannot be separated from media literacy, self– defense, self-esteem, and development of healthy and realistic body image.
Girls are not immune to popular
culture, nor are they willing to hold themselves outside of it. Thus, when girls turn on the radio and find an adult male positioning them within a framework that is entirely unsuitable-be it a sexual situation or something that is otherwise devaluing-they need both the base of resistance and the supporting arguments to remain strong. Only then will I feel like I can turn off my radio and my TV and let the insistent whine of popular culture become what it should be: background noise.
Cross, L.W. “Body and Self in Feminine Development: Implications for Eating Disorders and Delicate Self–
Mutilation.” Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic 57.1 (1993): 41-68.
Durham, Gigi M. “Articulating Adolescent Girls’ Resistance to Patriarchal Discourse in Popular Media.” Women’s Studies in Communication. 22 (1999). 48 pars. EBSCOhost Academic Search Elite, Prescott College Library, Prescott. 9 Oct. 2000. http://search.epnet.com.
Harris, Joyce Saenz. “Little Girls Learning: `Be Sexy.”‘ Dallas Morning News. 26 June 2001. 10 Aug. 2001 http://www.recordonline.com/archive/ 2001/06/26/buzz260.htm
Marquis, Christopher. “U.S. Says It Broke Pornography Ring Featuring Youths.” New York Times on the Web 9 Aug. 2001. 9 Aug. 2001 http:// www.nytimes.com/2001/08/09/
Tanenbaum, Leora. Slut!: Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation. New York: Perennial, 2000.
Wolf, Naomi. Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle For Womanhood. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1997.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. May/Jun 2002
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