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The Sexualization of Young Girls

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The proliferation of sexualized images of and references to teens and women in the media has sent a strong message to young girls that sexualization is not only normal, it is socially acceptable.
Sexualized Teen Girls: Tinsel Town’s New Target
A Report from the Parents Television Council, December 15, 2010

It all began with Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel where a 12 year-old girl becomes sexually involved with a middle-aged man. Nabokov’s story was so repulsive to some that he had trouble getting it published. Now, of course, Lolita is regarded as one of the finest novels to be written in the 20th century and has inspired two films—a 1962 version directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring James Mason, and a 1997 adaptation directed by Adrian Lyne, starring Jeremy Irons. The Lolita in the story, however, comes to a tragic end, continually abused and dying in childbirth.

Nabokov’s novel was novel at the time. The sexualization of young girls was still taboo. In 1990, along came Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts as the prostitute, Vivian, who lands her Prince Charming, a rich financier played by Richard Gere. Oprah would do shows on prostitution, featuring young female runaways who hoped, like Vivian, to find that fairy tale ending. “It’s nothing like the fairytale,” one young girl sobbed. Indeed. In the 1990s, Joel Rifkin killed 17 prostitutes in New York before he was caught. Now, police are investigating the disappearance of two young women, prostitutes, who are feared dead.

Hollywood, however, continues to sell sex to young people. Shows aimed at a young audience show girls clad in scanty clothes, acting out in sexually provocative ways, and engaging in all manner of sexual activity. The female actresses playing these characters are beautiful, buff, popular, and successful. Get the message yet? If you haven’t, your daughter already has.

Although the Parents Television Council refrains from naming specific shows, there’s little doubt which programs the organization has in its crosshairs. PTC’s website features a video streaming scenes from Glee, Gossip Girls, and Vampire Diaries, to name three. The Glee clip shows two high school cheerleaders “hooking up” while a young man watches. Members of the Glee cast, who are all beyond high school age, raised a furor recently when they appeared in a GQ cover story in highly sexualized situations.

Needless to say, parents of both boys and girls are faced with a difficult task. Prohibit your child from watching Glee or Gossip Girls and she will most likely watch at a friend’s or access it on her computer when you’re not watching. PTC, of course, hopes that the report will start a dialogue and perhaps put pressure on the entertainment industry to edit out the sexual content in shows aimed at a young audience. Good luck with that.

So, it’s up to parents to act like parents. Here are some things parents can do:

Watch what they watch. Too many households have multiple TVs where parents watch one program, children another. Bring back TV night. Let your child select the show and watch with her. Don’t be heavy handed with the criticism, but make comments that she will think about later on. “I wonder why she thinks dressing like that is the only way to get the boy?”

Opt for DVDs rather than the TV. So many great films are aimed at young people and have positive messages. Any Harry Potter film, popular with young and old alike, will deliver powerful messages without a sexual undertone.

Restrict TV viewing. Even if your child has a TV in her room, you can pull the plug. You wouldn’t feed your child three meals a day made up entirely of sugary treats. Why let her watch hour upon hour of TV? Encourage her to pursue sports, hobbies, volunteer work—anything that will pull her away, for a time, from the TV.

Don’t forget your sons. Fathers set a good example! Show your sons that all women deserve to be treated with respect. Model that behavior with the women in your life to counteract what boys and young men see on TV.

Some cartoons are not for kids. Family Guy and American Dad, for example, often feature sexual scenes and other material not appropriate for young people.

Inject a dose of reality into reality TV. The teens from Jersey Shore have become a cultural phenomenon (even Barbara Walters put them on her list of the most fascinating people of 2010). What’s fascinating about these teens going on drunken binges and bragging about sexual exploits? This is one reality your kids can do without.

Don’t overlook messages from other media. What happens on TV often is covered on the Internet and in magazines. So be aware of what your child is looking at online and in print.

Continue the dialogue. Even when the TV is off, continue to talk. Even though your child is listening to what is said on TV, what you have to say will always have more impact.

Charlene Giannetti is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese of Boy Crazy! Keeping Your Daughters Feet on the Ground When Her Head Is in the Clouds.

To read the entire report from the Parents Television Council, go to the group’s website.

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