Media’s Infantilization of Female Sexuality

A Yahoo article points to a recent “dark trend” of pre-teen girls posting “Am I pretty?” videos to YouTube. In reference to a new 15 year old YouTube “star,” Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD, a Harvard sociologist calls the videos ”uncomfortably exploitative, as there is clearly a sexual undertone to what she is doing.” Friedman says the increased presence ”young girls on YouTube is a disturbing, growing trend.”

The truly disturbing trend is not a recent development, but a longtime one. The girls who post videos asking for valorization based on their looks come out of a culture where the bodies of increasingly younger girls are sexualized and put up for public scrutiny.

In some notable examples of the media’s sexualization of young girls, about a year ago, Abercrombie and Fitch sold padded bikini tops to young girls and French Vogue started controversy with its use of a 10 year old model in a fashion editorial that emulated adult sexuality (as shown above). A 2007 American Psychological Association study linked the sexualization of young girls to disordered eating and low self-esteem, the very same low self-esteem exhibited by the pre-teen girls asking “Am I Pretty?” on YouTube.

If we consider statistics that say 15% of sexual assault or rape victims are under the age of 12 and that Girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault (RAINN) then this trend is even more disturbing. Images such as the ones in French Vogue imply that it is ok to look upon a child as a sexual object.

There is nothing wrong with children being sexual. They have every right to, like adults, possess sexual agency, be aware of their sexuality, and receive education on sexual health. Rather than promote sexual agency, however, these images turn young girls into sexual objects. They pin a sexual lens onto young girls and ask them to conform to the same narrow definition of beauty as their older counterparts, that is thin, white, able-bodied, and free of any blemishes or perceived imperfections. With these kinds of standards it seems only inevitable that many pre-teen girls are turning to the internet for confirmation of their value.

Mass media can go one step further and not just turn young girls into sexual objects, but ask adult women to emulate children in order to be sexy. Paradoxically, women must convey innocence while being sexually available. A recent anti-feminist, sexist image from Maxim shows how to “cure” a feminist by turning her into an “actual girl.” The image is almost too blatantly awful to even look at, but  if you can brave it you’ll see it plays into misogynist fears of feminism and women in many ways. Notably it patronizes the women pictured by referring to them as girls, and before transforming into a veritable lingerie model, the “girl” dons pigtails and a babyish outfit and pose as part of her “sexy” morph into an “actual girl.”

This infantilization is not exclusive to men’s magazines, as even images marketed to women use similar tactics. A recent Marc Jacobs ad featuring Dakota Fanning made similar use of a childlike sexuality to sell a product, in this case a high end perfume.

Though Fanning herself at 17 straddles the line between adulthood and childhood, the choice of a ruffled, polka dot dress lack of “adult” jewelry and make up clearly plays up the childlike side of her image. The perfume’s name Oh, Lola! is even a direct reference to Nabokov’s Lolita, perhaps the most famous example of pedophilia in Western culture. The titular character’s real name is Dolores and Lola is one of her many nicknames, Lolita being a diminutive of that. The ad was banned in the UK due to its provocative image of a minor.

These trends inhibit the sexual agency of both adult women and female children. Girls no longer need to wait to grow up to be objectified, but experience sexualization and objectification at a young age. In turn, adult women are asked to emulate an impossible, pre-pubescent ideal and maintain an equally impossible balance of innocence and sexual availability.

Thanks to Janet for the tip.

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