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Sunday, June 22, 2008


The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It

By M. Gigi Durham

Overlook. 286 pp. $24.95

Several years ago my husband borrowed a Shania Twain CD from the library. When my then 5-year-old daughter saw me roll my eyes at the barely dressed singer's provocative poses on the liner notes, she was smitten. She played the CD over and over, tossing her hair and wiggling her hips in imitation of those photos, oblivious to the innuendo but aware that she was doing something daring and rebellious. What, I thought, am I going to do when she's 13?

Reading The Lolita Effect five years later, I wonder why that episode even stands out in my memory. To hear M. Gigi Durham tell it, young girls are gasping for air in an ocean of sexual imagery. As early as kindergarten, they are being coached to dress and vamp by Bratz dolls that look like strippers, Disney heroines shaped like centerfolds, teeny-bopper Web sites that glorify "hot" girls -- even products like kid-sized thong underwear and pink, plastic pole-dancing kits. Meanwhile, teenage models in ads directed at adults pose in pigtails, sucking on lollipops. "Childishness is sexy, these messages imply," Durham writes. "Ergo, children -- especially little girls -- are sexy."

Sure, it's all just entertainment, as savvy kids will tell you. But Durham argues that the images, so well crafted and so pervasive, seep into our consciousnesses, making the sexual objectification of girls seem normal. Durham calls this the "Lolita effect," which she links to a host of social ills by presenting a disturbing (and soon wearying) litany of statistics about eating disorders, teen pregnancies, battery, child pornography, forced prostitution and rape.

From her first sentence (" The Lolita Effect begins with the premise that children are sexual beings") to numerous descriptions of herself as "pro-sex" and "pro-media," Durham takes pains to show that she is no prude or censor. But she sees a vast gulf between healthy female sexuality and the one dictated by "hooker chic," which is all about turning boys on with the public display of girls' bodies (thin, of course, yet voluptuous). Why, Durham asks, can't girls' sexuality be about their own pleasure? And why must teenage girls, in particular, live in fear of slipping over the delicate line "between acceptable hotness and unacceptable sluttiness"? Girls should be allowed to say no to virginity pledges and to "Girls Gone Wild," Durham argues. But she does not develop a clear definition of healthy sexuality, beyond describing it as "inclusive, diverse, and affirming" and unyoked from commerce.

Occasionally, Durham goes too far in marshalling her evidence. She blames the Lolita effect for the murders of women in Basra who were wearing makeup and displaying other "unIslamic behavior." And her reluctance to sound like a censor keeps her from even suggesting that parents limit their children's exposure to pop culture; absent from The Lolita Effect is any notion that girls might spend some time reading good books or jumping rope or playing ball.

Still, I accept Durham's premise that no one is immune from the media's influence, and her book offers dozens of helpful, specific ideas for rendering it less potent. Durham calls (rather optimistically, given the economic and political climate) for media-literacy education in the K-12 curriculum. She writes wisely that there's no point in trying to force girls to reject the Lolita effect outright. But we can raise questions and present different interpretations of the images that surround us.

Elementary schoolgirls, for example, might be asked, Why do you think the girl in this picture is wearing hardly any clothing? Older girls might consider how words and images work together to convey messages. If Cosmopolitan were namedSleazy or Trashy, would we read its cover image differently? We can help children see that the fashion, beauty and fitness industries -- along with the mass media that need their ads -- depend on purveying titillating, unrealistic pictures of what it means to be "hot."

As my daughter hurtles toward adolescence, I am grateful for such strategies. It's good to know I can do something more useful than shout "You'll wear that out of the house over my dead body!"

-- Jennifer Ruark is an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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