“[This] disrespectful, degrading, contemptuous treatment of women” has become “so pervasive and so mainstream that it has just about lost its ability to shock.”—Bob Herbert
Ever tried to walk a tight-rope? It’s probably something like growing up as a girl today. On the one hand, you’re being bombarded with images of the sexy, fun and playful girl you outta be; but, on the other hand, you’re very likely to be called a few one-syllable words for your efforts.
Try to keep your balance girls; it’s windy out there.
In order to write this commentary, I’m going to have to admit to something I’d rather keep on the down-low: I watched almost every episode of Girlicious, a reality TV show about forming a group of younger Pussy Cat Dolls. I tuned in with my 12-year-old sister, Bebe, all the while telling myself that I was going to offer critical insight . . . or some such. Though I knew the show would be 100% undiluted sludge, there I was, frequently raising eyebrows yet tuning in faithfully. From this rather tasteless experience, I have two important images to juxtapose.
First, imagine one of the first Girlicious music videos (or watch it, if you must) which is appropriately titled “Stupid Shit”. In it, the four freshly-selected members (aged 18 to 20) walk past bright red bricks and metal fences, wearing Britney-esque school-girl uniforms and sly smirks on their faces. What are they singing about? Well, here are a few lyrics to lay it bare:
“I’m vicious, so delicious, all the boys want to eat. Go ahead and hate the baby, healthy but sweet. I spin the bottle so tomorrow there ain’t no memory. Are your ready? Here we go […] I’ll be your after party. “
Alright, you get the gist, yaddy-yaddy-yadda underage drinking and promiscuous sex with “jail-bait”. In case you don’t get that last bit, the four girls (followed by a crowd of dozens more in uniform) eventually strip off all their clothes and dance around in ironically-innocent white cotton bras and panties (a-la Hollywood virgin). Then—in case you still don’t get it—the video ends with a sleep-over in which the girls are pillow fighting in their underwear. The room looks disturbingly similar to my little sister’s, right down to the bright pink decor.
If you’re not at all surprised, trust me, I know this depiction of girls is old news. After all, Girlicious is supposed to be about being sexy and fun. Liberation in the 21st century is so empowering…and flashy! It saddens me, but it doesn’t shock me.
What does shock me, however, is the episode about stage presence. The contenders are told that they will be performing in front of their harshest judges: their fans. The camera then pans over an audience of girls that appear as young as eight-years-old. Would I be impeccably prudish if I said I find this, well, disgustingly young? The producers hand-selected these children, labelled them the audience, and later produced a premier girlicious video that is borderline pornographic.
As Lianne George writes, “The eroticization of girlhood […] has been seeping ever more into the larger culture. Now it is one of our dominant aesthetics. In a Lolita-tinged culture, whether the sell is “my body is underdeveloped, but I am precocious” or “my brain is underdeveloped, but I am stacked,” the message is the same: exploit me […] The popular marketing spin is that it is kids who are “getting older younger”, a theory called age compression, brought on by the fact that young people have never had access to so much information. But what we’re really seeing is marketers exploiting the natural tendency of young girls to want to emulate older girls, who appear to them to have more independence and social prestige.”
I looked at my sister and wonder which tools of critical thinking she has in her arsenal. If her sex education is anything like mine was, I’d say she has next to none. I wonder how many of these images it would take to poison her psyche. Still, in her own words, the Stupid Shit video was “too much.” I breathed a sigh of relief. “Ok,” I thought, “Bebe realizes that this is ridiculous.” The next day, however, as I heard the song blasting from behind her locked door, my heart sank.
Last month, I played with the 6-year-old flower girl before my cousin’s wedding. She clung to my hand the entire time, looking up at me with eyes full of admiration. “Let’s play popular girls!” she chirped, pulling the bottom of her t-shirt up and tucking it into its collar—creating an instant belly top. I laughed (awkwardly) and hardly knew how to react.
In a world where retailers are actually making padded bralettes and mini mini-skirts, I wonder when it will be a suitable time for a little indignation. Even I—despite my arsenal of critical theories to protect my self-respect—found myself feeling quite unappealing after any given episode of Girlicious. After all that the great women before us have fought for, are we really prepared to just sit there, alongside our little sisters, and look pretty?
I find myself, now a legitimate “older girl”, not wanting to be a moral crusader. I remember watching things I was told not to watch. Today, I am well-versed in the double-standards that enshroud legitimate female sexuality, but when I see a baby-faced preteen wearing lumpy mascara, I remember what it’s like to be in her shoes. It’s natural for girls to be curious about their budding sexuality, and I don’t think the solution is to revert to strict sexual mores. As Betty Rollins once said, “Scratch most feminists and underneath the surface there is a woman who longs to be a sex object; the difference is that’s not all she wants to be.”
I agree with the spirit of what Rollins is saying, but the word “object” sticks out as the word we need to replace. To borrow from the philosophy of Dr. Polly Young-Eisendrath, women will struggle as long as their primary driving force is the desire to wanted. Instead we must center ourselves as the subjects of our own sexualities and refuse to trap ourselves in images. Without as many societal examples of the latter, the path to self-determined sexuality is definitely the road less taken…but, I believe, it could make all the difference.
A earlier version of this article was published in MacMedia Magazine in October 2008