Whenever you hear a parent criticising the sexualisation of children in the media, or pretty much saying anything critical about marketing for children, you won’t have long to wait before you’ll hear the very snappy retort - “if you didn’t buy it they wouldn’t sell it”. Individual parental responsibility - an argument exquisite in its simplicity and condemnation. An argument which on one hand acknowledges the potential dangers of marketing but which on the other sees absolutely no role for collective responsibility. An argument which measures the collective outcomes in terms of individual success – good parents and bad parents. An argument which tells you that the problems you’ve got with the sexualising of children are really problems with your own failure to adequately insulate your children. But it is a seductive argument, even for parents because it allows us all to wag our fingers at the bad parent’s moral inferiority and simultaneously congratulate ourselves. No matter how badly you’re doing there will always be a parent failing more spectacularly than you.
This is an argument which immediately shifts your focus from what has gone wrong to which parent has gone wrong. It is an argument which undermines your credibility as a critic because you’re a parent and which also alienates you from other parents and potential allies. It is an argument which has you watching your back, checking that your own parenting is not about to be brought into question. Individual parental responsibility is an argument that will tell you that you’re of touch with your child’s generation, that you’re dowdy and hysterical, that you’re not as media savvy as a thirteen year old (even though you’re the generation who grew up through the media revolution), that you just don’t get it. Worst of all this is an argument based in privilege, that speaks of parents and children in sweeping generalisations, that never bothers itself with the particularities of real children and their vulnerabilities.
We could have changed that here but disappointingly the preliminary outcomes of the Senate Inquiry into the sexualisation of children in Australia appear to have succumbed largely to the case for individual responsibility at the expense of wider, more effective solutions involving government, industry and the community. There is nothing wrong with individual parental responsibility being one of the solutions for the sexualisation of children but there are many things wrong with it being the only solution to the problem.
Yes OK, if parents didn’t buy this stuff, they wouldn’t sell it. But then as a mother friend said to me, we were hardly standing around talking about our desperate need for bra-lettes for our five year olds and leopard skin high heels for our babies. Not all marketing is in response to a need. But in tackling the argument of individual parental responsibility lets acknowledge the fact that parents are buying this stuff. They’re buying the bra-lettes for their five year olds and the knickers for ten year olds with “who needs a credit card” written across the crotch, and so, yes, they are to some degree participating in the sexualisation of their children. Although this list is not comprehensive, here are four reasons why parents buy into the sexualisation of children even when they don’t think it is a crash hot idea.
1. Parents buy into it because they’re desensitised to it.
We are immersed in raunch culture to the extent where it has dulled our sensitivities. The definition is increasingly narrowing for what is ‘cool’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘powerful’ or ‘edgy’ or ‘fashionable’ or ‘dangerous’ or even ‘wryly funny’ for young women and it is now almost entirely determined by ‘sexiness’. And not just any sexiness, not sexiness as a range of possibilities, but the very restrictive ‘porn babe’ version of ‘sexy’. We can almost no longer perceive of a possibility for young women that doesn’t involve their sexual desirability. Parents buying the “who needs a credit card” knickers for their little girls probably aren’t trying to buy a ‘come fuck me’ message, they’re trying to buy ‘wryly funny and cool’, the problem is that this product isn’t offered to girls without an accompanying sex message. The image of young women as Machiavellian material girls is rarely scrutinised for the message it really is, which is that second class citizens in a patriarchal world are forced to trade sex for everything else. Suddenly imposed on a landscape of very young girls many were snapped awake by this message and they were stunned, but still many couldn’t understand what the fuss was about and so for a time these underpants were stocked in major department stores. As ‘sexy’ became the uniform for young women, so too it gradually become the fashion for girls and with the compression of girlhood, ultimately, for little girls too.
2. Parents buy into it because they’re teaching their children how to fit in.
Maybe you recall this postcard from Post Secrets - I’ve never been sadder about not being “beautiful” than when people tell me my baby daughter looks just like me. Children are an extension of ourselves, often to the extent of being miniature replicas of us. Children represent for parents on some level another shot at getting it right, at perfecting ourselves, at taking the journey through life again but with the wisdom we have now. And a compliment for ones child is gratefully accepted as a compliment for oneself, as a form of self-validation. Having your child successfully fit in is a measure of a parent’s own abilities to fit in. It follows that fashion as a form of conformity has involved an embracing by parents of increasingly sophisticated clothes for children - clothes which mimic the fashions of the adult parent.
The ‘yummy mummy’ phenomenon attests to the pressure on parents to be seen as young and savvy. Somehow, despite sexualisation being oppressively mainstream it has also successfully branded itself as rebellious. Parents who themselves aren’t ready to give up their sex appeal don’t want to find themselves frowning at all the sexy things everywhere.
By the time we reach adulthood we know the perils that lie ahead in not measuring up to ‘the ideal’, we saw the bullying and the rejection, and frankly, if at all possible we don’t want it for our children. At least some of this ‘ideal’, and I’d argue its a large part and increasing, is wrapped up in being sexually desirable, particularly if you’re a woman. Mastering the art of sexy for a young woman is entry to the brief but highly regarded power of being sexually objectified. Knowing the possible rewards for conventional attractiveness and the penalties for failing this standard, why wouldn’t parents prepare their daughters for desirability?
3. Parents buy into it because they’re too tired to fight about it.
The pornification of our society, the commercialisation of almost everything is an onslaught. It is a tide bigger than any movement, let alone an individual. It is difficult for parents to continually resist it. It takes energy and vigilance. This exhaustion combined with the knowledge that we all survived a bit of it ourselves growing up gives us the sense that a bit of it for our own children won’t hurt them either. While in part true, this rationalisation ignores the multitudes of problems coming to light now from the sexualisation of our own childhoods.
Parents tapping into a global anxiety decide to conserve their energies for what they perceive to be the bigger fights – maybe for them that is keeping their children away from drugs, or getting their child through school with ADD, but the fight of commercial sexualisation often falls by the wayside.
But you don’t have to actively seek sexualisation out to have it in your life. The passive position, the ‘do nothing’ default will have a sea of Bratz flooding your home. As a parent you could choose never to buy a single barbie doll for your daughter and still end up with a house full of them. And usually mass produced products are cheaper than specialty products. Buying cheap means buying mainstream.
4. Parents buy into it because there is a lack of public critical thought.
In comparison to the enormous capacity of marketing, what proportion does public debate represent in the average parent’s consumption of media? Until recently a parent wouldn’t have found any discussion about the sexualisation of children in the mainstream. He or she would have had to motivate themselves to search it out and that takes resources and inclination. It is very difficult to question mainstream culture in isolation. A parent can feel that something is not quite right, they can find themselves feeling an apprehension about these products, but they won’t come across anything in the magazine rack at the supermarket check-out to put a language to those feelings.
Individual parental responsibility is important, of course it is, and parents know it. No-one is trying to abdicate their parental responsibility simply by saying that this thing is bigger than me and bigger than my home. Parents are buying this stuff because they’re unsure, they’re torn, they’re tired, they’re confused, and they’re feeling bombarded, but be clear, they’re not buying this stuff because they were want more ‘sexy’ for their children .. if only individual parental responsibility was all it took.
I gratefully acknowledge the thoughts of other feminist mothers I bounced my ideas off with at a recent feminist discussion group.