The news that a gorgeous little seven-year-old girl, Julia Lira, is to lead the Viradouro samba parade in Rio de Janeiro seems to have tipped the scales of public opinion. Known for its sexually charged atmosphere, the Carnival is really no place for a child. Yet the father defends his right to give his daughter permission to partake, enjoying the publicity and instant global celebrity the family have achieved by such a decision. Meanwhile those who express reservations or protest are spoken of as wowsers.
The decision to include Julia Lira, despite cultural differences and context, is a symptom of what’s happening with increasing regularity in our world: the sexualisation and exploitation of kids. If it’s not for profit, then it’s with an eye to fame – for the parents as well.
Think about Ballon Boy and the lengths to which those parents went to get their faces on TV. It may have backfired, but they didn’t hesitate to use their children to achieve an end. Similarly, those awful tot and tween pageants that are particularly popular in the USA are little more than an exercise in vicariousness on behalf of the parents (usually mums) who indulge in dreadful competitiveness, dressing their daughters like mini-Lolitas and exposing them to a world that they’re too young to be involved in. Now we have a four year old boy, Kayim-Ali Jaffer appearing on Britain’s Got Talent with a Michael Jackson routine and bringing the crowd to its feet. When is it going to end? In-utero talent shows?
It would be so easy, too easy to blame the parents. But there’s a range of social factors that feed into this push to make kids sexy, display their talents, and have them participate in what was once exclusively adult culture. Social factors which mean these types of scenarios will keep recurring.
From padded bras and G-strings for four and five year olds, to Lolitaesque dolls and fashions, to gyrating, scantily clad music idols ala Lady GaGa, sex permeates children’s culture. Caught in this cycle of must-have or must-keep-up parents and kids are buying into the notion that they must look a particular way and own specific things to ‘fit in’ with peer groups.
Wander into your average department store and you’re likely to find miniature versions of adult couture, replete with plunging necklines, diaphanous fabrics, sparkles, spangles and sexiness for kids to don. There are even high heels for tots, bling to drape around their cherubic necks and the piece de resistance, make-up, particularly lip gloss, to smear across those, as yet, naturally pouting lips. There’s T-Shirts with slogans plastered all over them that announce a way of viewing the owner “Tit Man’; ‘Drama Queen’, ‘Spoiled., just to name a few. Not only are they aimed at under eights, they’re also a mixture of sexual inappropriateness and narcissism. Flaws are now turned into positive traits in a society that preaches the right of the individual. Care about ME and I’m ‘Special’ permeate our culture and are, sadly, notions that are instilled in even very young children.
Phillip Adams called this push to commodify chldhood through sex, “Corporate Paedophilia”: that is, when marketeers deliberately set out to exploit a child’s desire to grow up fast by targeting them with images, products and ideas about sex and adulthood – long before their cognitively ready.
An Australia Institute report that came out in 2007 used Adams’ term as its title. Focussing (unfortunately) on a fairly benign David Jones catalogue to discuss the sexualisation of kids, it prompted outrage. There was also a smear campaign directed at the authors. Accused of ‘reading too much into things’ and for fuelling a moral panic, there was an effort to dismiss the concerns raised.
That is, until thousands of parents and other citizens lodged their disquiet. From this, it seems, a grass roots movement began to swell, determined to call the corporations and advertisers to account and in doing so, protect childhood.
Young Media Australia, a terrific organisation became very active.
Young Media Australia, (you can get to YMA from KF2BK)
There’s also Melinda Tankard Reist, and many others, who added their voices to the growing throng.
The people behind this aren’t ‘prudes’ nor are they adults wishing to live in an Arcadian past, where girls were made of sugar and spice and poor boys from doggy and creepy-crawly remnants. On the contrary, these are professionals, psychologists, psychiatrists (see also the American Psychological Association’s Report on the Sexualisation of Girls), parents, grandparents, teachers and even young people who are alarmed by the proliferation of sexual imagery and ideas being used to promote and celebrate kinderculture. It doesn’t take Einstein Barbie to understand that not only are their complaints justified, but they may even be far-sighted.
And now, after the wishy-washy Senate Inquiry into the Sexualisation of Children in the media last year, which really failed to deliver, a private member’s bill suggesting a new code of conduct for the media industry may be introduced.
I don’t really like legislation. Being in education, I tend to believe in the power of knowledge to produce change. It may be slow, but it works. It’s also life-long. The earlier it’s instilled and in an age-appropriate way, the better. But it just shows how helpless many adults feel against this onslaught in media and popular culture and are keen to protect their kids and want to enlist official help.
Sometime media commentator, Jane Caro, has criticised the proposed bill. In her comments she does what a few of those trying to silence rather than address concerns do – that is reflect on her own childhood experiences as an example. Now, I don’t know about Jane, but I do think that comparing a childhood of 40 odd years ago to those kids experience today is a bit like comparing a scooter to a spaceship.
She says: “Trying to hold girls back from the natural desire to put on mum’s lipstick, read big sister’s magazines, play with Barbie – who after all looks like a grown woman – I can’t see how that’s going to have any more detrimental effect than [it did] on me and my generation back in the ’50s and ’60s.”
Firstly, no-one that I know is trying to hold their kids back from doing these wonderful things. Secondly, Jane hasn’t read the research, has she? The research that shows a rise in depression, sexually transmitted diseases, body dysmorphia and self-esteem issues in young women and men. Issues that are starting at a younger and younger age (eg. girls as young as six presenting at hospitals with bulimia or expressing a wish to be prettier, thinner etc.) because of the rampant exposure to sexual (not sex itself) ideas and imagery. I think she needs to talk to Dr Michael Carr-Gregg or Dr Joe Tucci. Where she is right is in noting that kids do possess a natural desire to grow-up fast, to experiment with mum’s (or dad’s) clothes and make-up etc. Expressing yourself sexually is natural and normal and wonderful, even in very young children. What’s not right is to have it presented in a package that can be bought and exchanged and performed in public. And this is where the difference between Jane’s childhood and those experienced by kids today, lies.
Once upon a time, practicing being an adult was confined to the bedroom, house or family. Dress-ups, where kids paraded and played in mum and dad’s clothes, were an accepted and endorsed part of growing up. Nowadays, these dress-ups occur in public and very young kids are encouraged to try on a variety of adult identities for size.
Much of this is enshrined in cultural practice where kids are able to enter beauty pageants, idol competitions, and mimic their favourite celebrities at home, but also at school, the street and shopping malls, grabbing crotches, chests and buttocks and moaning, ‘don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?’ Kids are being catapulted into a world of innuendo and titillation long before they’re ready.
We don’t need reminders of petite JonBenet Ramsay, she of the ‘bedroom eyes’, to know there’s something deeply wrong about this exploitation of kids’ natural urge to want to accelerate their childhood. Hence the hue and cry about Julia Lira.
Bombarded with approximately 400,000 images a year, kids cannot escape nor easily unravel the implicit sexuality in advertising, films, TV, music, websites and magazines, that suggest that it’s not necessarily how you look (though that helps), it’s how you flaunt those looks that counts for currency in today’s world.
Barbie, and her nemesis, Bratz, aren’t just in the toy box anymore; their human counterparts are in the school yard, the TV, on the cover of magazines, lunchboxes, panties and singing songs. But while kids might demand the sexy ‘stuff’, ‘look’ and food, and savour the (temporary) results, earning kudos in the playground, it’s adults who have not only created this, but bought it as well: hook, line and sinker.
While adults are also susceptible to seductive messages, it’s their responsibility to become the filters as opposed to the facilitators. Just because the corporations tell us that in order to get ahead in this Microsoft eat Apple world, our kids need to conform to a particular version of childhood to fit in, doesn’t mean we have to literally buy it.
As Julie Gale suggests and Sweden and Quebec (who ban advertising to kids under 12 and 13 respectively) have demonstrated: we can refuse to buy the products and subsequently, the ideas embedded within them, allowing kids to be just that: kids.
Adults must protect very young kids from the notion that sex sells – products and the self. If they do, they’ll be given the time and space to create solid foundations and nurture kids’ imaginations and identities; ones that aren’t contingent upon sex, looks, wining a competition, getting their face on TV, or material possessions.
Believe me I am no wowser – just another voice of concern.