Dr. Gigi Durham has a term for this. She calls it the Lolita Effect and now has a new book out by Overlook Press titled, The Lolita Effect, The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What we can Do About It. To understand what she means by the Lolita Effect, we need to dissect the original Lolita by Nabakov and compare it against the contemporary use of the term. Dr. Durham points out that todays usage of the term Lolita is to define a girl who is a walking taboo, an overly sexualized girl who is by legal definition too young for sex. Thus the term Lolita indicates a “deliberate sexual provocateur.” But the original Lolita was nothing like this. She was an innocent girl who was the powerless victim of her stepfather, who was an adult sexual predator. Quite a different meaning from what has become of the term. And so it is similar to the mainstream corporate media construct of sex and sexuality being pushed onto the mindsets of young girls. These images are out there to “serve their own market needs and profit motives, and they are powerfully alluring, especially to the young girls whose vulnerability they exploit…Rather than offering girls … thoughtful, open-minded, progressive, and ethical understandings about sexuality, our media and our culture have produced a gathering of ‘prostitots’ – hypersexualized girls whose cultural presence has become a matter of heated public controversy. This is the Lolita Effect.”
In her book, Dr. Durham criticizes the media for its sexual representations aimed at the young. She states that studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation and other research organizations show that sexual content aimed at children has increased steadily since the 1990s. Think about the rise of MTV, the popularity of Britney Spears and her sex kittenish look, tweens with plenty of disposable income and you can see how this group became a new consumer base for marketers. According to the market research firm Euromonitor, by 2007, 8 to 12 year olds’ consumer spending was $170 billion worldwide.
When asked why she thinks there is so much sexualized marketing towards young girls, Dr. Durham states that it is a growing problem fueled by marketer’s efforts to create cradle-to-grave consumers. She states that “A lot of very sexual products are being marketed to very young kids. I'm criticizing the unhealthy and damaging representations of girls' sexuality, and how the media present girls' sexuality in a way that's tied to their profit motives. The body ideals presented in the media are virtually impossible to attain, but girls don't always realize that, and they'll buy an awful lot of products to try to achieve those bodies. There's endless consumerism built around that."
In her book, she discusses five myths of sexuality perpetuated by mainstream media facing our girls:
1. If you’ve got it, flaunt it – skimpy clothes and the myth that “sexy” means to bare as much skin as they can.
2. Anatomy of a sex goddess – The perfect Barbie body.
3. Pretty babies – tarting up little girls to look sexy.
4. Violence is sexy – the rise of the slasher films and other gratuitous violence against women in media
5. What boys like – the media messages that bombard our girls is all about how to please the boys.
All of these myths are based on media reinforcement of emphasizing the importance of looking sexy and hot. In our media oversaturated environment, how can we combat these myths? Dr. Durham discusses the implications of these myths and offers strategies to help girls analyze and challenge them.I read Lolita Effect in one sitting, nodding my head in agreement and shaking my head in disgust. It reminds us of all that we have to fear for our daughters but it also provides smart advice and information on what we must do to combat the problem. The time is ripe now for all of us to make a change. We have a responsibility to speak with our daughters, our sons, our grandchildren, with our students and our friends, and talk to them frankly about healthy sexuality. We must do something to combat the harmful messages of the media and corporate marketers. Dr. Durham has sounded a call to arms. We have a responsibility now to educate our girls, debunk these myths and empower them with new, healthy views of themselves. Today Dr. Durham is here to answer your questions. To start it all off, she was kind enough to answer a few of mine first:
Ello: Hi Dr. Durham. Thank you so much for being here today and agreeing to answer questions from our readers. One of the things that really struck me in your book is that you discuss the issue of the Disney cartoon heroines being so scantily clad like the Little Mermaid walking around in a sea shell bra and Pocahontas in a scanty buckskin dress. Comparatively, the male counterpart is always fully dressed. You further state that in general, you can see that Disney princesses all have large breasts, tiny waists and long legs. Just like Barbie dolls. On top of this, I heard in an interview that you mentioned that little girls watching a movie like Cinderella would have lower self esteem after watching it then a movie like Fantasia that had dancing hippos. This is troubling to me. What we are hearing is that it isn’t just the MTV videos and the Bratz dolls but something as classic as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty that can cause self esteem issues. It is easy to point to Britney Spears or the girls in the MTV videos and say why it their clothes are inappropriate. It is less easy to do for a Disney princess. When every little girl wants to be a princess, what can we as parents do to combat the underlying negative message?
Dr. Durham: The best thing we can do as parents is give girls a multidimensional view of girlhood. Because of our culture and the media emphasis on the "princess" model of girlhood, every girl is infatuated with princesses. Rather than make that a taboo, our job is to broaden their horizons so that they realize that girls can be astronauts, forest rangers, and poets, and that princesses belong in fairy-tales. There are wonderful books and movies that explore alternative possibilities, from the fabulous Dora the Explorer to the long-beloved Pippi Longstocking to films like Akeelah and the Bee for older girls. In addition, we can discuss the princess imagery with our girls, asking questions like, "Wouldn't it be hard to ride a horse in a long gown like that?" Or, "Wow, she's so skinny. Could anyone in real life have a waist that small and still breathe?" (My own daughters understand clearly that cartoon bodies are nothing like real-life ones!) Finally, we should compliment girls on things other than their appearance, praising them for their intelligence, artistic abilities, athletic skills, and other aspects of their personalities. It's important to make it clear that the "princess" image is not one that works for real-life girls, and to make them feel really good about their real-world attributes and capabilities.
Ello: What about the boys? A lot of what you say in your book about helping girls understand the exploitation of media and the unrealities of the Barbie body is excellent advice, but as you point out, it is also an important conversation to have with boys. But society has long had a double standard on how boys and girls are treated. Is discussing these issues with boys enough? What can we do change the double standard?
Dr. Durham: Staying in dialogue with kids and sharing your values is the best thing you can do to sensitize both boys and girls to these issues. But talking back to media corporations is a good move, too. Demanding alternatives to violent video games, for example, or challenging the highly gendered imagery in advertising can bring about positive changes, in time. (Game makers are now realizing that nonviolent games like the Nintendo Wii are highly profitable!) Male activists like Jackson Katz and Byron Hurt conduct workshops for teenage boys and young men about confronting harmful concepts of masculinity, and their websites are terrific resources for parents of boys: www.jacksonkatz.com and www.bhurt.com
Ello: In connection with the issue of the double standards of boys and girls, you raise an issue of violence against women that has been rising in recent films and that boys and men are the targeted audience for these slasher films. And you raise a valid point that it isn’t that these films are increasing violence against women, but that it is reinforcing the environment of violence that already exists. What else can we do to help protect our girls?
Dr. Durham: This is a huge issue. As the writer and activist Jackson Katz points out, girls are not causing the violence. He focuses on helping good men take a public stand against violence against women. We can try to raise these issues in schools so that boys are as aware of the problem as girls are. We can develop community-based responses to violence, similar to Neighborhood Watch programs. We can make sure girls take self-defense classes so that they can protect themselves in the event of an attack. We can boycott the "gore-nography" that symbolically brutalizes girls and women. But the problem has social roots that will take a long time to address and change. We all need to be active in this effort.
Ello: Yes I completely agree. In fact I enrolled my girls in tae kwondo classes for this very same reason. I think my last two questions point us really towards a call to arms so to speak. We as a society should rise up together to battle the media conglomerates and big businesses for the sake of our girls and boys. For by helping our girls, we teach our boys to be better men. Do you think it can be done? Do you think we can effect change?
Dr. Durham: I truly do believe this can be done. The first step is recognizing the problem, talking about it publicly, and developing a consciousness that will lead to widespread action. This is how all major social movements have happened: if people hadn't believed in change, there would have been no Civil Rights movement. There would be no polio vaccine. I do believe in the human spirit as a force for change; as the anthropologist Margaret Mead (one of my heroes) said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Thanks Dr. Durham! We are now open for questions. Dr. Durham will start answering and responding to all questions and comments posted today. She will begin in the morning and will take an afternoon break from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm for her class. She will be continue to answer questions through the night so please don’t hold back! And thank you all for coming by today for this very important discussion.