Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Taking Sexy Back

Originally published in the BG News on Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Courtesy of Flickr user watchwithkristin @ Creative Commons 3.0

“Did you see those Glee kids on the cover of GQ magazine’s November issue?  It was downright pornographic.  And what about that Miley Cyrus, pole dancing and kissing 26-year-old men in her music videos?  Terrible.  She’s headed straight down the same path as Britney Spears.  And don’t even get me started on that one.”
Sound familiar?  So here’s my next question—why do we care?
For starters, we are a society that loves to criticize women’s appearances.  But this phenomenon runs much deeper than that.  The aforementioned women are “teens,” celebrities, and role models.  They’re a special brand of femininity under much stricter scrutiny.   
The American Psychological Association describes women’s sexuality as trickling up and trickling down.  Young girls are often made up to appear older than they really are, whereas older women use every weapon they have to combat aging.  Both are normal and supposedly sexy because they drive women on either end of the spectrum to those golden years of attractiveness; 16-22, give or take. 
Consider JonBenet Ramsey, or any “pageant girl” for that matter.  Now think about Amy Poehler’s character as Regina George’s mom in Mean Girls, or any older women dressing youthfully.  See what they mean?  One is creepy.  The other is comical.  But why does it continue to happen?
I could write an entire column on cougars, botox and aging— but that’ll have to be later.  Today, we’re focusing on the “trickle up” that’s suddenly made Miley Cyrus “untamable.”   And for the record, Cyrus isn’t that great of a dancer.  Actually, she could take a lesson from Ms. Spears who perfected gyrating with snakes and on chairs—you name it, she’ll dance up on it.  But Cyrus’s strategic distance from the platonic “Best of Both Worlds” echoes Spears’s transition from the court side girl-next-door in “Hit me baby, one more time” to a sweatier, sexier “slave for you.” 
When it comes to pop stars, it’s always uncertain whether these sudden changes were decided in bedrooms or boardrooms.  Why?  Because sometimes corporations and the media, like GQ or MTV, not to mention managers, agents and a whole plethora of production personnel try to make little girls look sexy to sell things. 

Sexualizing young girls is wrong because it objectifies them before they understand sexuality.  It makes them objects of lust, usually for a much older male gaze.  And it fetishizes under-developed bodies with narrow hips that aren’t ready for reproduction anyway. 
Obviously, having sex with prepubescent girls is wrong—that’s why we have laws against it.  Finding them attractive is not necessarily illegal, but still problematic. 

But here’s the thing.  Those Glee girls are really adults.  And the characters they play are in high school.  Our beloved Miley Cyrus is all of seventeen now.  So I must ask, at what point are women allowed to be sexy? 
To be clear, I said sexy, not sexually active.  So let’s not have that tired abstinence versus reality debate.  (Again, another column for another day.)  But one can be sexual without actually having sex.  One can express their sexuality through clothing, movement, song—you name it, it can be sexified.  At what age is that appropriate?
Science might argue the stage at which the body begins preparation for reproduction, better known as puberty.  Average age girls are hitting puberty?  According to Our Bodies, Ourselves, somewhere between 9 and half and 12 and half.  Exploration of one’s sexuality is simply part of constructing one’s identity, not to mention a necessary process of development. 
Puberty is a tumultuous time in anyone’s life.  Mental changes accompany physical changes, indicated by clothing and behaviors that display an adolescent’s very fluid individuality.  And even young girls are aware of the rigid categories that confine women’s sexuality.  They may try on the virgin and the whore before they choose one.  Realistically, they’ll settle somewhere in the middle—but not before they’ve had a little of both.
Blogger Sarah Seltzer wrote a piece for Alternet that also grouped Glee stars Lea Michele and Dianna Agron with the likes of Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears.  (The Disney products are common touchstones in any discussion of sexualization.)  But after drawing the familiar parallel, Seltzer introduced readers to SPARK, which stands for “Sexualization protest; action, resistance, knowledge.” 

The organization includes familiar feminist voices for this topic, like Geena Davis and Jean Kilbourne.  Seltzer explains that the movement is attempting to “take sexy back,” and their message “is about rejecting a standardized, commercialized and denigrating take on what girls ought to do to be sexy.”  Women need to be making conscious choices about their self-expression, not assuming the position with the usual accessories.   
With this in mind, Glee’s biggest crime is unoriginality.  How overdone is the “sexy schoolgirl” fantasy?  Spears already exhausted it as her entry-level performance back in 1999. 
Anyway, the cover of GQ shows a fully clothed man gripping the nearly bare derrieres of his scantily clad classmates.  (Shouldn’t he get naked and join the party?)  Once inside the magazine, the brunette is licking a sucker provocatively at her locker in her underwear and thigh high socks—an obvious dress code violation-- while her male counterpart plays the drums in a letterman jacket.  The blonde kneels in spike heels and a poor excuse for a skirt over a cheerleader’s megaphone, red bra matching her red shoes. 

And for the grand finale, the brunette straddles a bench in the locker room.  Apparently, she waxes.
The male to female skin ratio of “Glee Gone Wild” is very telling of our culture.  But the solution to this problem isn’t simply to cover up.  Sexualization is wrong because it’s done to someone for someone else’s profit-- instructing a woman to wear this, stand like this, hold a sucker like this, etc.  But condemning all sexual imagery won't solve anything. 

Young girls should be allowed to determine their own sexualities in wide open spaces, far away from plaid skirts and stripper poles.  And no one should be denied the opportunity to grow up with a healthy attitude about sex, spotlight or not.


  1. "... And for the record, Cyrus isn’t that great of a dancer. Actually, she could take a lesson from Ms. Spears who perfected gyrating with snakes and on chairs—you name it, she’ll dance up on it."

    Being a Britney fanatic, I'm going to need to thank you for how beautifully this was written. The whole column was great, but this section written about my favorite woman in the world made me smile!

  2. We all hold a special place in our hearts for Britney.