Mary Bailey, Editor
The Next Big Thing?
Something unusual happened this past month. Washington, D.C. became the site of a summit meeting, a commission launching, and a panel discussion — all addressing the sexualization of girls. Furthermore, the events were held under the auspices of three national organizations: the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the Aspen Institute. At last, the sexualization of youth is becoming a topic of national discussion.
From Academia to Action
Four years ago the American Psychological Association published "The Sexualization of Girls," a report receiving one of the most requests for reprints in the history of the organization. Since then, its themes have served as a wellspring for teachers, researchers, writers, and activists. (In fact, it was the inspiration for The Watchful Eye.) Now the anti-sexualization movement has spread into various niches and levels of society. And so the question becomes, what next?
The situation was reviewed at the APA summit on April 13 by Eileen Zumbriggen, professor of psychology at the University of California/Santa Cruz. Every media type, she said, is now saturated with sexualized images of women and girls. Girls have always studied pictures of older models in order to learn to be women. But with today's sexualized depictions of themselves, girls experience shame and a lack of confidence in their bodies, and concentrate more on boys and less on their studies. She noted that the sexualization of girls is linked to other social problems, and that a full study of its reach could change the way we think about child abuse, pornography, and sexual trafficking.
Top policy makers from across the country came to APA headquarters to gather ideas, build a coalition, and coordinate strategies. Twenty-plus in number, they represented a spectrum of interests — academia, girls' and women's organizations, governmental entities – that share a concern over what is happening to girls in our culture. They will follow up with plans to further their objectives. The Watchful Eye will report the results as we learn of them.
Activating the Arts Community
For another approach, Ambassador Luis deBaca, head of the State Department's fight on human trafficking, told a Capitol Hill audience last year that the only answer to child exploitation is to effect a massive change in our cultural attitudes. Only the arts community can bring about such a profound change. Nothing will happen, he said, unless and until the arts community gets wholeheartedly behind the effort to create a healthy cultural mindset toward children.
One member of the arts community has taken on this task. Geena Davis, star of "Thelma and Louise" and "Commander-in-Chief," founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, commissioned an Annenberg School study of gender bias in family films, and took the incriminating evidence to Hollywood's producers, directors, writers and animators. They, in turn, acknowledged that the movie industry needs to create more positive images of girls and women.
A briefing April 27 at National Association of Broadcasters headquarters introduced Davis and Deborah Taylor Tate as co-chairs of the newly formed "Healthy Media: Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls." Tate, a former FCC commissioner, was known as "the children's commissioner" for her work on child online safety. The Healthy MEdia Commission was created by the Girl Scouts USA, the NAB, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and the Creative Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group for arts and entertainment. Members include teenage girl scouts, the model Emme, NBC chief medical editor Nancy Snyderman and editor-in-chief of Seventeen magazine Ann Shoket. Standing before the media "suits," Davis and Tate stated they aim to convene media industry leaders, make recommendations, and secure commitments to produce better images for girls.
Some readers may smile at such optimism, and that is certainly understandable. Anyone who has ever protested corporate practices knows the difference between their public statements and actual behavior. But let's think about it for a moment. The Geena Davis Institute and Healthy MEdia are trying something new, at least new to me. They're working as insiders. (See Jody Foster's inside view of studio executives in Sightings, page 5.) They're combining insider contacts with outsider publicity. This could be highly effective, especially if people like us put our spotlights on their endeavor.
Then There's the Government
A third approach is government intervention. Last year, the APA, Girl Scouts USA, and Congresswomen Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Shirley Moore Capito (R-W VA) wrote the Healthy Media for Youth Act, a bill that would provide grants for media literacy, authorize research on the impact of media images on girls, and establish a national task force to promote positive images. Unfortunately, the measure expired with the end of the last congressional session, but is expected to be reintroduced this summer.
Now, an international body closely related to government is weighing in. The issue of sexualization has received attention from the very top level of women in government, of which there is no higher: the Council of Women World Leaders of the Aspen Institute. The Council, a network of current and former female presidents and prime ministers, was founded in 1996 by President Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland with the mission to "mobilize the highest-level women leaders from around the globe for collective action on issues of critical importance to women."
On May 2, The Council of Women World Leaders and Girl Scouts USA hosted a panel at the Aspen Institute entitled "From Princess to President:
Today's Girls, Tomorrow's Leaders," a response to Peggy Orenstein's book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. While the likes of Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Angela Merkel of Germany and Yulia Tymoshenko of Ukraine were not present, the fact that the educational program was presented under CWWL auspices shows that the sexualization of girls is considered an issue by this important organization of women world leaders.
Will opposing sexualization be the "next big thing," taking its place alongside immigration, labor unions, and the environment, as Montgomery County NOW member Mike Hersh thinks might happen? "I believe the issue of outrageous sexualization of youth is taking on a real life of its own," he said, "with the news channels reporting on stories such as adult-style makeup and padded swimsuits for very young girls. People are talking about the media and corporate America pushing images of young people to be sex objects. It's way too much way too soon, and increasingly parents are aware and concerned about it."
Girls have always studied pictures of older models in order to learn to be women. But with today's sexualized depictions of themselves, girls experience shame and a lack of confidence in their bodies, and concentrate more on boys and less on their studies.
Jamie Chung, left, and Vanessa Hudgens are among the players in "Sucker Punch," a film that includes plenty of females clad in lingerie but has failed to attain real box-office success. (Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Pictures)
Girls Want to Lead
Girls from 13 to 24 have a great desire to be good leaders, but have absorbed the culture’s vision of pretty princesses and wicked queens, said Tracy McLoone, assistant professor of Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University and panelist at the Aspen Institute/Council of World Women Leaders discussion (above). But, since they really want to lead, this is a problem for them when they enter the workforce. Laurie Westley, Senior Vice President of Girl Scouts USA agreed. Girls want leadership in order to change the world and not, as boys might, to enter the world as it presents itself. Competence is central to leadership, Westley said, but competence is illusive in girls’ lives. When media images don’t reinforce what girls want to be, it’s difficult for them to become it.
We Read It in The Funny Papers...
But We're Not Laughing
Abby is advising her teenage daughter Sophie, who suffers from an unrequited crush. Abby tells her how she managed to get a guy's attention when she was her age. Abby: "One day I decided Gary Roberts was going to be my boyfriend." Sophie: "Sorry, it's hard to imagine Dr. Roberts as a heartthrob!" Abby: "Oh, he was very cute…But interested in only one thing! Gary was nuts about cars…so I learned about cars."
— "Judge Parker," 04-12-11
CEO of ad agency: "Garcia, do you think it was professional of you to grab our eighth biggest client by the scruff of his neck and throw him down the mail chute?" Garcia (a woman): "Is this a trick question, sir?" CEO: "No, it's not a trick question." Garcia: "Abercrombie & Fitch wanted us to revise an ad campaign for their push-up bikini top for seven-year-olds." CEO: "Good point. Seven-year-olds don't have a lot of cash anyway." Garcia: "Exac…No, that's not…Dios Mio."
— "Candorville," 04-21-11
For the Tactics File
- Send your member of Congress a telegram instead of an e-mail or phone call. When grateful, send a framed thank you note.
- Release studies on slow-news holiday weekends. Hold news conferences just days before networks unveil their slates for the next season. Avoid emailing an important paper on a Friday night.
- Put together a "Burma Shave"-type demonstration on the street near an offending theater, office, or store. Or line the street with protesters — the first yelling out a word followed by the second, etc.
- Protest a movie or advertisement via Internet, e-mail and blog all at the same time. This magnifies the effect and spreads your complaint more quickly.
- Organize a March of Dads to save our daughters – Suggested by Jennifer Irey
And There's More to Come
"Women and Girls Lead" is the title of a TV project being developed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Independent Television Service. The three-year, 50-film program will document women and girls' leadership roles and the challenges they face both here and worldwide. PBS will broadcast most of the films.
Look for "Women, War and Peace," airing later this year, which will explore how women have been affected by recent wars and the roles they have played in brokering peace. Coming in 2012, we'll be treated to a four-hour film of "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," based on the work of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
The project underscores "that women and girls have a huge contribution to make to any society," said Patricia de Stacy Harrison, the corporation's president and chief executive. Furthermore, she says, the series will link viewers to ways they can act on the issues raised. Dozens of nonprofits are aligned with the program, including the Girl Scouts of the USA, CARE, and World Vision. (http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com)
Hollywood Psych 101. Jody Foster is a rare female director in a Hollywood where only 7 percent are women. But "I don't think it's a plot and these guys sat around and said let's keep these women out," she said. "When a producer hires a director, you're hiring away your control completely. You're bringing on somebody that will change everything. When you give that amount of power up, you want them to look like you and talk like you and think like you and it's scary when they don't, because what's going to happen? I'm gonna hand over $60 million to somebody I don't know. I hope they look like me." Foster won her first directing opportunity because she had acted for small change in "Little Man Tate" and had just won an Oscar for her lead role in "The Accused." So they felt they knew her. They realized "they were under almost no financial risk whatsoever. The real pioneers are someone that didn't have the 'in' that I had. I had guys who knew me. I was like their daughter." (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/movies)
Disney covers the bases. "Now Disney has realized that the one segment of childhood that they have not managed to capture is the 0 to 3 set. So, they have announced that they are now going into maternity wards in 580 hospitals. Right after you have given birth, you will receive a free Disney stretchy for your baby, if you sign up for the baby Disney newsletter. This apparel is a beachhead toward what is going to be a broad-spectrum campaign to market babies through their parents." (Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, interviewed in Jewish Woman, Spring, 2011)
Teens take greater risks than do adults with their online information, according to a 2009 paper by neurobiologists and marketing experts at the University of California/Irvine. "Whereas adults rely on a sophisticated interplay between multiple brain structures to make risk-return trade-offs, this is simply not available to adolescents," says co-author Frances Leslie, a professor of neurobiology and pharmacology. This is because the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that makes risk assessments, isn't fully developed until age 25 or 30. For instance, notes The Washington Post, "If a groups of friends is meeting for a movie at the AMC theater in downtown Washington, a teen who badly wants to join may send out notice through a public status update – without thinking about the risks of disclosing that information to anyone who might be on a social network site." (Washington Post, 5-09-11)
Don't Track On Me. To respond to the problem of online risk-taking (see above), Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) and Joe Barton (R-Tex) on May 6 released a "discussion draft" of their Do Not Track Kids bill to amend the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998. The draft would establish a Digital Marketing Bill of Rights for Teens and establish new protections for personal information of children and teens. The protections would require online companies to: Explain the types of personal information they're collecting; Obtain parental consent for collecting their children's personal information; Not use personal information for targeted marketing, and create an eraser button parents and children can use to eliminate such data when feasible. (http://markey.house.gov)
Tinseltown child abuse. Donnie Dunagon was 6 years old when he provided the voice of Bambi in the Disney classic. Now 76, he recalls that a Disney executive tricked him into thinking his real mother was in danger. "You're mother is in trouble; we're going to put you on the speaker, call for your mother," the executive said as he placed a microphone before the boy. Observed The Week magazine, "Bambi's plaintive cries as he searches for his dead mother have since haunted generations of filmgoers." (The Week, 3-18-11)
Obsessing over Barbie. "The year 1959 proved to be a watershed year for cosmetic surgery, since that was when Barbie was introduced to the American toy market and an entire generation of young girls grew up worshipping a form impossible to achieve without surgical intervention," writes Laurie Essig in American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection. At first, she says, Barbie was made to imitate real movie stars. Now, ironically, cinema stars emulate her: "The post-surgical Dolly Parton looks like the post-surgical Ivana Trump looks like the post-surgical Michael Jackson looks like the post-surgical Joan Rivers looks like … Barbie." Women and even young girls became obsessed over having large breasts, so much so that psychiatry named their distress "a significant problem." (womensenews.org, 1-09-11)
To subscribe, unsubscribe, change address, query, or comment: send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org
This newsletter does not necessarily reflect the views of the National Organization for Women