In a recent piece printed in the New York Times, Peggy Orenstein, author of the memoir Waiting for Daisy (and also one of my grad school texts, Schoolgirls, which really resonated with me), takes the infamous video of the very talented but very young girls bumping and grinding to Beyonce (who is much more appropriately clothed in her video) to a whole new level. Orenstein argues that sudden blips of excessive sexuality on a young girl’s radar screen can cause permanent damage to the young girl herself, who may never have any sort of normal feelings about what sexuality should be.
Moral panics about pornified girls bubble up regularly these days: should the self-proclaimed role model Miley Cyrus have stripped for Vanity Fair (or given a lap dance to a 44-year-old film producer or pole-danced on an ice cream cart at the Teen Choice Awards)? Is the neckline too low on the new Barbie Basics’ Model 10 doll — nicknamed, seemingly redundantly, Busty Barbie? The next freakout, mark my words, will explode this summer when Mattel rolls out its Monster High franchise — dolls, apparel, interactive Web site, Halloween costumes, Webisodes and, eventually, television shows and a movie — which will be the biggest product introduction in the company’s history and its first original line since Hot Wheels in 1968 (back when “hot,” at least to children, had a different connotation). Monster High’s racy student body is made up of the children of “legendary monsters,” including Clawdeen, a 15-year-old werewolf who resembles an undead street walker, only less demure. But no worries, parents, Clawdeen is not without her wholesome side: although she is a “fierce fashionista” who is “gorgeous” and “intimidating” and hates gym “because they won’t let me participate in my platform heels,” her Web bio assures us that she is “absolutely loyal to my friends.” Well, that’s a relief.
Orenstein makes an interesting point with the fleeting outrage over these issues. There is a huge outcry, then time passes (not even that much time … I wrote about the gyrating gradeschoolers on May 15th), and the outrage has pretty much disappeared, leaving instead a somewhat apathetic feeling of, “Wow, that was bad.”
And the beat goes on!
I might give the phenomenon a pass if it turned out that, once they were older, little girls who play-acted at sexy were more comfortable in their skins or more confident in their sexual relationships, if they asked more of their partners or enjoyed greater pleasure. But evidence is to the contrary. In his book, “The Triple Bind: Saving Our Teenage Girls From Today’s Pressures,” Stephen Hinshaw, chairman of the psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley, explains that sexualizing little girls — whether through images, music or play — actually undermines healthy sexuality rather than promoting it. Those bootylicious grade-schoolers in the dance troupe presumably don’t understand the meaning of their motions (and thank goodness for it), but, precisely because of that, they don’t connect — and may never learn to connect — sexy attitude to erotic feelings.
And I think that disconnect is what so many of us find indefinable — and yucky. The girls do not understand the sexual nature of a pelvic thrust. When the opportunity for some real life pelvic action comes up, it will likely seem quite insignificant to them. Those girls have been, on some level, desensitized to sex, and that is really kind of a crime against them, in a manner of speaking.
That ongoing confusion between desirability and desire may help explain another trend giving parents agita: the number of teenage girls — 22 percent according to a 2008 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy — who have electronically sent or posted nude or seminude photos of themselves. I have to admit that part of me is impressed by their bravado. Maybe, rather than cause for alarm, this was a sign of progress — indication that girls were taking charge of their sexuality, transcending the double standard. Yet you have to wonder: Just because they’re flaunting it, are they feeling it?
I answer no to that. I mean, obviously, the idea of sending racy pics via text message or Facebook is thrilling, despite the double-edged sword of the internet. It’s even an arguably sexual ripple these girls are feeling. However, this sends what is to me an even more disturbing message in light of the recent Fox News piece on why women allegedly withhold sex, namely that sex is currency owned by women. Teaching this lesson, albeit subliminally, to young girls is just going to further perpetuate the stereotype — and maybe even give it some truth.
Orenstein goes on to talk about her coming of age in the 1970s (I was born in the 1970s, so this sounds kind of quaint to me—I “came of age” in the early ‘90s, which was another trip entirely).
I find myself improbably nostalgic for the late 1970s, when I came of age. In many ways, it was a time when girls were less free than they are today: fewer of us competed on the sports field, raised our hands during math class or graduated from college. No one spoke the word “vagina,” whether in a monologue or not. And there was that Farrah flip to contend with. Yet in that oh-so-brief window between the advent of the pill and the fear of AIDS, when abortion was both legal and accessible to teenagers, there was — at least for some of us — a kind of Our Bodies, Ourselves optimism about sex. Young women felt an imperative, a political duty, to understand their desire and responses, to explore their own pleasure, to recognize sexuality as something rising from within. And young men — at least some of them — seemed eager to take the journey with us, to rewrite the rules of masculinity so they would prize mutuality over conquest. That notion now seems as quaint as a one-piece swimsuit on a 5-year-old.
“By the time they are teenagers,” she said, “the girls I talk to respond to questions about how their bodies feel — questions about sexuality or desire — by talking about how their bodies look. They will say something like, ‘I felt like I looked good.’ Looking good is not a feeling.”
This whole direction makes me very nervous, for my daughters, for my students, and for all pre-adolescents and teens.