The Watchful Eye Newsletter
Mary Bailey, Editor
By Mary Bailey
Introductory note: When reading the following review of “Mayhem” by Sissela Bok (1998), please replace “mayhem” or “violence” with the phrase “sexualization of girls/youth” wherever you think it applies. While not a perfect fit, it’s pretty close, especially in Bok’s analysis of media violence, free speech and the press.
Four Negative Effects
The esteemed philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok has addressed one of the serious cultural problems of our time, one she defines in the subtitle as “Violence as Public Entertainment.” The book covers the four negative effects scientists have correlated with viewing violent entertainment: increased aggression, fear, desensitization, and appetite.
Most riveting is Bok’s discussion of the psychological aspects involved. Admittedly, today’s violent entertainment does not reach the depths once plumbed in public hangings or ancient Roman games, but its vicious scenes still evoke in audiences a similar deep and visceral thrill. We cannot dismiss such depictions as just make-believe, she says, because the imagination knows no barrier between the real and the not real.
It is a disturbing truth that people can be thrilled by watching mayhem, Bok says. But it must also be noted that the thrill comes at the expense of pity. How does one arrive at such pitilessness? You would think that human empathy would recoil at the sight of others being beaten and tortured. And so it does, in small children and people who have not been exposed to violence or who resist watching violent shows.
Bok offers explanations. For some people, violent entertainment provides excitement and a sense of power from watching the infliction of pain. There is no place in such entertainment for the empathy one experiences when viewing war news on TV, for instance, or reading an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Instead, death is treated humorously (“Pulp Fiction”) and fear and pain with deadly earnestness (“A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Scream”). For others, absorbing violence’s power and terror and excitement is a way to toughen themselves, to learn to “take” what they see without flinching. Still others want to deaden feelings of empathy in order to stimulate certain sensory appetites.
Getting a Handle on the Problem
Disturbing as these insights are, it is difficult for us to get a handle on the problem of violent entertainment. For one thing, it is argued that absolute proof of harm is lacking. Furthermore, attempts to prove harm are beside the point, since reigning in violent shows is censorship and runs counter to the First Amendment. Finally, it is said that the time for debate is past because the issue has been rendered moot by the uncontrollable nature of modern technology.
But, says Bok, the above arguments set too high a threshold. Demanding that critics of violent entertainment pinpoint exactly how such programming affects people is unrealistic. How can we ever delve into the past and trace the specific shows that contributed to a particular person’s aggressive behavior? We don’t demand such absolutism from efforts to curtail smoking, although tobacco companies would love it if we did.
As for censorship, Bok writes that framing the issue “as solely about censorship is not only inaccurate but damaging to the very values the First Amendment seeks to protect.” It also makes it easier to dismiss protections established by liberal democracies such as Canada, Norway, and Sweden just because “they don’t have the First Amendment.” Most important, it is not too late for debate. Such an attitude prematurely closes creative new responses to violence as public entertainment.
The fundamentalist and the First Amendment absolutist are similar, Bok says. One thinks ridding the culture of media violence overrides any constitutional claims, while the other sees “no sacrifice too great” in defense of the First Amendment. “In both cases,” she writes, “advocates hold their views as established articles of faith, whether religious or political, and as established beyond question in determinative texts such as the Bible and the U.S. Constitution.”
The Role of the Press
Refusal to debate the question of media violence [or the sexualization of youth] in a serious, scientific and ethical way has resulted in a turning away from the issue and even paralysis on the part of the general public. Holding aloof is especially prevalent in the press, Bok says.
The press uses the First Amendment as a way to avoid criticism of any kind of media, including violence as entertainment. We must keep in mind that the media are giant conglomerates now. [Even The Washington Post Company owns broadcasting and cable TV as well as other publishing outlets.] Therefore, from the highest ranks on down, there is a tendency on the part of the press to cover the effects of media violence in a cursory, superficial way, and to avoid reporting revenues it has gained from airing violent programs and ads.
The media sometimes distort the meaning of the First Amendment as, for instance, when the president of the Network Television Association objected to a national “Turn Off the TV Day” in 1992, calling the boycott “an infringement of the networks’ First Amendment Rights.” Of course, that isn’t true, but many people believe it or live in an environment that assumes it is the truth. By calling protests against media violence a form of censorship, Bok says, the NTA president (and others like him) “inhibits debate and thus invades the very principle for which [the First Amendment] stands.”
Many of us feel helpless to pierce the media’s armor against criticism. After all, they control the nation’s discourse on social issues. So we tell ourselves that we have to live with it. That has been the media’s greatest victory: discouraging us from trying to open a national conversation in a meaningful way. And we know whereof we speak. Have we not written letters, held marches, conducted conferences? Nothing seems to work. Instead, we face a two-headed monster: either to continue living with the media’s race to the bottom, or witness the faulty reasoning of the extreme right calling it to a halt.
Need for Civic Dialogue
Bok’s solution isn’t an easy one, but it may be the only way out of the dilemma. She believes we must insist that the nation fully recognize the problem of violent entertainment. We must debate the issue before the public, taking into account all the evidence and counter-evidence. Then an informed citizenry must choose the most viable solution, and implement the solution decided upon. Each of these four steps, she cautions, must be deliberate and complete in order to forestall another premature, uncritical closure. Next time, Bok says, discussion must not be cut off. A civic dialogue such as the one she envisions will raise people’s awareness of the problem of promoting violence and sexualization as public entertainment. From there, fresh answers should come.
Another version of this article appeared in the Nov-Dec 2005 issue of “From NOW On.”
The Watchful Eye thanks Richard McMurry for his original drawings for our newsletter. In addition to computer graphics, Richard does landscape paintings in oil and acrylic. Also of note to Montgomery County NOW members, Richard is chapter member Fran Porter’s son.
By Jill Niebrugge-Brantley
This box aspires to be the first in a series on “best practices” that parents, teachers, and, above all, youth themselves have used/are using to combat the sexualization of youth. The fight against sexualization of youth has to take place on two levels—a macrosocial level of opposition to actions by large, anonymous corporate entities, such as media or specific corporations, and a microsocial level in which we avoid and correct face-to-face daily life interactions that “do sexualization” of ourselves or others.
This initial best practice was originally shared by a student in an Introductory Women’s Studies class at Hobart and William Smith Colleges—and she had it from her mother, an elementary school teacher. Her mother was concerned about how much emphasis students in her third grade class put on body image. She challenged her students to go one week without saying anything about how anybody else in the class looked.
Try it! Try for one week not to comment on how people look. The women’s studies class students tried it and were amazed at how frequently their ways of expressing affection and friendship revolved around statements about appearance—though approval of appearance is not what they wished to convey. Take, for example, the typical greeting to someone we haven’t seen in a while: “Hey, good to see ya; you’re looking great!” What we mean is “I am glad to be in your company again” or “You are my friend and I am sorry that we have not seen each other for awhile.” Similarly statements like “that’s a great outfit you’ve got on” or “you look like a million dollars” are meant to express approval but it is usually approval of the total package that is the person. This best practice challenges us to stop and think and say instead, “I am so glad you are here; you always contribute so much to our events.”
Falling back on statements about appearance is a lazy way to convey our feelings that unintentionally but pervasively reinforces the sense that people will be judged on their appearance. We can do better than this. We can start now—this week, say nothing about how someone looks; try instead to comment on other qualities. Send us a list of comments of friendship and approval you used instead of “Hey, you look great.”
The purpose of the Sexualization of Youth Project is to make the transition from childhood to adulthood healthier and safer for children and young adults. It aims to increase awareness of the unprecedented sexualizing of girls and boys pervasive in the American culture and to motivate the public to redress this trend. Youth is a time for developing one’s identity. Girls should not be overwhelmed by messages that promote an excessive concern with sexual appearance. At the same time, boys should not get their main sexual education from pornographic sources that tend to reduce empathy and crowd out romantic impulses. Rather, a broad spectrum of people should work to build a culture that fosters youth’s safety, health, and personal development.
On December 16, 2010 the California chapter of NOW filed complaints against Hooters restaurants in San Francisco, San Bruno, Sacramento and Orange County – “but not for exploiting its scantily clad waitresses by subjecting them to leering and groping customers,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle’s Bob Egelko. “The subject this time was Hooters’ catering to children.” In its filings with police and prosecutors, NOW argued that the restaurants are classified as “adult entertainment” establishments, yet they also serve minors. They even provide children’s menus and high chairs, and sell child-sized T-shirts identifying the wearer as a “Future Hooters Girl.”
It follows, therefore, that Hooters is in violation of state and local laws against “adult” businesses serving minors. California NOW President Patricia Bellasalma further noted that in recent years Hooters has promoted itself as a family-friendly restaurant, citing a hooters.com statement that “10 percent of the parties we serve have children in them.” (SF Chronicle, 12-17-10) According to Bellasalma: “Every local county or city with a Hooters should consider a ban on marketing sexual entertainment to minors, and require that sexual entertainment businesses check IDs at the door.” (www.canow.org12-16-10)
Sexy Little Girls a la Vogue Paris
"Wow: compared to these hypersexualized photos of young girls in the December 2010 issue of Vogue Paris, Bratz dolls are practically Puritan,” writes Amie Newman in change.org, “The photo shoot features young girls (five, six years old at the youngest?) with come-hither eyes, lounging on leopard-print pillows, stiletto-heeled and red-lipped, mimicking only the more sexualized poses one finds in fashion mags. It’s verging on the repulsive.”
It’s said that Vogue Paris has a reputation for using shock to gain attention. Some French people responded to the photo spread by saying that their culture never sexualizes children in this way, that they have a more adult approach to sexuality, that sexualizing children is an American thing, and that the shoot was the creation of an American male. Well, maybe. But, as change.org points out, “a spread like this doesn’t make it through to publication in a ‘high fashion’ magazine like Vogue Paris without the nod of more than a few editors.”
Should you like to tell Conde Nast, the parent company of Vogue Paris, that the photos depicting “sexy” little girls is “not ‘edgy,’ not high-fashion, not even artistic,” and demand a public apology, sign the petition a http://womensrights.change.org/blog/view/vogue_paris_little-girl. (Thanks to Edith Miller for forwarding this story.)
- Mirren speaks her mind. “I resent in my life the survival of some very mediocre male actors and the professional demise of some very brilliant female ones,” said actress Helen Mirren in accepting The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Women in Entertainment award. “Really, not too much has changed in the canon of Hollywood filmmaking that continues to worship at the altar of the 18- to 25-year-old male and his penis.” (The Hollywood Reporter, 12-07-10)
- Garry Gross? Never heard of him. Yet he was the photographer who in 1975 introduced the sexualized child to mainstream America. In fact, he became “a celebrity image-maker,” said The Washington Post, after gaining fame by photographing a full-frontal, nude picture of 10-year-old Brooke Shields for Playboy Press, with the written permission of her mother, Teri Shields (for $450). When Brooke turned 17, she sued Gross to stop him from selling it and other sexualizing pictures, saying they embarrassed her and invaded her privacy. But a New York Court of Appeals decided, 4-to-3, that Shields could not break the contract signed by her mother. So Gross continued to market the photos to pornography publications under the guise of exploring the theme of young women coming of age. However, the lawsuit marred Gross’s reputation among art directors, and he later turned to photographing dogs. He died last November in Greenwich Village. (Wash Post, 12-09-10)
- Sex offenders sneak by. People seeking employment as teachers, support staff, contractors and volunteers in public and private schools are often able to slip through background checks despite having records of sexual misconduct. The Government Accountability Office reports that, in 11 out of the 15 cases investigated, offenders with records of targeting children were able to obtain positions in schools. “Even more disturbing, they were able in at least six cases to use those positions to abuse more children.” The GAO found three reasons why the former offenders got hired: former school officials gave positive recommendations for teachers who leave voluntarily, they failed to perform background checks or only searched criminal databases for their state, or (we kid you not) they failed to notice or follow up on red flags, such as applicants answering “yes” to whether they had ever been convicted of “a dangerous crime against children.” (Wash Post, 12-17-10)
- Priests’ sexual abuse of children is not just an American phenomenon, as the Catholic Church in Rome had intimated. During the past year, “investigations across Europe have discovered a pattern of bishops and other church hierarchy, including Vatican officials, ignoring or covering up sexual abuse of children by priests.” (The Washington Post, 12-21-10) Why should this be a surprise? The Church has always sheltered its proceedings from public view. So it should follow that any organization attaining absolute self-regulation and beyond reach of law or custom is a magnet for persons who would take advantage of it.
- “Virgin” bikini waxing is now popular for pre-teen girls. Skin-care companies are providing the service for girls as young as 8, reports the Gothamist. Virgin waxing is applied to children who have never shaved, and it can permanently stop hair growth in 2 to 6 sessions. According to one such establishment, pre-puberty hair, called ‘velus,’ is a fine, light pigmented hair. When a child hits puberty – which these days is happening to kids as young as 9 – the hair thickens. And, satirized the Gothamist, the offending hair “must be torn out by the roots if you don’t want the other girls to laugh at you!” Other commentators have weighed in: Said child psychiatrist Candida Fink, “this is just another example of how younger and younger girls are being sexualized and objectified.” On MSMBC, Dr. Diane Levin, co-author of So Sexy So Soon, cautioned that “girls are learning the worst possible lessons about body image and body hair: ‘Keep your bodies like little girls because that’s what men like.’” (gothamist.com/2008/08/15) Thanks to Susan Martin for bringing this to our attention.■
This newsletter does not necessarily reflect the views of the National Organization for Women