When my daughter Michelle was about 5 years old, a cousin of mine told her what a sexy little thing she was. He asked if she had a boyfriend yet and then turned to me and, in front of my daughter said, “She’s going to have all the boys after her.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and, in my anger, I told him his comment was out of line. He was totally taken aback at my reaction. He thought he was giving my daughter a compliment; I saw it differently. With her large, dark-lashed eyes and curly ringlet hair, she was adorable, cute, and even pretty. But sexy? Not as far as I was concerned — 5-year-olds are not, and should never be referred to as, sexy.
That was 17 years ago, but the incident came back to mind as I watched a recent documentary by filmmaker Sophie Bissonnette called Sexy Inc., Our Children Under the Influence. In her National Film Board production, Bissonnette takes a hard look at society’s objectification of young girls through its proliferation of sexual messages in the media, music, fashion and on the Internet.
The film was produced as part of a project, organized by the Montreal YWCA, called “Countering Youth Hypersexualization: Tools for Prevention and Action” and challenges viewers to do their part in reducing or mitigating what is becoming an unhealthy situation.
Bissonnette talks with various experts in the field, including a sexologist, a psychologist, an elementary school principal and other educators, who paint an alarming picture of children being sexualized at a young age, what one psychologist calls “the eroticism of kids.”
We watch the reactions of a group of teen girls as they view popular music videos such as Promiscuous Girl by Nellie Furtado, I’m a Slave for You by Britney Spears, and Candy Shop, with rapper 50 Cent. They are critically aware of the sexually charged lyrics and provocative images of semi-clad girls dancing and rubbing up against men, yet they sing along and know all the words. ..The subtle power of the marketing is evident as they condemn Britney Spears and Nellie Furtado, but still want to watch.
The film shows how advertisements by retailers such as Floriane, BCBG girls, La Senza and American Apparel use half-naked women and young-looking girls in suggestive and often sexually submissive poses to sell merchandise. The message, say the experts, manipulates girls into believing their main value to society is as sexy, hot commodities.
This stereotyping is further reinforced by toys such as the wide-eyed, scantily clad BRATZ line of dolls that are billed as “the only girls with a passion for fashion.”
On the BRATZ’s website, viewers are encouraged to “keep it real and above all else, be beautiful.” For one psychologist in the film, this over-investment in image is dangerous for young girls if they are not focusing on other aspects of their personality and talents.
The Internet, with pornography just a mouse click away, has been a large factor in contributing to the sexualization of boys and girls, exposing them at an early age to sexually explicit material.
Health care workers describe 11- and 12-year-old girls who engage in oral and anal sex as well as sexual intercourse because they want to be popular and please the boys. Educators tell of how boys, with easy access to Internet porn, begin to see the exploits of porn stars as the norm. Sex becomes something to do, minus the love, the romance or the commitment.
It’s hard to ignore the images around us, and Bissonnette builds a case to show how we are bombarded and manipulated on a daily basis from many sources. How do we protect our children when they are away from us and exposed to so many things, be it at a friend’s house, in the schoolyard or on the street?
The solution is for parents to take an active role in helping their children be aware of what is going on. Watch music videos with them and discuss the images and the lyrics. Look at advertisements and talk about what it means to have a half-naked girl in a submissive pose selling jeans. And perhaps pick up a copy of Sexy Inc. If you have teens aged 15 or older, watch it with them. You won’t be sorry. Keep in mind that the film contains some sexually explicit material and is not appropriate for younger children.
The film can be purchased online at the National Film Board website (www.nfb.ca) for $14.95 and comes with a guidebook to help parents understand the film and use it as a basis of discussion.