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Nov 15, 2010
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:
Sexualization matters. The APA found that girls who were exposed to sexualization suffered a wide range of consequences:
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?