Photo: children’s size underwear with ‘eye candy’ and ‘wink wink’ written on the front (credit to Journal Sentinel Online for the image). It was a toss up between this and the bralettes for 6 year olds for an image to lead this post. Such a lovely world we live in. NOT.
Bloody hell! Reading this UK article, Girl wants to be next Jordan by Rebecca Ley I am suspicious that it might be an almighty prank being pulled on us, could a mother really be so blatantly innappropriate in the sexualising of her own child? This, together with all the fat phobia and misogyny you could possibly imagine in a mother. The article is about Jayne, a mother sharing all the ‘fun stuff’ with her 11 year old daughter, Sasha who’s a great big (no wait, tiny little) fan of topless model, Jordan.
Jayne encourages Sasha to dress like her and says: “We’ll go out dressed the same, in mini skirts and furry boots. She likes to wear what’s in fashion and now she’s a size six can buy clothes from grown-up shops.
“I don’t see anything wrong with her showing her midriff — it’s just skin.”
But it isn’t just the latest hotpants or cropped dresses from Primark — Sasha loves wearing clothes with the Playboy brand that her mum orders from America. Her bedroom is also a pink shrine to Playboy, with a Playboy door curtain, satin duvet set, Playboy pillows and pyjamas.
I know this mother is off the deep end; way way off the deep end, in so many ways, but when we’re done with the finger pointing and the shrieks of child abuse can we discuss what this story really tells us about the sexualisation of children? This article has got me thinking about a presentation I recently saw by feminist academic thinker, Shelley Kulperger.
I hate zee Bratz dolls and the general pornification of our lives that they represent, and the way they are just the tip of the iceberg of the innappropriate sexualisation of and marketing to children, as I’ve said before, oh a couple of times but what to do with this hatred? How to be strategic with it? How to achieve something?
Kulperger argued that the debate around accountability for the sexualisation of children in popular culture has stalled. We’re utterly polarised, particularly here in Australia. You see, the debate got very heated when it turned to talk of the commercial sexualisation of children or ’corporate paedophilia’ as Philip Adams coined it.
I’m talking about the billions of dollars of marketing aimed at kids whose childhoods are being cynically abbreviated, stolen for profit. I’m talking about the sexualisation of ever younger children through advertising and for what passes for entertainment – so that kids are encouraged to see themselves as sexual beings long, long before puberty. Yes, the age of puberty is decreasing – and it will all but vanish if companies continue to employ their teams of child psychologists and ad agencies to turn ever younger children not simply into consumers, but into mini-adults.
Dr Emma Rush in a research report also called Corporate Paedophilia, which she led with the Australian Institute came out and said a bunch of stuff about the dubious way marketers focus campaigns on young girls-
Children, particularly girls, are under increasing pressure from advertisers and marketers to adopt a “sexy” persona from very young ages. Those who apply the pressure claim they are simply responding to little girls’ interest in looking “pretty”.
However, the forms “prettiness” now takes, which include “bralettes” for girls as young as three, as well as the language used to describe appearance in girls’ magazines directed at readers from five up (“hot, hot, hot”), give the game away. This sexualising pressure places children at risk in a number of ways.
While criticising companies for sexualising children in their advertising campaigns Rush named some names and those names had thin skins (an example advertisement at this link too).
The head of advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, Simone Bartley, who handles the David Jones account, said: “We have never, ever eroticised children in any way for any client in any communication. Not only is the idea repugnant to us, we take very seriously the fact that David Jones is a family brand.
And here, more thin skins -
Ms Greig, the mother and photographer of one of the girls in a Frangipani Rose shot deemed offensive, said she felt “vilified”.
Rush said -
… some people would see her report as “another conservative moral panic”.
“We expect them to deny they are doing it,” she said, “but the truth is, they pose children like adults.”
And she was right, moral panic is exactly what they accused critics like her of doing.
ASST PROF CATHERINE LUMBY, SYDNEY UNIV.: Using terms like corporate paedophilia, I think, is very irresponsible. Even metaphorically, to link the sexual assault of children to marketing or advertising is a huge stretch.
What I’m very concerned about here is that we’re in danger of jumping at phantoms. I think we’re in danger of seeing paedophiliac images everybody and suggesting that everybody is at risk of becoming paedophiliac by looking at images. Paedophiles do not get turned on by what children are wearing or not wearing, they are sexual predators.
They brought their husbands too, or as Kulperger likes to describe these commentaries: Father, As Voice of Authority -
Duncan Fine, who is a writer for the kids show, Hi-5 and co-author of Why TV is Good for Kids said: “There’s so many things wrong with the Australia Institute report it’s hard to know where to start.
“If kids want to get dressed up as Kylie – or Paris Hilton for that matter – then let them, because if you find an eight-year-old girl in a bikini a sex object then it’s you who has the problem – not her, not her parents and not the store that sold it to them.
“The Australia Institute and its cheer squad from the Fun Police are heroes of the Left. But the instinct is the same (as the far Right) – it’s to control people, what they think and how they behave. And wasn’t the last group who tried to impose that kind of dress code a fun loving bunch called the Taliban?”
The answer to the problem of sexualising young children in advertising from the “Father, As Voice of Authority” was - parents, be more authoritarian, and everyone else not, because that would make you like the Taliban:
DUNCAN FINE: … children as young as seven and eight, they actually understand what marketing is. They know, they’re very savvy, and I think it’s the role of parents not to be scared off, but to actually embrace marketing and tell their kids about marketing.
DUNCAN FINE: It’s an absolute moral panic and the worst thing about it is diverts our attention from – I assume we are all concerned about child sexual assault, that’s the sharp end of this debate, and we know these images have nothing to do with child sexual assault – these are just advertising images. We’ve got capitalism in Australia. Unless you want to overturn it, our children are growing up in a world of images and marketing. We must educate them. We can’t ban it.
JENNY BROCKIE: But, Duncan, I suspect there’s middle ground between the Taliban and what we are talking about tonight.
From here, the debate has stalled. Emma Rush is described as ‘sick’ and feminist mothers like myself are accused of being the kill-joy moral panic brigade. As Kulperger noted in her presentation, the discussion has moved to focusing on maternal and paternal authority and very little on corporate responsibility (remember, the big corporations’ feelings get hurt very easily). Young girls in this debate are seen as savvy (this is everyone’s favourite term for young girls these days), robust, immune, empowered, strong, liberated in their sexuality, beautiful, perfectly in control, self-aware, and interested in ‘girly’ activities.
“Treated to a mass of information, young girls tend to be better filters than we imagine.” – Janet Albrechtsen.
But is this an accurate view of all young girls? Its not how I would describe 11 year old Sasha, in the article above. I don’t think Sasha is ‘filtering the information’. And what of the girls who don’t fit into this narrow definition of girlhood? The girls who aren’t traditionally beautiful and who don’t like ’girly’ activities like listening to music, doing each other’s hair and pole-dancing? And why are we collapsing the difference between a woman’s and a girl’s sexuality anyway? Why do we have to see young girls as junior women, up for the same expressions of sexuality?
The argument that everything will be ok as long as parents monitor their children’s TV viewing as pushed by Duncan Fine is one of parental authority, it is centred on a picture of young girls as strong, protected, wealthy, privileged, and under parental control. What happens to the young girls who don’t fit into this picture? What of the young girls who don’t live their lives esconced in a privilleged definition of family home as fortified sanctuary? And how do you fortify this home anyway? Isn’t it all a bit simplistic to suggest that just saying no as a parent is going to do the trick?
Kulperger spoke in her presentation of the challenge for feminist mothers to mobilize concern without being accused of censorship, prudery, and conservatism. In other words, how do I hate Bratz dolls without aligning myself with a ‘family values’ rhetoric? Here are Kulperger’s initial ideas, and I think she’s on to something. Firstly, resist the picture of the home as a haven, its just not - not for many, many children. Seek instead a vision of collective responsibility for the wellbeing of children – a joint approach of corporate, media, government, and personal responsibility. Question the value of female power through sexuality, constantly. Is it really possible or appropriate for children to find their empowerment in the adult world through sexualisation as some are arguing, or are they likely to be exploited by it? Surely children are more likely to be able to negotiate the pitfalls of the adult world if they are allowed to safely develop their “cognitive and emotional capacities” (as Rush says) – in other words, plenty of time for kids to be kids. Finally and importantly, we need to particularise the child and mother – race, education, income etc. Let’s talk about the children in the world outside upper-middle class luxury, the children without the support structures of wealth, opportunity, supervision, and parental authority. The children at risk.
Again I’d like to acknowledge that many of the ideas, particularly the good ones were taken from Shelley Kulperger’s recent presentation at this conference. When she gives me a copy of the presentation, which she’s promised to do I will put it up on this site.