One day this summer, my three girls raced home from camp and ran straight to the computer to Google the lyrics for the songs their groups had been assigned for the big end-of-summer talent show. Next thing I knew, my 7-year-old was dancing around the kitchen to My First Kiss, by Kesha, belting out these lyrics: “Lips like licorice, tongue like candy” and “She won’t ever get enough/ Once she gets a little touch/ If I had it my way, You know that I’d make her say/ Ooooooh/ Ooooooh.”
Incredulous, I read the rest of the lyrics off the screen as my youngest daughter continued singing them – the bits about sailors, whiskey and the “taste of your tongue.” When I got to the part about removing the girl’s panties, my Canadian Idol-wannabe reassured me the counsellor taught them a version where it just said “la la la.” Clearly a shrewd bit of reasoning on the counsellor’s part.
I’m no prudish stick-in-the-mud, but all of this seemed a bit much for a group of 6-and 7-year-old girls, so I asked a few of the other parents what they thought. Most laughed uncomfortably, saying they thought it was inappropriate but that the real meaning of the words probably went right over the kids’ heads.
I was even more shocked to learn that 4- and 5-year olds would be performing to Kesha’s Your Love is my Drug (“My status is gonna be affected if I keep it up like a love sick crackhead”) and the pre-teen boys would be dancing on stage to Robbie Williams’ Hotel Motel Holiday Inn (“I think with my dingalingaling”).
I met with the 18-year-old camp director who shrugged off my concerns, saying the kids had chosen the song themselves and she had picked a “clean” version of the lyrics for them to learn. I patiently explained that my kids might choose to have chocolate cupcakes and orange soda for breakfast if I left it up to them, and that even a “clean” version of a song about seducing a young girl pushes the boundaries of good judgement for this age group. The conversation left me wondering if I was making a fuss out of nothing. Many people (especially the teenaged counsellors) seemed to think it was precocious and cute to see little kids dancing along to these songs.
I know from my own work in media studies that the link between sexual or violent media content and kids’ behaviours is ambiguous. However, a convincing number of studies have pointed to a correlation between sexually-charged content and early sexual behaviour in pre-teens. That means that kids who watch TV shows or films with sexual scenarios or images are more likely to experiment sexually and at younger ages. The problem is that no one can say if one causes the other. And of course, since we need to assume a cumulative impact over years, it’s impossible to draw a direct line from one sexually suggestive song or film to a particular behaviour.
But I’m concerned about a slow, more insidious impact the media can have on our children’s developing minds. The sexualized imagery targeted to children is not harmless, funny or precocious. While some of it may indeed go over their heads, even very young children pick up messages about the exaggerated and ritualized power of sexuality for girls and boys, well before they are able to understand the consequences of their words and actions. These depictions tend to confuse and frighten children and pre-teens, who do not yet have the maturity to handle them. They also tend to promote very rigid definitions of femininity, in which girls are judged by how “hot” they are, and boys are socialized into a masculinity that is both insensitive and macho.
Moreover, specifically choosing songs, shows or films that feature inappropriate content (as with this talent show) or even just permitting this exposure gives kids the implicit message that we approve of them.
I’m certainly no Tipper Gore, seeking to ban and restrict forms of artistic expression, but I think we need more conversations about sexuality, starting within the family. Regular, matter-of-fact discussions with children about the sexual content they see in the media are vital. Initiate questions or comments when you see a billboard or hear a song that pushes your limits. Ask your kids what they think they are hearing or seeing. How does it make them feel?
Explain your values and attitudes in language your kids will understand. Instead of just saying something is “inappropriate,” tell them why you feel that way. Maybe you don’t like the way it portrays women as pretty things instead of people with their own likes and dislikes, or makes boys feel like they have to just be tough all the time. Perhaps you disagree with the casual references to drugs. Be clear and specific, and be ready to answer all their questions honestly (and in age-appropriate ways), even if they make you feel uncomfortable.
Having raised the issue with the camp staff, I felt I’d done what I could for that particular situation. We attended the show without making any more fuss. And during the show, when my little girl winked at me during the “la la la” part of the song, I felt better that at least she understood why I didn’t like it.
Some books on this topic
So Sexy, So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids. By Diane E. Levin Ph.D. and Jean Kilbourne Ed.D.
The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, by M. Gigi Durham, Ph.D.
YWCA addresses sexuality in media
The Montreal YWCA offers several resources for families concerned about sexual images targetted towards young girls. Parents can download a guide (or watch an animated version online) that offers ideas and suggestions for having discussions with preteen and teen girls about issues such as provocative clothing, body image, sexuality and more. Visit www.ydesfemmesmtl.org and click on the section “Youth and sexualization project.”
The YWCA also works in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada to encourage people to view the movie Sexy Inc., a documentary by local filmmaker Sophie Bissonnette about the hypersexualization of our culture. The movie (geared towards adults) can be viewed online at www.nfb.ca.
Bissonnette has also directed a new film entitled “Staying Real: Teens Confront Sexual Stereotypes,” which will be released this fall by the NFB. Previews of the documentary are available on the YWCA website.