Chapter 3 A Poisonous Culture
Twenty-five years ago, a balding, middle-aged man approached a 13-year-old girl at a school play and invited her to model in his hotel room. Knowing her father would object, the girl asked her mother to take her.
They met in the lobby of the Hotel Vancouver, where the man told the mother to wait in the bar. Instead of insisting that she accompany her, her mother asked the teenager what she wanted.
He wasn’t thrilled, but he shot several rolls with her mom in the room.
A few weeks later the girl received a copy of the photos, along with a note indicating that she was “not model material” because she was “unable to take direction.” She understood what he meant—she had worn her mother’s modest bathing suit rather than a bikini or scanty underwear, and she had refused to peek out from behind the shower curtain or lie on the bed with her legs in the air.
That girl is me. I had allowed myself to be photographed by a complete stranger based on the promise that he could fulfill my fantasy to be gazed upon and admired by the entire world.
But I had not been able to do the overtly sexual things he had asked me to do. I had never been naked in front of anyone. I hadn’t even kissed a boy.
Would I do it today if I were 13 and asked to pose topless? Maybe. Bombarded with images that link a woman’s value to her sexual willingness, girls see their role models engaging in graphic, exhibitionist behavior—and being rewarded for it (at least in the short term).
The training starts early. Bratz dolls, manufactured by MGA Entertainment for preteen girls (7-12) “who are mostly into music [and] computers,” are “fully articulated fashion dolls that provide hip and trendy alternatives to traditional dolls.” According to the manufacturer’s website, the dolls “are inspired by modern advertising and computer anime images”; sales neared $100 million in 2001,1 exerting enormous influence on the body image and focus of the latest generation of girls, a trend that began (and continues) with Mattel’s Barbie. “Things are heatin’ up as Chloe takes to the scorchin’ sands of Bratz Beach,” reads the advertising copy for the “Spring Break” version of the Chloe character doll. “Strolling in the dreamiest bikini around, she’s ready for what’s sure to be a summer to remember.” Chloe comes dressed in a bikini and see-through miniskirt. She sports peroxide-blonde hair and, like all the Bratz dolls, oversized lips and eyes, pencil-thin legs, and a wasp-sized waist.
Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera: Anyone who has ever stood in a supermarket checkout line knows that, in addition to conforming to an extremely narrow definition of beauty (identical to that of Bratz dolls), today’s female pop icons are sex objects to be alternately exalted, ogled, emulated, critiqued, condemned, pitied, and recycled...ad nauseum. Even the more respected pop stars—those with actual acting or musical talent, like Scarlet Johansson, Keira Knightley, Avril Lavigne, Cheryl Crow—regularly strike clothing-challenged poses in magazines from Vanity Fair to Maxim to Playboy.
With role models like these, immersed in a culture where sexuality is tied to celebrity status and money, girls are conditioned to feel empowered whenever they are the sexual center of attention. “At a party or wherever, to get attention, two girls will start kissing and then all of a sudden it’s like everyone is looking and all of the attention is on you. It’s like you’re on fire,” explains Juma, a high school student.
To maintain that level of attention, many girls are transmitting nude or sexually explicit photos of themselves via cell phone. The practice is called “sexting.” “It is a way to become famous at their school, because those photos are widely forwarded among students,” explains Joy Becker, a youth counselor at Options For Healthy Sexuality (formerly Planned Parenthood) in Vancouver. “I’ve seen everything from your basic striptease to sexual acts being performed,” says Detective Brian Marvin of the FBI Cyber Crime Task Force of Central Ohio.
Girls understand that the most valuable commodities are youth and beauty, both of which they possess. And theyidentify as sex objects because being a sex object is about being desirable, getting attention, and feeling powerful.
Twelve-year-old Maddison Gabriel made international headlines when chosen to be the face of Australia’s 2007 Gold Coast Fashion Week. Although Gabriel’s agent says she will not model lingerie, photos of her in heavy makeup and bikinis are online. Gabriel’s mother, who has been criticized for participating in the sexualization of her daughter, has demanded an apology from Australian Prime Minister John Howard who, on a Melbourne radio station, said, “Catapulting girls as young as 12 into something like that is quite outrageous, and I am totally opposed to it.”
Gabriel’s mother’s response: “I believe the prime minister is getting very doddery. He does not know exactly what 13- and 14-year-old girls are like.”
Advertising and media feed off each other, generating a proliferation of images that are sexually suggestive or blatantly pornographic. These ads, music videos, video games, television shows, internet sites, and teen fiction then become guidelines for acceptable teenage social behavior. Sexual imagery is such a normal part of teens’ daily lives that, regardless of family pressures, disapproving peers, or religious taboos, very young girls are influenced into dressing provocatively, acting sexy, and becoming sexually active.2
Drunk, underage girls bare their breasts in Girls Gone Wild videos.3 T-shirts for girls read “Porn Star,” “The Rumors Are True,” and “I Know What Boys Want” across the chest. Sweat pants have “juicy,” “yummy,” and “sweet” emblazoned on the backside. The current brand identity for girls is clear: “I am something to be consumed.”
In a recent ad series for a Tom Ford fragrance, a naked model presses the perfume bottle between her breasts (in a classic porn pose) and against her hairless crotch, barely covering her genitals. Victoria’s Secret model Marisa Miller poses for the 2008 Sports Illustrated music issue wearing nothing but an iPod. It is worth noting that in both the Tom Ford ads and the Sports Illustrated photos, the models’ pubic hair has been completely removed, a grooming practice that is ubiquitous in pornography and that has become increasingly common among young girls and women.4
Gail Dines, a professor at Boston’s Wheelock College who explores how media images shape gender/racial identities and the role pornography plays in legitimizing violence against women and children, points out that content that was once considered hardcore pornography—images one might find in the pages of Hustler, for example—have been successfully mainstreamed by the advertising and music industries. American Apparel has made a multimillion-dollar name for itself by shooting very young women in gritty, Hustler-style poses, and Joe’s Jeans billboards are all pornographic in tone.
What every girl wants?
Girls are sent the message that they should be available for sex and skilled at it. Adorable magazine sent their teen subscribers a sex guide entitled 99 Naughty Tricks, including tips on French kissing and oral sex. Seventeen and CosmoGirl magazines regularly offer sex advice, often without mentioning a relationship as the context in which the sexual contact might take place. Sex as recreation, sex as inevitable adolescent experimentation, sex as obsession are so pervasive that the editors of the recently released True Images: The Bible for Teen Girls (Zondervan) feel it’s essential to discuss oral sex, lesbianism, and “dream” guys alongside the study of scripture.
How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, Jenna Jameson’s bestseller, is a favorite among girls (in spite of its unfiltered recounting of the degradations of her career), as is One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, an autobiographical account by teen writer Melissa Panarello, who loses her virginity, has group sex, sex with a married man, and sex with her math tutor, all before her 17th birthday. These are part of what Madeline Bunting of the Guardian newspaper calls “fuck lit,” a genre which also includes such titles as Secret Diary of a Call Girl and Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire.5
In the pre-teen and teen book market, Gossip Girl, A-List, It Girl, and Clique are best-selling series about upscale teens’ sex lives, in which everyone has a T-Mobile Sidekick (marketed as “your lifeline to your social life”), a platinum Amex, and coke-snorting parents who have extramarital affairs. In these books, where fitting in is the priority, even sex is about social positioning and status. Gossip Girl has spun over to television, where the show’s pilot treats viewers to underage sex in act one, drinking throughout act two, and an attempted rape scene in act three.
Other episodes include lingerie sleepover parties and girl-on-girl kissing. CBS’s Swingtown is another of the growing number of TV shows about wealthy teens: Its first episode features teens smoking pot and reading pornography, adults popping Quaaludes, and a threesome carrying on upstairs while an orgy unfolds downstairs.
The girls on these shows pay very close attention to the value placed on being “hot” and become addicted to the power that comes from granting or withholding sexual favors.
If you want to know just how much things on TV have changed, only 13 years ago the show to watch was My So-Called Life, with Claire Danes playing teenager Angela Chase. Each week close to 10 million viewers (more than NBC’s ER drew last fall) watched “a decidedly middle-class girl whose grievances with the world were confined to an aching crush, the wish that her mother wouldn’t insist on well-balanced meals, and her belief that social studies ought to be less boring.”6 Angela wore baggy clothes, little make up, and had parents who were present.
Copyright (2009) Sharlene Azam All Rights Reserved.
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