Combating The Sexualization of Girls…The Right Way

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Combating The Sexualization of Girls…The Right Way

Sarah Seltzer

Two movements this year have sought to combat the "sexualization of young girls."  But one of them is not like the other.

Earlier this month, the far-too censorship-happy Parents Television Council released a report highly critical of the sexualization of young girls on television.

Just this fall, a coalition of feminist groups had a huge summit called SPARK (“Sexualization protest: action, resistance, knowledge”) at which they gathered to protest the sexualization of young girls in pop culture, including television.

Both cite a groundbreaking American Psychological Association study about the damaging effects of girls’ exposure to highly sexualized images.

And yet one of these things is not like the other, despite their seeming similarity.

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The first anti-sexualization movement comes from the same folks who freak out about naughty words on our screens. They’re a “non-partisan” group that is essentially a front for right-wing pooh-poohing of pop culture.  Theirs is a finger-shaking type of movement to curb sex scenes featuring teens on TV. What kind of scenes do they disapprove of? The kind of scenes for which they helpfully offer us a montage to clue us in (I’m sure no one was titillated by putting that montage together) including the infamous Gossip Girl threesome and lots and lots of female-initiated vampire biting. The Daily News wrote a (rather critical) piece about the PTC’s latest findings:

Hollywood is obsessed with sexualizing teen girls, according to a study released Wednesday by the Parents Television Council.

The study, which looked at the top 25 shows on broadcast television among viewers age 12-17, found that underage female characters have a higher percentage of sexual scenes compared to adult characters. It also found that only 5% of underage female characters showed any dislike about a sexual situation.

To be fair, however, the group’s website does rely rigorously on the APA’s standards and findings, which are non-partisan and fairly accurate. While their movement against girls’ sexualization may be more in good faith than say, their movement against profanity, their willingness to demand the removal of anything edgy on our screens makes the PTC hard to trust.

Interestingly, as the Daily News noted, the study did not deign to discuss sexual scenes involving young men, nor did it really make a big fuss about degrees or realism of sexual activity shown on screen. So the tepid teen kisses on, say, ABC Family or the condom-using sex on realistic shows are given the same general category as the glamorous back-of-limo scenes on the CW.

None of these findings are shocking–in fact, they square with what we observe on TV. Most teen-oriented shows fall into the “soapy melodrama with teen characters” category (i.e. The Vampire Diaries) or reality show about teens (i.e. My Super Sweet Sixteen–but more often Sixteen and Pregnant.) There are no cop or spy or hospital-staff dramas with teen protagonists in them. Teens don’t work in offices. And high school shows tend to focus on the social aspect of school, not the debate team or Chem class. So yes, it stinks that teens on TV don’t get the focus on their intellectual or work lives that their adult peers do.

But does it follow that the teens who are on TV should not be seen as sexual at all? Teens in real life are sexual  beings, after all, and they make sexual choices every day.

This brings us to our second anti-sexualization movement, a movement whose origins and goals are entirely different. SPARK is a movement to celebrate girls for more than their sexuality and to aggressively combat product placement, advertising, and cultural messages aimed at tweens and preteens that directly sexualize them–like pole dancing for twelve-year olds and push up bras before training bras. This is a movement that also has beef with media portrayals of writhing, gyrating teen and twentysomething pop sensations–like the Glee stars’ racy GQ poses.

But the beef is not because they’re seen as sexual, because they’re playing into a version of sexuality that is catering to male fantasies. It’s about treating sexuality as something that comes from within, not a plastered-on image in high heels and short skirts.

Confused? It’s a tricky distinction. When it comes to young girls and sex in pop culture, we run up against the kind of nuanced fine lines that it can be very hard to sell to the general public. How many Americans understand the difference between being against the sexualization of women or girls and being anti-sexuality?

But that’s all the more reason it’s an important line to draw. At the SPARK summit, Jamia Wilson repeated the line “we are not anti-sex, we are not anti-sex” repeatedly during her rousing opening speech. Feminists against sexualization want women to be able to explore their sexuality without having to live up to impossible standards that lead to low self-esteem, eating disorders, and unhealthy sexual choices. And so they oppose the imposition of a male-oriented sexuality on women.

Therefore their issue isn’t just that teen girls on TV have sex or engage in sexual behavior like suggestive dancing or making out. Instead, their concern is that teen girls on TV are often reduced to sex objects or miniature versions of sexual stereotypes: temptresses, vixens, sluts. Girls having sex in long-lasting relationships or because they *gasp* want to? That’s okay, as long as they’re armed with the right information and a spectrum of choices and alternatives about how they can be sexy and still be themselves.

If you want to know why feminists are obsessed with shows like Friday Night Lights and the late, great My-So-Called Life, it’s because they show the reality of teen girls being obsessed with and learning about and experimenting with sex–as teen girls generally do–but only as part of a broader spectrum of their lives which includes classes, parents, sports, and friendship.

Sexuality vs. Sexualization. It’s a distinction we all need to practice making so we can continue the work that SPARK has begun.