Sexualizing Tweens for Profit: A Q&A with Gigi Durham

T. M. Lindsey

Journalism professor Gigi Durham talks to T.M. Lindsey about the media messages hitting teen girls, teen sexuality, and "Grand Theft Auto."

With the recent fall of pop sex symbol Britney Spears and the emergence of the newly sexualized
teen idol Miley Cyrus, aka Hannah Montana, University of Iowa journalism professor Gigi
Durham couldn’t have timed the publication of her new book any better.

Durham’s book, "The Lolita Effect,"
examines the motives behind the media’s sexualization of tween girls
and how they are exploiting young girls for profit. For example, at
Abercrombie & Fitch, little girls were sold thong underwear tagged
with the phrases "eye candy" and "wink wink." In Britain, preschoolers
could learn to strip with their very own Peekaboo Pole-Dancing Kits —
complete with kiddie garter belts and play money.

Durham advocates healthy and progressive concepts of girls’ sexuality,
but criticizes the media for its sexual representations. Studies by the
Kaiser Family Foundation and other research organizations show that
sexual content aimed at children has increased steadily since the
1990s, Durham said. Times were prosperous, Britney Spears emerged as
the sexy schoolgirl on MTV, and tweens had plenty of disposable income
— a perfect alignment for marketers trying to expand into a new
demographic. By 2007, 8- to 12-year-olds’ consumer spending was $170
billion worldwide, according to the market research firm Euromonitor.

Interview with Gigi Durham, author of "The Lolita Effect":

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Iowa Independent: I assume the book’s title is
alluding to Nabokov’s "Lolita." Given the predatory relationship that
evolves between the protagonist and the nymphet, Lolita, in the book,
why did you title your book, "The Lolita Effect"?

Durham: Yes, the book is an allusion to Nabokov’s
"Lolita," which is written from the predator’s point of view, and he
sees Lolita as the one who is bringing it on. All predators do that, so
all of the abusiveness in the novel and the empathy for Lolita is lost
in the way we now talk about girls. In that sense, Lolita is a tragic
figure. That’s why I’m using that title, because we all think we know
what it means. To me Lolita represents an effect of our culture and our
media that positions girls in that way. Of course girls are
transitioning into adulthood and are interested in sex, but what
12-year-old girl would initiate or knowingly enter into those kind of
relationships? You can’t pin it on the kid.

Iowa Independent: So does your book look at the other end of the sexualization and marketing of tween girls and examine the role of men?

Durham: It looks at all aspects regarding the
marketing of this type of sexuality and the narrow, restrictive form of
sexuality that’s commercially driven to young girls. But it also looks
at the impacts, such as the rise in child-sex trafficking and child
pornography and how this is being legitimated by the mainstream media
and the impact on girls who are not learning about sex in healthy,
progressive natural, normal ways. They are not being given this safe
transition into adulthood, where they have good information about
sexuality and they can make good choices themselves.

They are not getting good information from the media, and they are not
getting this information from anywhere else either, because we are so
skittish about dealing with these issues. As a result, we have really
high rates of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world, twice that of
the U.K. and eight times that of Japan. Moreover, one in four girls in
this country has had a sexually transmitted disease (STD). We are not
doing it right; we are not giving these girls what they need.

Iowa Independent: On the flip side, do you think marketers are targeting adult males and their desires or fantasies about the Lolita persona?

Durham: I totally do think so. Because not only are
they marketing to children, but at the same time there is this other
effect where adults are exposed to these same kinds of images, in
particular adult men, subsequently giving these men the implicit idea
that these young girls are sexual objects — which I think is really
problematic. The effect is an implicit or tacit support of those ideas.

Iowa Independent: Putting this in a recent context,
what are your thoughts about the explicit photographs of 15-year-old
Miley Cyrus in the latest issue of "Vanity Fair"?

Durham: For me, the very fact that this generated so
much public controversy shows that this is a really important issue. In
a way I was glad. This points to how we tend to polarize girls’
sexuality in our society. There’s no middle ground, we either repress
girls’ sexuality or we exploit it for profit. The big outrage that this
girl is a pure, innocent and chaste girl is a bit ridiculous. At the
same time she is very young, so I don’t think it is OK that her body is
on display for this voyeuristic gaze for commercial profit. The issue
is more complex than the way it has been presented; it’s not an
either-or issue.

Iowa Independent: Do you think marketers are
consciously branding female innocence and purity with the intent of
eventually using this branding to exploit the sexualization aspect of
their marketing strategy?

Durham: It almost does seem that way, doesn’t it?
Britney Spears took this same route. She started out a Mouseketeer on
the "New Mickey Mouse Club" and then she became a sex symbol. They
start out innocent, then overnight they become sex symbols and there is
no transition, which is not good for girls, who need an extended time
to understand and cope with their own sexuality as it develops. In a
way, it’s a social trauma.

Iowa Independent: What role do these girls’ parents
play in this process, especially those who allow their daughters to be
exploited by the media, especially when it turns out they have no
control over how they are exploited, whether it be a parent, producer
or media conglomerate?

Durham: I thought it was really clear in the Miley
Cyrus case that there was a group of adults that were using her body
for their own purposes. There were adults there including her father,
Billy Ray Cyrus, photographer Annie Leibovitz and her handlers, who were
making her decision for her. It came out later that Miley was ashamed
and embarrassed about it, and if this is true, then it indicates that
she didn’t perceive she had any control in the situation. We want girls
to make intentional, good decisions about themselves and their sexual
development.

So I do think parents are important, and this is one of the reasons I
wrote the book. I want parents to have a tool for coping with this, for
their kids are being assaulted by media images from such an early age.
The book provides some good strategies for kids and parents on how to
talk about sexuality without it feeling like such a difficult thing to
talk about.

Iowa Independent: We can keep criticizing the media
for helping perpetuate this problem through mass marketing and
consumerism, but how do we get them to change their behaviors? How can
we address the demand-side –the boy’s/men’s role in — of the equation?

Durham: Boys are getting the same messages from the
media, especially what defines masculinity and femininity, so we need
to have more co-ed discussions that involve teachers, parents and
counselors helping facilitate a healthy discussion about sexuality.

A lot of boys are very thoughtful and see girls as more than eye candy,
so it’s important to bring them into the discussion as well.

And then there is the push back against the marketers. Parents need to
continue to put pressure on marketers and hold them responsible for
what they are selling. There have been a number of products that have
been removed from the shelves because of these efforts.

Iowa Independent: What about recent video games like
"Grand Theft Auto" that are not only violent but that treat women as
sex objects while simultaneously degrading them, or as is the case in
"Grand Theft Auto," you can kill them after having sex with them?

Durham: Not only are these games incredibly violent,
but all the women in these games are sex workers. They are all
strippers or prostitutes. The games are rated "M" and are intended for
adult audiences but of course that never matters, because 13- and
14-year-old boys are the ones that tend to play these kinds of games.
Again, I think boys need more media literacy and education and need to
hear adults they respect being critical of these issues, then they will
begin to understand why our value system doesn’t appreciate those
representations.

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