On liberal media analysis of “The Sexualization of Young Girls”
Video from Sociological Images.
We have seen before that liberal media analysis consistently falls short of making meaningful political connections, or naming and explaining the foundations and mechanisms of male power. The point of liberal and even liberal feminist media criticism seems to be to merely point out various “inequalities” or perceived positional slights and to conclude that these inequalities are undesirable on their face — for example, pointing out that young girls are sexualized more than are young boys suggests that the statistical difference is significant without explaining why that is so, or how or even whether it is of political relevance to women and feminists.
What we have here is interesting, because the video itself does not even claim to be an examination of the sexualization of young girls in the media — the title of the project is “Media Sexualization of Children.” The only — and I do mean only — political analysis we get is the fact of Lisa Wade’s embedding of the video on Sociological Images, in a post called “On the Sexualization of Young Girls“. The fact that Lisa Wade thought it was relevant (somehow) to Sociology — and to specifically girls — is the extent of the political analysis of what is in reality an 11-minute video compiling and describing lots and lots of data. It’s interesting — and simultaneously very, very boring — because this is commonly what passes for media criticism in the liberal media, and it can be difficult to recognize it for what it is when we see it. The “analysis” and “interpretation” of the data start and end with graphing it, and noting correlations, and yet there exists a bizarre and unreasonable tendency to “read” this material as being meaningful political commentary, when it’s not.
In reality, the effect of these liberal media projects is thought-termination — we think we’ve done the work, but we haven’t — and the patriarchal intent and effect of both the patriarchal media and the policies and practices that produce sex-based statistical difference remain unexamined and obscured. In the case of the obvious sexualization of young girls in media images, the patriarchal intent and effect is of particular relevance to feminists because the pornification of girl children — and the infantilization of adult women — clearly and demonstrably support male power.
Within the video is a substantial compilation of evidence that young girls are indeed “sexualized” in popular culture — where “sexualized” is conflated with heterosexualized and pornified. This conflation instantly and totally shuts down any possibility of an examination of PIV and penis-centered sex, including the political significance of subjecting very young girls to male-centric sexualization.
Indeed, the vidder fails to differentiate at all between the sexualization of girl children and the “degrading sexual lyrics” and “objectifying images of women” generally (at 5:10). This is a mistake, because the age of the female-bodied person is relevant — the pornification of girl children serves a specific patriarchal purpose, because it evokes and then normalizes and invisibilizes the patriarchal policy and practice of boys and men raping very young girls. The true correlate of “sexualizing” girl children is not the sexualization of adult women, but rather, should be analyzed as correlating to the infantilization of adult women, because both presentations are evocative of the rape of very young girls by boys and men. There is nothing “sexual” about it at all, rather, the rape of girl-children serves a specific patriarchal purpose that demonstrably supports male power at women’s expense:
In real life, and as mirrored in media images, very young girls are sexualized and mature women are made to resemble sexualized girls. No girl is too young to be penetrated by men; older women who are both sexually experienced and of full mental and legal capacity to consent to intercourse are relatively unappealing, and can be made more appealing if their apparent life-experience and capacity to consent are removed by making them look like children. Both presentations are evocative of the rape of female children by boys and men.
Pornifying girl children/infantilizing adult women — and raping very young girls — supports male power. Raping girl children is a powerful grooming technique, whereby men condition young, inexperienced girls to accept penis-centered sex and penetration under all circumstances and regardless of context, and to expect physical pain from it, before they are old or experienced enough to know what is “sexual” (ie. sexually pleasurable) for them. And raped girl-children are known to grow up to be “promiscuous” adults, often running away from home only to be recruited into human trafficking and rape-slavery, and often working in prostitution and porn. A permanent class of previously abused women for whom sexual abuse and pain, including painful intercourse, has been normalized and is expected, benefits men, who can “purchase” economically coerced women on whom to practice abusive sex, and who benefit from women’s “promiscuous” unpaid male-centric sexuality. See also Normalize porn/prostitution; Normalize abuse/neglect; Fetishize female vulnerability; PIV-centric narrative; Rape and rape culture.
The vidder then states unequivocally that “the problem is that children (sic) are not as equipped to differentiate between fantasy and reality as adults, since they have far less life experience. In fact, young children (sic) tend to believe that television provides an accurate picture of the real world.” (at 7:23). Really? That is the problem with the sexualization of young girls in the media — it causes both boys and girls to think that females of all ages are “sexualized” in the media and in real life? Why, because that’s clearly false? I don’t think so.
A radical feminist analysis would reveal that the problem of sexualizing very young girls in the media is that it is a critical and effective “gear” of the patriarchal propaganda machine — that the sheer pervasiveness of these images normalizes and invisiblizes the patriarchal policy and practice of raping very young girls in real life, and that this is intentional.
Then, we are given some academic speak about “Cultivation Theory” which postulates that “people who spend more time living in the world of television are more likely to see the real world in terms of the images, values, portrayals and opinions that emerge through the lens of television. In other words, you are bombarded by the same image or viewpoint so much that you begin to believe it’s true. For example, after watching a lot of action movies, you might think that gun violence is cool, even if you are morally opposed to it in real life.” (at 7:46) She goes on to say that “although many people might scoff at the idea that TV brainwashes us, there are plenty of scientific studies to prove that it affects our thoughts and behavior. A study was done to assess the influence of exposure to sexual content in TV, movies, music and magazines popular with kids (sic) ages 12-14. They found that the kids (sic) who consumed the greatest amount of sexual media content in early adolescence were more than twice as likely than kids (sic) with less sexual media exposure to initiate sex by the time they were 16.” (at 8:16)
The video does seem to hint at “underage sex” being “normalized” and we are invited to take that to mean that girls and boys both think it’s “normal” to have intercourse with each other, so they do it — but that’s not a political analysis of the data. It’s just the data, calculated — the verbal depiction of what the raw data looks like when it’s added up and graphed. In this case, the data-analysis reveals that there is a positive correlation between 12-14 year olds’ consumption of sexual content and early initiation of intercourse.
But so what? Unless we are prepared to make a value judgement at this point, the correlation is meaningless — it is literally without meaning or political meaning, and is value-neutral. It just sits there, illustrating the world of difference between political analysis and correlating the graphic representation of data.
And then, of course, we are confronted with this: “Still not convinced that TV has a big effect on us? Neither did anthropologist Ann Becker. To try and prove it, she did a study in Fiji, a place completely cut off from television. Eating disorders were unknown there in 1995, and being on the heavy side was considered attractive. In the experiment, Fijians watched a few hours of television per week. After less than three years, eating disorders were rampant. By 1998, 11% of Fijian women were using self-induced vomiting, 29% were at risk for an eating disorder, 69% were dieting to lose weight, and 74% felt too fat. A few years of limited TV exposure changed and entire culture’s thought patterns, behavior, and perceptions of beauty.” (at 8:45)*
A radical feminist observer would recognize that handmaiden of the patriarchy Ann Becker apparently destroyed the bodies, minds and sexualities of Fijian women, in order to make a point.
From this, we might also conclude, based on what could arguably be considered tainted, unethically-obtained data based on human experiments involving politicized torture, that even limited, minimal exposure to patriarchal media, in this case, television, has the demonstrated effect of destroying specifically girls and women — it is not reported whether there were any negative effects on Fijian men — and that this is known and documented. The fact that patriarchal media continues on in spite of that, demonstrates intent — destroying women is the point.
If destroying females wasn’t the intended outcome, whomever is in charge of these things would stop doing it.
So what conclusions are ultimately drawn from this data, if any, in this liberal media critique? In the end, the vidder states with conviction that the “effects of sexualization” are as follows: poor body image; low self-esteem and depression; eating disorders; impaired concentration; risky sexual behavior; and unsatisfying relationships. (at 9:32)
Nothing about male power, patriarchy, or the patriarchal intent and effect of voluminous, pervasive media images used as a deliberate political tool to undermine women and support male power at women’s expense. Clearly, when it comes to political analysis of the patriarchal media, while liberal and liberal feminist sources might be useful in providing the data, radical feminists must perform the meaningful analysis ourselves.
*ETA: See the comments for further discussion of — and a link to — the Fiji study. The plot thickens. –Eds. 6/16/12