Thursday, February 22, 2007

Sexualization of Girls in the Media

The American Psychological Association (APA) released a new report earlier this week about the on-going sexualization of young girls in advertising, merchandising and the media. In a press release on the reports' findings, Dr. Eileen L. Zurbriggen, a representative of the APA Task Force on Sexualization, states:
“The consequences of the sexualization of girls in media today are very real and are likely to be a negative influence on girls’ healthy development. We have ample evidence to conclude that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development.”

The Task Force has defined sexualization "as occurring when a person’s value comes only from her/his sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified, e.g., made into a thing for another’s sexual use." Their study included an extensive review of published articles examining the contents and effects of a variety of media and marketing, as well as family and peer influence. As with other APA literature reviews into media effects, the report does not argue causality, but does conclude that a link (correlation) is likely and therefore supports reduced exposure and increased parental intervention (such as media education).

I particularly like the way the APA has included products and marketing discourse in its review, as seen in this article about inappropriately sexy children's toys (such as Bratz dolls). They seem to be approaching the issue in a comprehensive way, demonstrating how a coherent and near-ubiquitous message of sexualization can be found across the gamut of children's (and particularly girls') culture--from toys and clothing, to media and public discourse, to peer groups and how the issues are addressed at home. It's much more convincing than a mere media effects model (which sometimes tries to isolate influence), primarily because it tries to take into account the way in which we experience the media as (more or less) integrated elements of our particular cultural environment...instead of as a series of somewhat distinct relationships.

Anyway, there seems to be a lot going on around this topic these days, with a high profile lawsuit in Australia involving a left-wing think tank's claims that retailer David Jones sexually exploits children in its ads. This will be the first time the issue of sexualization in advertising has been considered by a court, so it will be interesting to see how it all turns out. There are also a number of books coming out, both academic and general interest, including one co-authored by Jean Kilbourne and Diane Levin (planned title: So Sexy, So Soon), as well as one by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown entitled Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing our daughters from marketers' schemes (available now). For a great look at the history of eroticization and sexualization of young girls in Western popular culture, I recommend Valerie Walkerdine's wonderfully provocative book Daddy's Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture.

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