Friday, October 9, 2009

The Lolita Effect

We’ve all seen it, right? Little girls in glittery makeup, pushup bras, and mini skirts. It’s shocking, confusing. When was the last time you stepped inside a toy store? Half of the dolls marketed to girls look like child prostitutes. Throw “popular” music into the mix, and things really start getting confusing (click here to read the lyrics to Spears’ new song about a threesome).

In her book , The Lolita Effect, Gigi Durham points a finger at turbo-consumerism. (Read an article about the book here) Marketers are profiting from gendered behavior still socially entrenched, despite the many accomplishments of feminism. Many of us, myself included, are part of the problem: we aid in the creation of perfect, little consumers. Durham points out:

People are very quick to praise girls especially for their looks, ‘Oh, how pretty you are/ great dress/ I love your hair today’, those kinds of things. And girls don’t get complimented on their achievements [in the same way that boys do] or at least it’s much more infrequent.”

By complimenting on the physical, what we teach little girls is that it is more important to be pretty than anything else. Pretty soon turns into attractive. With adolescents wielding more and more power over their parents’ pocketbooks, marketers are sinking their claws into younger and younger women.

It is hugely profitable for women to spend huge amounts of money chasing an unachievable beauty standard under the guise of empowerment because it is just that — unachievable — and so the beast is never sated.

What Durham advocates in her book, which she describes as a feminist manifesto, is to find a way to think about sex separately from money and with young girls perpetually cast in the man-pleasing role. “Can we move to a place where we can consider sexuality as a human impulse that’s about ethical relationships between people and not just something that generates profit?

Sounds simple, right? But how do we really change this media/consumer force, which is already so strong? A few weeks ago, I listened to a program on individuals affecting widespread change, and heard about Geoffery Canada and his plan to combat urban poverty in Harlem. Canada started “Baby College, a free nine-week parenting program that encourages parents to choose alternatives to corporal punishment and to read and talk more with their children. One of Canada’s ideas, which is so basic, yet almost entirely overlooked, is that you cannot affect any real change from within the same system that has been maintaining the status quo. Canada is creating an entirely new system. The parents attending Baby College might not ever escape poverty, but they can change the pattern of poverty by making sure their children develop the cognitive and non-cognitive skills necessary to survive in a high-tech service-driven world. The bottom line being: Most change will come from how we shape the development of children; their adult lives, and their children’s lives can be different.

While inspiring, Canada’s project and philosophy is also what makes the Lolita effect so terrifying. If we don’t start to counter this early sexualization of children immediately by helping little girls (and boys) tackle the messages the media is feeding them, the damaging effects could last a very, very long time.

4 comments:

Anne Kildare said...

Last week, I bought an US Weekly for the plane, and I was horrified by an feature entitled, "Are They Too Young?" The page showed celebrity-toddlers getting manicures, etc. and the audience got to weigh in on whether or not it was appropriate. Here are the results...

Julia Roberts's 4-year-old daughter got a manicure -- 52% of readers approved.

Marc Anthony's 19-month-old got her ears pierced -- 60% of readers disapproved.

Denise Richards's 4-year-old daughter wore a bikini -- 85% of readers disapproved.

Tom Cruise's 3-year-old daughter wore high heels (made for toddlers) -- 76% approved!

I wonder if you can buy high heels for toddlers in Canada?

Naomi said...

When I was growing up, Barbie was banned from the house. I could have She-ra (powerful woman icon?), My Little Ponies and Rainbow Brite, but the unattainably thin yet curvy doll was relegated to Grandma's house. Thus I still played with one of the most popular toys of our time, but was taught that her beauty was harmful in some manner, and that I should not strive to be like her under any circumstances. I believe that this was part of my parents' plan to keep me with a healthy body image, which I kept for a surprising number of years. It is surprising because we are surrounded by advertisements and TV show and movie stars that tell us, both outright and subliminally, how we should look and that thin is in. Controls on television input helped keep me insulated against this media too. I believe it takes a combination of talking to children to teach them to disregard media input in their lives and banning harmful objects like the toys you describe and television shows that also encourage girls to be self-conscious and overly sexualized at early ages to really combat the phenomenon. And it sounds like once again, we could take a page from Canada in raising healthy and intelligent children, children that will question media images as the unhealthy models they are.

Anon5 said...

As I was reading your post one of the first things that came to mind was an episode of Bill O'Reilly I remember from a few years ago. In the episode, Billo first railed against Britney Spears and the message she sends to young girls, and then in a later segment, he criticized government intervention in the free market.

I was struck by the disconnect. I think that one of the reasons Britney Spears and other pop stars dress and act they way they do is their desire for tabloid notoriety, which in turn facilitates the selling of more products. Bill O'Reilly thinks regulating pop stars (thereby interfering with a profitable market) is necessary for protecting the moral sanctity of our youth. Why then is any movement away from the free market simply out of the question when it comes to forms of wealth redistribution, such as welfare, higher taxes on the rich, or socialized medicine?

I believe the answer is that in most respects, capitalism is a religion in the United States. In spite of the fact that people are very complex organisms who desire more than just the accumulation of wealth, the prevailing ideology in this country is that the rich deserve what they have the poor just need to work harder in order to advance. Until capitalism loses its stranglehold, I don't think there will be much of an effort to reign in the media and their perpetuation of the Lolita Effect.

samina hitch said...

This post made me think of two things:

(1) My best friend is a nanny in Los Angeles, and often shares the most shameful stories of parents who inexplicably project their own body image issues onto their children-- and I still recall her calling me one day to report that a woman at the West Hollywood playground was bragging to her friends that she had brought her daughter to the salon with her to "finally" have her daughter's unibrow plucked away. Her daughter was TWO years old.

(2) I think part of this Lolita epidemic is the fact that the children's stories and fairy tales in popular media have zero substance, and girls are spoon-fed the idea that being a "pretty" fair-maiden is the most desirable thing in the universe. I still remember the painful days of having to neutralize the confusion of Disney Princesses to my daughter. She was horrified that the Princesses would "have to be with" the Princes who the Princesses often "didn't even know" (these are her own words, she's a smart girl). And yes, Prince Charming often pops out of the bushes and taps the unsuspecting Princess on the shoulder, or gallops in on a horse and rescues her, or makes eye contact with a beautiful princess and *must* find her and marry her -- but kids are given little to no explanation as to why on earth this is acceptable or desirable.

I started to combat the confusion early on by telling my daughter that being pretty doesn't make you a "beautiful princess." And girls don't marry strange boys without explanation -- there's more to it than that. I had to take the responsibility to teach her that she has to be a caring, respectful person and earn the trust and friendship of others. And my husband and I make a point to mirror back to her when she does things that make others feel loved and accepted (such as being a good listener, or expressing her feelings and being mindful of others) – much more often than we simply compliment her looks. When we do compliment how she looks, it is often because she thoughtfully chose her own outfit and designed her own hair – and we are complimenting her creativity instead of her mere appearances.

In our home, we’ve successfully redefined “beautiful” to include “warm,” “respectful” and “thoughtful” as a means to destroy the Disney Princess effect. It is tiring though. Parenting becomes somewhat of a logistical nightmare when you have to deconstruct and tear down a Princess that your child idolizes, and somehow create substance out of nothing (my favorite being, "well, Belle reads lots of books. That's awesome. Yay for books."). In short, as a mother who is constantly exasperated by the shallow, superficial characters presented to young girls, I second your post – and hope that more people learn about the importance of early education and take action against Princesses who are just “pretty.”