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Spark Virtual Summit Report: The Sexualization of Girls In The Media


Please read below a report of the recent summit, written by Kathleen Sloan of the NOW National Board.  Kathleen does international work on the topic, and recently represented NOW at a UN conference on women's rights.

Spark Virtual Summit
Hunter College, NYC
The Sexualization of Girls In The Media
October 22, 2010

Over 300 people attended the summit at Hunter College with 200 participating via the internet from all over the U.S. and from a few other countries. The purpose was to ignite an intergenerational social movement to support girls’ rights to healthy sexuality and overall well-being.
Opening remarks were made by Hunter College President Jennifer Raab. Hunter College was founded in 1870 as a women’s college; today 70% of its students are women. Funders of the summit were Atlantic Philanthropies, Ford Foundation, Novo Foundation, Ms. Foundation, the Women’s Foundation of California, and New York Women’s Foundation.
President Raab noted that girls now spend 7.5 hours per day on media, largely TV and computers. The media’s message is that self-improvement for females means changing their bodies, not expanding their minds.
Among the organizations and institutions represented in the virtual audience were NOW, National Women’s Studies Association, Chatham College for Women, Spelman College, ISIS, Gender Across Borders, and RhRealityCheck.org.
The MC of the event was Amber Madison, a prominent sex educator who frequently appears on MTV. In her introduction, she reflected that every form of media sexualizes women and girls and the messages start earlier than ever before. Padded bras and bikini bottoms are marketed for little girls. Pole dancing is offered to tweens. The media’s sexualization of girls and women pits them against each other. The participants in the summit, she asserted, are not anti-sex, they are anti-exploitation. We must teach girls to be smart, to know what feels good and what doesn’t, to have an opinion, and to disrupt the media; in short, we must “take sexy back.” The summit will be Day 1 of a movement that works through a coalition of feminist activists, educators, organizations and institutions to stop the sexualization of girls and women.

Jean Killbourne of Wellesley
Jean Killbourne of Wellesley followed with an overview of her research on women and advertising that began in the 1960s, most famously with her films “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women.” The inescapable conclusion is that objectification of women sets them up for violence. Advertising sells both images and values. The message to women is pure and simple: physical perfection must be their ideal. She discussed the sexualization of little girls, observing that thongs, which are really G strings, are sold for 7 year-olds, high heels are sold for babies and women are made to believe they must remove their pubic hair for the titillation of men. Conversely, t-shirts for baby boys are sold that read: “Pimp Squad.”
Most significantly, Killbourne noted that the U.S. is the only developed nation in the world that does not teach sex education in schools and it holds the other dubious distinction of having the highest rates of teen pregnancies and STIs in the developed world.
“Being hot” is the most important measure of success for girls and women. In 2007, the American Psychological Association issued a report that found that the sexualization of girls and women produces depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem. The media has led and “fed” females’ obsession with thinness. There must be a shift from women as consumers to women as citizens. The tyranny of the ideal image of beauty has gotten worse over time but on the positive side, it is finally being recognized as a major public health problem.

Geena Davis Keynote

Geena Davis gave the keynote; the actress founded the Institute on Gender in Media. She relayed the story of her evolution and said that she improved her self-image through sports. Then when she starred with Susan Sarandon in “Thelma and Louise,” her life was transformed; the experience brought home to her how powerfully the media reduces women to passivity and sexual objects. She started noticing how few girl characters there were in children’s TV shows and movies. There is a 1 to 3 ratio in movies and TV shows of female to male characters and this imbalance has not improved since 1946! Her Institute conducted a study of G and R rated movies and found that females wear the same amount of revealing clothing in G movies as in R movies. The waists of female characters in animated films are so small that they couldn’t exist in reality. The cultural message of the media is that women and girls are far less important than men and boys. Women are either sidelined, absent or hypersexualized.
Children now watch more hours of TV than anything other than sleeping. The more exposure to media, the more boys become sexist and the more girls develop views of limited options in life. Geena advised the audience to start counting the number of female characters in movies they see to increase their awareness of the situation. By the time a girl is a teenager, she will have been exposed to 500,000 ads telling her how she should look.
Geena Davis’ website is http://www.seejane.org/.
Lessons from the Field

The next session featured a panel discussion that began with a presentation on “Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls,” a summer camp that teaches girls about self-empowerment, that gender is a performance and instructs them not just to write songs about guys and relationships. The first such camp was held in 2001 in Portland, Oregon and now there are approximately 25 rock camps for girls around the world. Discussion centered around whether it’s possible to teach boys to be feminists and the speaker expressed how shocked she was by the many, many girls who told her that they had been sexually abused. The camp website is www.williemaerockcamp.org.

The next speaker was Asha Jennings who opened with a perfectly appropriate quote from Harriet Tubman: “I would have freed more people had they known they were slaves.” In this instance, rather than African-American slaves, the appropriate target is women. She discussed how revolted she was as a student when flyers for parties on campus featured half-naked women. She went on to discuss how BET, owned by Viacom, became a soft-porn channel, culminating in the Nelly music video where naked women were fondled and he swiped a credit card through a woman’s butt. A student at Spelman College at the time, she attempted to get Nelly to come to campus to educate him about how this gross sexual exploitation/commodification of women affects young girls but he defiantly refused. Asha took her fight to Viacom’s board meeting where she confronted Chair Sumner Redstone who patronizingly said: “We give money to AIDS projects.” She received death threats for her activism but she also received support. The misogyny of hip hop must be confronted. Ms. Jennings ended by saying girls must be challenged to demand different images of females. “The media is raising our kids.”
The third speaker was Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Senior Editor of Feministing, founded in 2004, as a young, fresh, honest outlet for expression and for riot grrrl music. Samhita spoke about the need for diversity in this movement to end the media’s sexualization of girls. There are so many disenfranchised communities (e.g., transgendered, disability, etc.) that are voiceless in the mainstream media so the internet is their only space to be heard and express themselves. There needs to be speakers and videos on this subject for presentations at middle and high schools. Kids should read hip hop lyrics out loud in class to hear just how misogynistic they are without the cover of music. Offensive images should be blown up and hung on classroom walls. On campuses, women who speak out on this are often shunned and branded “anti-fun.” Young women need to learn how to write op-eds and make films. Some positive examples are the Girl Scouts curriculum “Putting the Me in Media,” the film “A Girl Like Me,” made by 16 year-old Byron Hurt, Dove ads, New Moon Girls, and the “Killing Us Softly” films; 4 versions of them have been made to date. Samhita ended with a call to action: she challenged the audience to write to the celebrities who participate in the sexualization of women and girls, explain how it impacts girls and women, and demand that they stop. She cited an egregious photo shoot of cast members of “Glee” in GQ which can be found at www.gq.com/entertainment/movies-and-tv/201011/glee-photos-rachel-quinn-finn-slide=1.

Plenary - Numbers Don’t Lie: Research

The research presentations began with Monique Ward of the University of Michigan who discussed the sexualization of women in music videos in which women self-sexualize. There is a widespread perception that women have a choice of whether or not to participate in their sexual objectification. A study conducted from 2006 through 2010 of 186 music videos found that there are 4 common characteristics of these videos: 1. Women dance provocatively, 2. Women pose for male spectators, 3. There are close-ups of a woman’s sexual body part and 4. Women are provocatively dressed, usually as either dominatrixes or seductive school girls. 92.8% of the videos studied contained at least one of these characteristics. African-American women are almost twice as likely to be dressed provocatively as white women. The music genres studied were pop, country, and R&B/hip hop. The paradox of these videos is that while the women often project power, their role is to exist as a sex object. The lyrics of the music contain rhetoric of male ownership of women. The study concluded that these videos increase men’s acceptance of violence against women as well as of sexual harassment. A typical example is Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body” music video in which a woman sexualizes herself in front of him until he violently rips off her panty hose. The message couldn’t be more obvious: women ask for rape, sexual assault and violence because they sexualize themselves.

The second presentation was on video games and how ads for them reflect cultural norms and values. In a study of ads for video games, it was found that the target audience is 82% white and 80% male. Women portrayed in video game ads are submissive, sexualized, scantily clad, are the subject of the male gaze, and victimized; the victimization of women is through sexualized violence. Sexualized heroines of video games, most particularly Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Rader series, translates into stereotyping of women as less intelligent and more emotional, activates gender bias, expectations and treatment of women as inferior. In essence, the sexualization of women heroines in both video games and movies has the effect of disempowering women.

The third presenter was Stacy Smith from the Annenberg School at USC who discussed a study of the top-grossing films from 2006-09 that analyzed speaking characters in non-R rated movies. Among adults, 29% were women and among teens, females constituted 44% of the speaking roles; however, all of the teen girls were hypersexualized and presented as “eye candy.” The study concluded that the sexualization of females is the same whether they are teens or adults.

Elizabeth Daniels of the University of Oregon conducted a study on media images of female athletes and female responses to them. When presented with images of women athletes where they are hypersexualized, the women viewing them felt very negatively about themselves, expressing such feelings as “I’m ugly or I’m not worth looking at.” In contrast, when women and girls were presented with images of women athletes depicted as athletes (rather than sexual objects), the female viewers felt empowered. Studies have also found that exposure to sexualized images of women sends the message that men make better leaders.

Aurora Sherman of Oregon State University conducted a study on playing with Barbie dolls that included 32 girls between the ages of 4 and 7. She found that playing with Barbie dolls diminishes girls’ career expectations. The dolls possess impossible bodies with very large breasts, tiny waists, and deformed feet for high heels even when the dolls are “professionalized” such as “Dr. Barbie.” In the U.S., the average girl owns 8 Barbie dolls. The girls also felt that boys were freer to have any occupation. In contrast, when girls were given Mrs. Potato Head dolls to play with, there was only a trivial difference in the career choices they felt they had.

Rebecca Bigler of the University of Texas at Austin discussed the costs of the sexualization of girls and women. She cited girls starting to wear make-up at younger and younger ages, and epidemic levels of plastic surgery. As illustration, in 2002, 4,000 women had breast implants and in just one year, the number increased to 11,000 in 2003. By age 10, girls are already developing a sexualized identity; this phenomenon crosses all racial and ethnic boundaries. Studies have demonstrated a direct relationship between females who are highly self-sexualized and academic achievement as well as self-esteem. Ms. Bigler conducted a study of 200 middle school girls between the ages of 11 and 14. The girls who were highly self-sexualized had lower grades across the board and scored significantly lower on tests. They also had lower self-esteem and body satisfaction. These girls invest much more time and energy in their sexualization. On the other side of the coin, when girls are doing poorly academically, they turn to a sexualized identity for feelings of self-worth. Both of these phenomena operate in a vicious cycle and the process becomes self-reinforcing.

Young Women Activists Panel
The panelists discussed how violence against women is linked to sexism and the issue of sexual consent in relationships. They also discussed the increasingly younger ages at which girls become sexualized, citing 6th graders who wear thongs. Melissa Campbell, who works on media literacy in San Francisco, explained that when she was a college student, her friends were against gender discrimination in employment, education, etc., but were completely comfortable with the hypersexualization of women. The panel also discussed the enormous power of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs and that they can be great tools for sharing information.
In response to the pervasiveness of women’s hypersexualization, the panelists agreed that women aren’t allowed to be angry about it. They concluded that you can’t be sex-positive with sexualization because positive sex is about being a whole person, not an object for someone else’s gratification.

Concluding Remarks
Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs asserted that every movement needs a manifesto and an ideology. She spoke about ageism in the feminist movement where young women assume that older women don’t use social networks while in fact, many high school students aren’t on Twitter. In addition to ageism in the movement, ways must be devised to engage immigrant women in the movement. The latter involves sex slavery trafficking in many instances in which women are sexualized against their will. She challenged the participants to go home and have a conversation about the media’s sexualization of girls and women with someone unlike themselves to reveal how all females are impacted by it. Gumbs cited a statistic that only 10 to 15% of world media coverage is on women’s issues. REFUSE TO BE SILENT!
The summit ended with a call to join the campaign to stop the sale of sexualized costumes for little girls. Everyone was asked to text Petition *61827 being sent to buycostume.com. At the conclusion, single word messages were flashed on the screen such as “blogged, challenged, created, protested, questioned, spoke-out, energized, friended, ignited, inspired, and transformed.” All stood and pledged to not let the market define sexy and to support girls and women everywhere to stop the media’s sexualization of females. A rousing chorus of “We will spark!” ended the day-long summit.

Report by Kathy Sloan