The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It

Playing dress-up is a normal part of growing up for little girls, and has been for a very long time. But, “A lot of very sexual products are being marketed to very young kids,” said Gigi Durham, a professor at the University of Iowa, discussing how she became quite disturbed last Halloween when a 5-year-old girl came knocking on her door wearing a gauzy miniskirt, tube top and platform shoes while carrying the Bratz doll that had inspired her racy outfit.

M. Gigi Durham, who heads the Iowa Center for Communication Study at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication said, “I had an instant dizzying flashback to an image of a child prostitute I had seen in Cambodia, dressed in a disturbingly similar outfit.”

We live in a world that encourages the raising of Pop Tarts and Sesame Streetwalkers, with the media telling girls “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” along with the ridiculous pressure from popular culture to have the “anatomy of a sex goddess” and the importance of looking “hot”, while mommy’s high heels compete with pole-dancing kits sold in the toy section of stores, Hooters Girl in Training T-Shirts for toddlers, and let’s not forget the infamous padded bras and sexy underwear for young children.

Someone please tell me, when did Happy Meals Become Sexy?, and do little girls really need sequined bras and spa treatments at shops like Libby Lu, or why little girls are being turned into tarted-up prostitots while many people (including parents) continue to view sexually provocative images of children as “cute” or “no big deal”?

Professor Durham’s book, “The Lolita Effect: Why the Media Sexualize Young Girls and What You Can Do About It” should be required reading for all parents, as Durham provides the results of her 13-year research into the sexualization of children, especially girls between the ages of 8 and 12. In her book, she makes the argument that there is a link between the constant flow of highly sexualized images of young girls in the media, including Beyonce Knowles Bootylicious Kid Ads, how these sexualized images have a detrimental effect on children, and the increase in child pornography and sexual violence against young girls and women worldwide.

As the ever-increasing controversy rages on over what is child porn vs. edgy art, as well as the debate on child pornography’s link to child molesting, I had the opportunity this past week to have a conversation with Professor Gigi Durham about her book, and I asked her some questions about “The Lolita Effect” and how many parents are completely missing the sometimes subtle tactics marketers are using to target and sexually exploit YOUR children.

Interview with Professor M. Gigi Durham:

Lin: Professor, the title of your book obviously alludes to Vladimir Nabokov’s book “Lolita” published in 1955. Considering that Nabokov was an admitted child molester of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, why did you choose to name your book “The Lolita Effect”?

Gigi: I picked the title and the name of the “effect” primarily because the heroine of the Nabokov novel has become a kind of cultural shorthand for a sexy little girl who seduces older men. This is a complete misreading of the novel and the character, because in the book, we are seeing Lolita through the eyes of the predator, Humber Humbert. Many child molesters accuse their victims of seducing them or willingly participating in the abuse, but of course children are never responsible for the abuse. (See: The Profile of A Pedophile).

In the same way, I see the contemporary media as constructing girls as little Lolitas who want to project a stereotypical vampish sexuality. But the girls are the targets of media and marketing corporations: they don’t originate these fashions and these projections of sexuality. I want to emphasize that I see sexuality as a normal, natural part of human development: I’m not anti-sex. But in the book I make a clear distinction between healthy, empowered female sexuality, and the Lolita myth, which is objectifying and dis-empowering.

Lin: How does your book address the growing problem of the sexualization of girls in pop culture and sexual exploitation of children in the media?

Gigi: The book analyzes the growing occurrence of representations of sexualized young girls in popular culture, drawing on published research as well as my own analyses of a wide variety of media aimed at kids, including magazines, TV shows, web sites, movies, video games and so on.

After I establish the five core “myths” of girls’ sexuality that are circulated in these media, I show parents how identify them. At the end of each chapter, I provide concrete suggestions for helping parents (and other caring adults) to discuss these issues with girls and foster a healthier concept of sex that’s beneficial to girls and to society as a whole. I call it DIY media literacy.

Lin: How are girls learning a distorted view about what girls sexuality is about from magazines and advertisements? What are boys learning from this as well?

Gigi: Both boys and girls are getting these messages, but girls bear the brunt of them. In these media, girls are coaxed into buying into certain myths of sexuality — for example, that the more skin you show, the sexier you are, which oversimplifies the complex phenomenon of desire and sets girls up as eye-candy and boys as voyeurs. There’s no sense of equity, responsibility or mutual connection in that construction.

Other myths include girls needing to have the anatomy of a sex goddess in order to be sexual, which again is ridiculous: everyone is sexual. A third myth, probably the most dangerous one we have, links sex with youth: that is, it suggests that the younger a girl is, the sexier she is. This implies that young girls are legitimate sex partners, which is just not okay: young teens and pre-teens are not capable of making good sexual decisions. A fourth is that violence is sexy, again a very dangerous idea. Finally, the fifth myth is that girls must please boys sexually, which again disempowers girls and puts boys in charge. We have to demolish all these myths if we are to see female sexuality in other, more powerful, more ethical terms.

Lin: In your professional opinion, do you believe marketers are purposely targeting boys and men with sexualized images of girls that encourages viewing and treating girls as sexual objects? How and Why?

Gigi: Yes, I do believe this is a deliberate marketing strategy. In the book, I demonstrate the ways in which girls’ bodies are put on display for the male gaze in the mainstream media, posed and styled in passively exhibitionist ways that deny the possibility of female agency or desire while inviting male voyeurism. The reasons are multiple and complex, but ultimately they support a system in which girls’ social power is diminished. In addition, they tacitly support the burgeoning child porn and child trafficking industries.

Lin: What can we as consumers and parents do about the mass marketing and sexualization of children in order to get the marketers to change their tactics?

Gigi: The first step is consciousness-raising, and my book is part of that effort: we all need to be able to distinguish between healthy sexuality and sexualization. The next is to talk with our daughters about these issues. The next is to talk back: we can write to media outlets, we can communicate with marketers, and we can boycott products that sexualize young girls. It’s all part of media literacy and grassroots activism.

Lin: What about the violent video games, such as “Grand Theft Auto”, that treat women as degraded sex objects that can be killed after having sex with them?

Gigi: I am troubled by how insistently violence and sex are linked in many video games and other media targeted at young boys. But I am not in favor of censorship. Once again, discussion and dialogue are important. Boys need to hear girls’ viewpoints on these games. Boys have mothers, sisters, and girlfriends: they will realize that these representations of violence have deep impacts on girls’ lives.

It’s important to make all children and teens aware of the problems of violence against women in this — and every — society. Boys can become part of the solution. Once again, with young teens parents and other adults have a right to monitor their children’s media use, being sure to explain any restrictions they impose. (Interview concluded)

Some people, including parents, believe these products and provocative images are “cute” and “no big deal”, not realizing how all of it is linked to child porn, child trafficking and the prevalence of child sexual abuse. If you’re going to allow your little girls to dress like vamps and tramps, don’t be surprised when she grows up dressing like a two-cent hooker as a young adult.

The Lolita Effect: Why the Media Sexualize Young Girls and What You Can Do About It

Further Reading:

So Sexy, So Soon: The Sexualization of Childhood in Commercial Culture
You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Say About You
Lets Talk About Teens and Sex

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19 Responses to “The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It”

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  1. Polina says:

    My daughter is too little for the moment, but I can’t not to think of what it will be like when she is older. I am afraid of doing anything wrong and be a reason for further problems in her life… It just seems to me that most adults forget (when it comes to “dressing” their children) that a child is not just a little copy of an adult… or toy to put fashy clothes on. Kids are different… and what they really need to have – is a REAL CHILDHOOD… with children games, with children clothes and fairy tales… there is no need for them to pretend being adults. it is very sad when parents make or let them lose their childhood…

  2. Lin says:

    Polina, many parents really do not understand the real issues behind the sexualization of children and how they themselves are playing a role in the detrimental effects this has on their own children.

    Many parents seem to only look at various sexualized images of children as isolated incidents, and while they are appalled at these images in each separate case, they fail to understand the complete picture of how sexualizing girls and boys is damaging to their self-esteem and how there is an increase of depression and anxiety with these young people. No wonder there is an enormous problem of bulemia and anorexia with younger children, or kids who are having surgical procedures done to “fix their nose” or getting breast implants at younger ages in order to fit the magazine and media’s idea of what a body should look like.

  3. Lin, per Barbara’s comment above, I wrote about the Strutz ‘whorses’ on Shaping Youth here in this discussion on gender/toys:

    Lisa at PEM was my original hat tip on it, and it was so visually stunning & obvious that I ended up using it as an example in my talk at CCFC…My own horse loving tween screeched, ‘ugh! what IS that disgusting thing?’

    Perhaps it’s not QUITE as damaging as the Miss Bimbo drek I wrote about here
    but it’s more subversive in its cues for normalcy. Bleh.

    I can’t wait to get our film, Body Blitz: Media, Shaping Youth in some sort of interstitial format to “show and tell” to parents (funding is precluding a full feature at this juncture I think) as it’s sooooooooooooo important to get a grasp on this right now, before the overabundance of same ‘desensitizes’ us all.

    As it is, I’m amazed by parents who seem to shrug it off as ‘no big deal’ without witnessing the trickle down impact.

    They just don’t ‘see it’ (or conversely, are ‘living it’) sigh. Great post, Lin.

  4. Matt says:

    I teach music to kindergarten, 1st and 2nd graders and I teach fencing to 3rd, 4th and 5th graders. I see these trends on a regular basis at my school. Typically, girls who have older sisters start this behavior soonest. It is also interesting to see these girls mothers, as they often come to school wearing less that appropriate cloths.
    It is a tricky situation for schools to deal with. Public schools have the most difficulty, students (and parents!) can claim that a dress code infringes on their right of freedom of expression. Private schools (where I work) have more flexibilty, but are frequently afraid to enforce a dress code for fear of agitating parents. Although schools can be very helpful with this matter, the right attitudes must be taught at home when children are young.

  5. Lin says:

    Matt, it continues to amaze me the numbers of people who have told me how “difficult” it is to solve this problem.

    On one hand, there are schools who have established a dress code that clearly states what clothes are and are not appropriate to wear to school, yet no one is willing to step up to the plate and enforce the rules.

    Like you said Matt, school administrators and teachers are ruled by fear. Fear of perhaps losing the funding by parents who may decide to take their child out of the school and go elsewhere? Hmm.

    Perhaps if ALL schools had a dress code, and everyone enforced a Universal Dress Code, parents would quickly realize they have no where else to go with their kids and will realize (like it or not) that we all have rules/laws we all must live by, and not following the rules or a school dress code brings about clearly stated consequences.

    What kids wear outside of school and school funded activities is an area where parents can decide what they will or won’t allow their kids to wear. In school is completely another matter. I’m not one to say that government should get into every issue within each state, but it sure seems to me that this is one important area where universal rules need to be put into place and followed by everyone.

  6. Brittany says:

    This is a great interview. I look forward to reading the book and using it as a source in my term paper. This is exactly the issue I discuss and am so happy to find more and more information about it. This shows that more and more people are aware of it and are climbing to reach goals and make changes on the media’s negative affect on children. I hope that by the time I have children the media will showcase a variety of people not just one narrow view on what beauty is.

    Thank you so much for being aware and making the step forward to a healthy future for kids.

  7. Lin says:

    Hi Brittany, I’m glad this article is of help to you for your term paper. I’m sure your term paper will get an excellent grade, and hopefully will make other people more aware of what the media is doing to children and families. Being a parent is a very hard job, but having toy and clothing marketers going after our young children to buy their crap and “look sexy” is disgusting on every level. Good luck on your paper!


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