The Sexualization of Girlhood (page 3)
The popular culture gives girls contradictory messages about womanhood and sexuality and masks the violence that is perpetrated against them. The media disseminate a vast number of messages about identity and acceptable forms of self-expression, gender, sexuality, and lifestyle (American Psychological Association, 2007; Gauntlett, 2002), while the adolescent culture often also yields inaccurate and uninformed expectations about sexuality. Further complicating the realities of gender messages are societal conditions that girls are raised in: growing divorce rates, chemical addictions, casual sex, and violence against women—all have had a profound impact on the development of women’s roles.
Dr. Mary Pipher’s study of adolescent girls, Reviving Ophelia (1994), examines the challenges for young women growing up in a looks-obsessed, media-saturated, “girl-poisoning” culture. Increasingly, girls have been sexualized and objectified in every facet of the popular culture—advertising, movies, music videos, and video games—leaving few protected spaces where they can claim a true and wholesome identity.
Wolf (2002) argues that some girls’ self-esteem may be predicated on being admired by boys, usually for their physical beauty or sexual availability. Adolescents become increasingly influenced by their peer culture as they begin to form a new identity. And vulnerability to peer groups generally peaks in early adolescence and remains important as individuals move through high school into young adulthood. Lack of knowledge and awareness of one’s sexual identity makes one more susceptible to peer pressure (Levy, 2005). This realization peaks in adolescence during a time when middle school girls sense their lack of power in society but generally are unable to articulate what they sense.
According to Pipher (1994), “bright and sensitive girls” are most likely to understand the implications of the media around them and be alarmed, yet they lack the cognitive, emotional, and social skills to handle this information. “They struggle to resolve the unresolvable and to make sense of the absurd” (p. 43). Less perceptive girls miss the meaning in sexist ads, music, and shows entirely, thereby aiding their subordination in a consumer-based society that capitalizes on their experiences.
How do young girls cope? Pipher (1994) identifies four general coping styles that girls display: conformity, withdrawal, depression, and anger. Ariel Levy, in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005), argues that another way that some girls deal with this is to become sexually provocative. Each of these strategies can be debilitating without adequate intervention from people who can help these girls to analyze the culture pressures and to reclaim a sense of self-worth. Pressure to fit in with the peer group expectations and norms has a cost. For example, a recent study conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive health research, policy analysis, and public education, found that the younger the women are when they have intercourse, the more likely they are to have had unwanted or involuntary sex (Guttmacher, 1999). Many young women try too hard to fit the mold—to be slender, feminine, and perfect; to fit a false male-imposed expectation (American Psychological Association, 2007). They have been trained to be what the culture wants of its women.
More recently in the United States, feminists have examined the oversexualization of womanhood and ultimately girlhood. The Dove campaign for real beauty (www. dove. us) attempts to send a positive message to young women: Accept yourself, your face, your body, your size. Acceptance of our physical self is vital, and women continue to be valued primarily as sex objects in the media.
Hollywood presents an alternative scenario. Notice all the attention given to the escapades of the once popular singer Britney Spears. She had a 24-hour marriage, a quicky annulment or divorce, and car crashes; she was seen drinking, driving under the influence, driving with no underwear, shaving her head, and driving around town with no proper safety seats for her sons. Now divorced, she has lost custody of her sons.
Consider Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse, Paris Hilton, and Nicole Ritchie. These young women are promoted as role models—as persons that young people should admire and try to look like. Drugs, alcohol, and questionable sexual behavior are promoted as positive. Our daughters and our sons are constantly reminded of just how important—and rich—these people are. The media record their every move. Extreme behavior, regardless of how bizarre, is written, text messaged, and blogged about and placed on Facebook. News headlines and television specials thrive on this behavior.
How does this affect young girls? A student of mine and her daughter were visiting me in my office. As I greeted them, the young single mother whispered in my ear, “Help me with Sydney. She is driving me crazy wanting me to buy her clothes like Britney Spears wears.” Sydney is 51⁄2 years old.
Before our sons and daughters get to school, they are bombarded with television ads, billboards, and magazine ads. Among the heavily promoted items are the Bratz Dolls. They are a more cutting-edge Barbie—dressed in mini skirts, tops with plunging necklines, and belly-showing clothing, with multicolored hair and gaudy jewelry—for 5- to 10-year-olds. The copyright battle between the Bratz and Barbie has gone to court.
In recent years, television has attempted to regain the youth market through “reality” shows such as Survivor, Roommates, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Girls Gone Wild. Girls Gone Wild is a program emphasizing, encouraging, promoting, and publicizing raunch female culture. Most often the camera follows girls and guys on spring break at beaches in Mexico, Florida, and Hawaii. College life is portrayed as sun, fun, drinking, dancing, and hooking up. Little is left to the imagination. The bikinis are skimpy, and girls flash their bodies—their breasts, butts, and genitals—for the camera. Hooting and yelling are the primary script. For this exhibition, girls get a hat, a T-shirt, and 1–2 minutes live on television.
Joe Francis, the creator of Girls Gone Wild, likens the flashing girls he captures to feminists burning their bras in the seventies (a media distortion). He argues that his productions are sexy for men and liberating for women—good for the goose and good for the gander. Francis estimates that Girls Gone Wild is worth $100 million (Levy, 2005).
What do young people learn by watching such programs?
Recently, the television hit Sex in the City was made into a movie. In its prime years, it was targeted to appeal to young professional women living and loving in New York City. As more women go to graduate school and move into the professions, this show claims to portray their lives. Some new television series such as Saving Grace, about a female detective in Oklahoma, and The Closer, about a female deputy chief investigator in Los Angeles, attempt to portray strong, complex women in professional roles.
Jeane Kilbourne is a major writer who has recorded the effects of sex-role stereotyping in the media. She argues that television viewing makes an independent contribution to adolescents’ sex-role attitudes over time, given that the average American is exposed to more than 3,000 advertisements a day and watches three years’ worth of television ads over the course of a lifetime. Kilbourne suggests that this barrage of advertising drastically affects young people, especially girls, by offering a distorted reality regarding women’s lives and portrayals in popular culture.
In addition, she argues that there is a reciprocal relationship between the amount of television viewing and the degree of congruence between sex-role attitudes and behavior. Consequently, the amount of television viewing, coupled with what adolescents learn from their families about media sexuality, is the strongest determinant of how young people’s behavior is affected by popular cultural images (Childers & Brown, 1989; Kilbourne, 1999). Newcomer and Brown’s (1984) study found a strong and significant relationship between the amount of sexually oriented television programs watched (as a proportion of all television viewed) and the probability of an adolescent’s having had intercourse.
Given the power of the media’s negative messages about women, young girls must be educated to recognize and reject this socialization. This begins with teaching young people to understand how the media and our culture impact our thinking, in order to gain self-knowledge and to develop their total capabilities. Only when this occurs can we help young women to make conscious choices about who they are and what they want rather than subconsciously conforming to society’s expectations (Fitzell, 1997).
Young women need models in their lives that display assertiveness, strength, self-pride, and social responsibility. They need to see women in their lives who value their self-worth and their self-image and men who respect and validate self-confident women. As a result of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, today women are writers, producers, anchors, editors, and publishers of important newspapers, magazines, and television and online news sources. They are on each of the national television networks and on local television and radio. In a consumer world captivated with fashion advertising, media hype, the music and video pop culture, and gender stereotypes, girls need these tangible female models who base their self-worth on who they are and not what society says they should be.
Television, film, the print media, and the culture of consumerism often shape teenage girls’ worldviews more than does their school experience. For many, the shopping mall is the campus of choice.
Positive television viewing could help to counterbalance negative images. For example, cable networks such as the Disney Channel, UPN, PBS Kids, Nickelodeon, and Fox Family each provide positive programming that is appropriate for young viewers and teens.
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