A few weeks ago, when I was encouraging everyone to go to the SPARK Summit, I got this question from a friend of mine who’s raising two young girls:
The idea of owning sexuality versus being sexualized by the media is a little tricky for me (so I assume it’s very confusing to lots of girls, too). I’ve seen you talk about "pearl clutching" about Miley Cyrus’ antics, but then in [the promo video for SPARK], she’s a prime example of girls being sexualized by the media. So are all these girls participating in the media "owning" it or not? And at what point is girls wanting to express their sexuality really them being manipulated by the media?
It’s easy to confuse criticisms of sexualization with panic over youth sexuality. For many people, there’s no difference at all. They want us to “think of the children,” especially girls, and not expose them to explicit sexuality. Well, that may be the agenda of the Parents’ Television Council, but it’s not mine. I think sexuality is a healthy part of life. When we pretend it doesn’t exist, curious teens and tweens will go elsewhere for information — their friends, the internet, porn. We can’t shield kids from learning about sex even if we want to. (Which, again, I don’t.) What we can do is advocate for media representations of sex that are both age-appropriate and promote healthy ideas about sexuality.
Let’s take Glee as an example. Remember Rachel’s speech to the Chastity Club in one of the very first episodes? It was so progressive and powerful it made my heart sing. Seriously, it was one of the best things I’ve seen on television in a very long time.
And that’s exactly why seeing the recent Glee shoot in GQ made me sick to my stomach. Not because it was sexy – there’s nothing wrong with sexy. Because it was sexualizing.
What’s the difference? Healthy sexual expression comes when people of whatever gender are agents on behalf of their own sexual desire. They’re actors, not in the performance sense, but in the sense that they’re taking action on their own behalf. In these pictures only one person seems to have any agency, and that’s Cory (the actor who plays Finn, and the only male in the shoot), who’s fully clothed, drumming. He’s the one holding the women. That’s an active verb. The women are the ones being held.
Lea and Diana (the two female actors featured) aren’t agents in this shoot. They’re objects. Props. They’re sexualized. The American Psychological Association describes sexualization as happening when any of the below happen:
- a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or sexual behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics (so, in this shoot we see that Cory plays drums. What do the girls do? Throwing books whimsically up in the air doesn’t count. Reading books would have.)
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy; (this brings up the important question: why were two of only three white skinny young women in the cast featured? Why were none of the girls of color, or bigger girls, or boys who play gay or disabled characters? The definition of “attractive” in this shoot is narrow indeed.)
- a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; (like in the way that the whole “teenage schoolgirl fantasy” visual cliche that’s being played with in this shoot is about a very specific idea of teen sexuality, one in which “good girls” are passively available for “corruption” by men. The girls in these images are always fantasy objects for use by men, never complex actors on their own behalves.) and/or
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person. (This one is clear when it comes to young children. It also comes into play, for example, when women are writing about non-sexual things on the internet, and commenters focus on their looks and “do-ability” instead of what they’re actually saying. I’m not sure it applies here.)
Sexualization matters. The APA found that girls who were exposed to sexualization suffered a wide range of consequences:
- Cognitive and Emotional Consequences: Sexualization and objectification undermine a person’s confidence in and comfort with her own body, leading to emotional and self-image problems, such as shame and anxiety.
- Mental and Physical Health: Research links sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women–eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression or depressed mood.
- Sexual Development: Research suggests that the sexualization of girls has negative consequences on girls’ ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image.
As for the Miley question my friend asked, here’s how I see it: my defense of Miley isn’t that I don’t think she’s being sexualized by her handlers. It’s that the criticisms of Miley focus on the fact that she’s being sexual at all. That’s not just hair splitting: Miley was being sexualized by Disney when they promoted her as a pure pure purity princess, too. When her “innocence” and sexual purity is the most important thing about her? That’s sexualization definition #1. But no one objected then about the messages we were sending young girls about how what you do and don’t do with your body is the most important thing about you. Only when she started expressing active sexuality did the clutching of pearls begin. And it often didn’t turn up as criticism of how her sexuality was being portrayed, it was criticism that she should be portraying any sexuality at all. And it wasn’t often thoughtful critique targeted at the people who are supposed to have this teen girl’s best interests at heart — it was vile slut-shaming targeted at the teen girl herself, who is trying to figure out her own sexuality, which, let’s all remember, is a perfectly healthy thing to do.
Truth is, there’s really no way, in our incredibly media-saturated culture, for anyone to explore or express their sexuality free of media influence. The question isn’t how can we tell when girls are being manipulated by the media, it’s who do we hold responsible for what results from that manipulation, and how do we create media that influences girls’ sexuality in better, broader and healthier ways?