The Watchful Eye Newsletter
Clearinghouse Airs Sexualization Issues
Mary Bailey, Editor
Clearinghouse for Women's Issues newsletter
Reprinted with permission
The Clearinghouse on Women's Issues's February 22nd speakers were Leslie Cameron, Director, Administration and Communications of the American Psychological Association and Clare Bresnahan, Public Policy and Advocacy Associate for the Girl Scouts. Additionally, Mary Bailey, editor of The Watchful Eye and chair of Montgomery County NOW's Sexualization of Youth Project, briefly described this project.
Leslie Cameron discussed the genesis of the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls which is available for free at www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report.aspx. The task force's definition of sexualization contains four components. Sexualization can be identified when: a person's value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, a person is held to a narrow standard of beauty, a person is made into an object for another's sexual use, and finally when sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon an individual. To demonstrate this final point, Cameron referred to a photograph of a group of seven or eight year-old girls drenched in makeup and dressed in clothes more likely to be found on much older women, including high heels. "These are little girls," explained Cameron, "being portrayed as 'big girls,' or women, and they are inappropriately made to look sexualized." Sexualization does not require all four components to be present, two or three of these factors are enough to indicate its incidence.
Cameron then went on to identify examples suggesting the sexualization of young girls throughout society. These examples included music videos, music lyrics, Bratz dolls, a stripper pole for little girls, clothing with sexually explicit phrases across the chest, an advertisement for the TV show Gossip Girl, and photographs from the recent Glee photo shoot for GQ magazine. Cameron also noted that Black and Hispanic women were often depicted in stereotypes, clothed in animal prints or otherwise portrayed as being exotic. Similarly, images of Asian women were sometimes sexualized and depicted as subservient.
After discussing some of the manifestations of the sexualization of young girls in society, Cameron described the harmful effects of this sexualization on women. Evidence indicates that sexualization has cognitive and emotional consequences. It can undermine an individual's confidence; it can also lead to body image problems as well as feelings of shame and anxiety. Similarly, sexualization negatively affects mental and physical health.
Cameron ended her presentation with an overview of what can be done to counteract these effects. Cameron discussed the positive results that would come from the media choosing to portray women in roles where they are judged for their actions and accomplishments rather than their appearance. The importance of media literacy campaigns, diverse athletic and extracurricular programs, and comprehensive sexuality education programs in schools was stressed. So, too, were alternatives to popular culture, such as community or religious organizations. Cameron also encouraged parents to watch television with their children and then discuss what has been seen on the screen. Most of all, Cameron shared the importance of girls speaking up and acting upon their beliefs. At the close of her talk, Cameron directed the Clearinghouse to several organizations, such as SPARK, the Girl Scouts of America, Girls Inc., the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, Parent's Television Council, and the "Evolution" video in Dove's Campaign for real beauty. Cameron also encouraged the Clearinghouse to review the APA's sexualization tip sheets, which has been tailored to girls and parents.
Clare Bresnahan began her presentation by underlining the increasing impact of the media on today's youth. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that teenagers spend approximately ten hours of recreational time watching media sources everyday. She explained that unhealthy media images have become so ingrained in media representations and youth culture that adolescent girls may not have the tools to detect them and understand the impact. The overwhelming saturation of sexualized images of women is dangerously affecting their cognitive and social development. As they grow up, they are disproportionately concerned with their appearance and thus developing self-esteem and confidence issues. A whopping 90 percent of girls feel the pressure to be thin, and more than half of them are already dieting. Bresnahan explains that three of the most common mental health problems for girls are tied to the sexualized images of women in the media. Girls come to understand their physical appearance as their defining attribute and measure of their value. Intersecting inequalities also impact the representation of certain groups of women. For instance, black females are often portrayed as being more violent and are often placed in exotic contexts. Social hierarchies are also emphasized in storylines involving an overweight or disabled child. Animated film and television programming do not escape these static gender dynamics since studies show that one in three female characters do not have significant speaking roles.
In an effort to remedy the problematic misrepresentation of women in the media, Bresnahan discussed the proposed bill Healthy Media for Youth Act which focuses on promoting healthy body images, developing positive active role models and portraying equal and healthy relationships. If passed, it would establish a grant program for media literacy and empowerment groups. The bill would encourage and facilitate the research on health impacts of various types of media on teens and would create a national taskforce on women and girls in the media. This taskforce would be composed of a wide range of different interest groups such as Girl Scouts, media representatives, and advertisers.
The media's crucial role was highlighted when Bresnahan stressed that change will never occur without all stakeholders working together. The Healthy Media for Youth Summit in October 2010 was a first step toward that goal. Another event to watch for is the Blue Ribbon Commission on Healthy Media for Youth. It will highlight the importance of empowering young girls and finding alternatives to the sexualized images of females in the media today. Amongst others, actress Geena Davis will co-chair the Commission and representatives from Seventeen Magazine will be members. For more information, visit: www.girlscouts.org/who_we_are/advocacy/watchwhatyouwatch/.
Mary Bailey noted that sexualization is not limited to girls, but can have serious consequences for boys as well. As editor of The Watchful Eye, the monthly newsletter of Montgomery County NOW's Sexualization of Youth Project, Bailey said that "while girls are being channeled by the media and others to be sex objects, boys — through their easy access to online pornography — are being inculcated to seeing girls through predatory eyes." Boys should not be getting their main sexual education from pornography, she said, because it reduces their empathy and crowds out romantic impulses.
Among other efforts, the Project has sent the American Psychological Association's educational suggestions to the County's public school system, but response so far has been modest. The Project's latest target is Wal-Mart's new product line of anti-aging cosmetics for girls — ages 8 to 12. Called Geo-Girls, the line offers 69 separate products, including moisturizers, exfoliators, and makeup. "Wal-Mart is not women's friend," she said. "First it underpaid us, and now it's starting in on our daughters." An upcoming Montgomery County NOW press conference will define the threat that stores like Wal-Mart are placing on children's development and the importance of emphasizing young girls' love of "horses, hiking, and books" over a premature concern with appearance.
Clearinghouse for Women's Issues serves both national and local organizations and individuals.
What Girls Can Do
By APA/Girls Inc.
Tune in and Talk. Ask questions when you watch TV and movies, surf the Web, or go to the mall. "Why is there so much pressure on girls to look a certain way?" "What qualities do I admire in girls other than the way they look or dress?" "What are qualities I admire in adults I look up to?" "Do I see any of those qualities in myself?" "What do I most respect about myself?"
Speak Up. If you see something that makes you or other girls feel uncomfortable, use your voice. For example, if clothing companies, advertisers, TV, and movie producers are encouraging girls to focus too much on looking "hot," you can write a letter to express your opinion. They listen!
Dress for Success. Clothes that require lots of checking and adjusting might distract you from school work, friends, and other activities. Choose clothes that make you feel comfortable. Then you can be your most confident self.
Change the Rules. It's natural to want to fit in when you're growing up. But it's never worth giving up who you are just to be accepted by someone else. Try to focus more on what makes you a good and caring person. Recognize your talents and accomplishments and those of the people around you. You can help to redefine "hot" as being someone who is confident and caring.
Wind shift. "We are not a commodity!" shouted nine Ukrainian women standing semi-nude in the cold to protest the export of their countrywomen for prostitution. (NPR, 3-02-11). In Italy, following allegations that Prime Minister Berlesconi paid a 17-year-old girl for sex, hundreds of thousands of women in over 230 towns took to the streets demanding better treatment for women. "Women in this country are denigrated by the repeated, indecent and ostentatious representation of women as a naked sexual object on offer in newspapers, televisions and advertising," said organizer Ida Poletta. Similar rallies, totaling an estimated 1 million protesters, took place in London, Brussels, Tokyo, Boston and Athens. (Wash Post, 2-14-11)
Because he could. The National Gallery of Art's current Gauguin exhibit focuses on the artist's relationship to the places and people he depicted, including his sleeping with underage native girls in Tahiti. By the time Gauguin arrived on the island, its alleged paradisal aspects were gone, and French colonization had "spread prostitution, disease, alcoholism, ennui, despair and cultural decimation" among the people, writes Philip Kennicott. So Gauguin ignored all this and painted the Tahiti of his fantasy. His portraits of teenage Tehamana, with whom he slept, show a young girl in "westernized" dress with a "blank look" on her face, not the "enigmatic smile in the long tradition of western images of sexually available women, but a mask." It is this same look of "blank exhaustion we see on the supposedly sensual" faces of other Gauguin models. Kennicott faults the gallery for labeling this theme "fictions of femininity." The worst thing about such phrases, he says, is that they reduce the relationship to mere moral relativity, when it was really "the repeated rape of a child – for what else can you call sex with a girl who wasn't mature enough to consent or economically or socially powerful enough to refuse"? (Wash Post, 2-27-11)
Where's Thelma, where's Louise? It's been 20 years since "Thelma and Louise" hit the movie theaters, notes The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media. But filmwriter Callie Khour says the female characters created by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis have not been seen in film since. "It's a strange thing. … The response to this movie was overwhelming, both positive and negative. Looking back, you could say its impression was indelible." Khouri says. (firstname.lastname@example.org, 3-10-11)
"The Way Back," a film about three men escaping the Gulag in the 1940s, "is 'true' in every way that matters," writes columnist Anne Applebaum. As a historical consultant to the film, she should know. Nevertheless. some reviewers thought it unrealistic that no "real-life" threat of rape occurs between the escapees and a teenage girl they picked up along the way. But, says Applebaum, "in 'real life,' these rough-looking men were from nice Central European homes, as the presence of the girl reminds them. Rape would have been out of character." (Wash Post 1-25-11)
"Clockwork Orange." When British author Anthony Burgess wrote the novel about a violent teen whose gang beat the homeless and raped the helpless, his final chapter showed the youth weary of violence and wanting to get married and start a family. However, when the story crossed the Atlantic, the U.S.edition left out that last chapter, as did the subsequent movie. Burgess was unhappy with the American treatment of his novel, for he felt the last chapter was essential in revealing the boy's moral growth. (Garrison Keillor, "Writer's Almanac," PBS, 2-25-11)
Maria Schneider, the 19-year-old French actress who played opposite Marlon Brando in "Last Tango in Paris" (1972), died last month of cancer at age 58. In the film, she played a young Parisian woman who agrees to have sex with a middle-aged American businessman (Brando) recovering from his wife's suicide. Pauline Kael and other influential critics praised Brando's improvised acting. Such improvisation included a sex act, an experience Schneider later described as being "humiliated" and "a little raped by Marlon and [director] Bertolucci." "Never," Schneider advised young actresses, "take your clothes off for middle-aged men who claim that it's art." In mid-career, Schneider became involved in drug overdoses and an attempted suicide, but later returned to acting and appeared in more than two dozen films. (Wash Post, 2-04-11)
President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast announced his new personal prayer: "Lord, give me patience as I watch Malia go to her first dance, where there will be boys. Lord, have that skirt get longer as she travels to that dance." Said columnist Ruth Marcus, "do I ever identify with this." (Wash Post 2-04-11)
This newsletter does not necessarily reflect the views of the National Organization for Women
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.