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UI Prof: Sexualization of Tweens & Miley Cyrus Is About Profit
With the recent fall of pop sex symbol Brittany Spears and the emergence of the newly sexualized teen idol Miley Cyrus, aka Hannah Montana, UI journalism professor Gigi Durham couldn’t have timed the publication of her new book any better.
Read exclusive Iowa Independent interview with Gigi Durham below the fold“A lot of very sexual products are being marketed to very young kids,” Durham said in a press release. “I’m criticizing the unhealthy and damaging representations of girls’ sexuality, and how the media present girls’ sexuality in a way that’s tied to their profit motives. The body ideals presented in the media are virtually impossible to attain, but girls don’t always realize that, and they’ll buy an awful lot of products to try to achieve those bodies. There’s endless consumerism built around that.”
Durham will read from “The Lolita Effect” at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 8, at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City.
Durham advocates healthy and progressive concepts of girls’ sexuality, but criticizes the media for its sexual representations. Studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation and other research organizations show that sexual content aimed at children has increased steadily since the 1990s, Durham said. Times were prosperous, Britney Spears emerged as the sexy schoolgirl on MTV, and tweens had plenty of disposable income — a perfect alignment for marketers trying to expand into a new demographic. By 2007, 8- to 12-year-olds’ consumer spending was $170 billion worldwide, according to the market research firm Euromonitor.
Interview with Gigi Durham, author of “The Lolita Effect”:
Iowa Independent: I assume the book’s title is alluding to Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Given the predatory relationship that evolves between the protagonist and the nymphet, Lolita, in the book, why did you title your book, “The Lolita Effect”?
Durham: Yes, the book is an allusion to Nabokov’s “Lolita,” which is written from the predator’s point of view, and he sees Lolita as the one who is bringing it on. All predators do that, so all of the abusiveness in the novel and the empathy for Lolita is lost in the way we now talk about girls. In that sense, Lolita is a tragic figure. That’s why I’m using that title, because we all think we know what it means. To me Lolita represents an effect of our culture and our media that positions girls in that way. Of course girls are transitioning into adulthood and are interested in sex, but what 12-year-old girl would initiate or knowingly enter into those kind of relationships? You can’t pin it on the kid.
Iowa Independent: So does your book look at the other end of the sexualization and marketing of tween girls and examine the role of men?
Durham: It looks at all aspects regarding the marketing of this type of sexuality and the narrow, restrictive form of sexuality that’s commercially driven to young girls. But it also looks at the impacts, such as the rise in child-sex trafficking and child pornography and how this is being legitimated by the mainstream media and the impact on girls who are not learning about sex in healthy, progressive natural, normal ways. They are not being given this safe transition into adulthood, where they have good information about sexuality and they can make good choices themselves.
They are not getting good information from the media, and they are not getting this information from anywhere else either, because we are so skittish about dealing with these issues. As a result, we have really high rates of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world, twice that of the U.K. and eight times that of Japan. Moreover, one in four girls in this country has had a sexually transmitted disease (STD). We are not doing it right; we are not giving these girls what they need.
Iowa Independent: On the flip side, do you think marketers are targeting adult males and their desires or fantasies about the Lolita persona?
Durham: I totally do think so. Because not only are they marketing to children, but at the same time there is this other effect where adults are exposed to these same kinds of images, in particular adult men, subsequently giving these men the implicit idea that these young girls are sexual objects — which I think is really problematic. The effect is an implicit or tacit support of those ideas.
Iowa Independent: Putting this in a recent context, what are your thoughts about the explicit photographs of 15-year-old Miley Cyrus in the latest issue of “Vanity Fair”?
Durham: For me, the very fact that this generated so much public controversy shows that this is a really important issue. In a way I was glad. This points to how we tend to polarize girls’ sexuality in our society. There’s no middle ground, we either repress girls’ sexuality or we exploit it for profit. The big outrage that this girl is a pure, innocent and chaste girl is a bit ridiculous. At the same time she is very young, so I don’t think it is OK that her body is on display for this voyeuristic gaze for commercial profit. The issue is more complex than the way it has been presented; it’s not an either-or issue.
Iowa Independent: Do you think marketers are consciously branding female innocence and purity with the intent of eventually using this branding to exploit the sexualization aspect of their marketing strategy?
Durham: It almost does seem that way, doesn’t it? Brittany Spears took this same route. She started out a Mouseketeer on the “New Mickey Mouse Club” and then she became a sex symbol. They start out innocent, then overnight they become sex symbols and there is no transition, which is not good for girls, who need an extended time to understand and cope with their own sexuality as it develops. In a way, it’s a social trauma.
Iowa Independent: What role do these girls’ parents play in this process, especially those who allow their daughters to be exploited by the media, especially when it turns out they have no control over how they are exploited, whether it be a parent, producer or media conglomerate?
Durham: I thought it was really clear in the Miley Cyrus case that there was a group of adults that were using her body for their own purposes. There were adults there including her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, photographerAnnie Leibovitz and her handlers, who were making her decision for her. It came out later that Miley was ashamed and embarrassed about it, and if this is true, then it indicates that she didn’t perceive she had any control in the situation. We want girls to make intentional, good decisions about themselves and their sexual development.
So I do think parents are important, and this is one of the reasons I wrote the book. I want parents to have a tool for coping with this, for their kids are being assaulted by media images from such an early age. The book provides some good strategies for kids and parents on how to talk about sexuality without it feeling like such a difficult thing to talk about.
Iowa Independent: We can keep criticizing the media for helping perpetuate this problem through mass marketing and consumerism, but how do we get them to change their behaviors? How can we address the demand-side –the boy’s/men’s role in — of the equation?
Durham: Boys are getting the same messages from the media, especially what defines masculinity and femininity, so we need to have more co-ed discussions that involve teachers, parents and counselors helping facilitate a healthy discussion about sexuality.
A lot of boys are very thoughtful and see girls as more than eye candy, so it’s important to bring them into the discussion as well.
And then there is the push back against the marketers. Parents need to continue to put pressure on marketers and hold them responsible for what they are selling. There have been a number of products that have been removed from the shelves because of these efforts.
Iowa Independent: What about recent video games like “Grand Theft Auto” that are not only violent but that treat women as sex objects while simultaneously degrading them, or as is the case in “Grand Theft Auto,” you can kill them after having sex with them?
Durham: Not only are these games incredibly violent, but all the women in these games are sex workers. They are all strippers or prostitutes. The games are rated “M” and are intended for adult audiences but of course that never matters, because 13- and 14-year-old boys are the ones that tend to play these kinds of games. Again, I think boys need more media literacy and education and need to hear adults they respect being critical of these issues, then they will begin to understand why our value system doesn’t appreciate those representations.