About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

#78 - The Lolita Effect

Just took a foray into non-fiction again with The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, by M. Gigi Durham (Overlook Press, 2008). Having read more than a few hysterical and/or oversimplified books on this topic, I was a bit skeptical at first, but ended up being pleasantly surprised. Not only is The Lolita Effect far more balanced and nuanced than So Sexy So Soon, but it also scores high on readability.

The nuance begins with the title. Durham argues that while we (popular culture) have come to use "Lolita" to describe a young girl who deliberately behaves in a seductive manner, Dolores Haze, the original Lolita in that book by Nabokov, is not an intentional nymphet, but an innocent victim of her predatory, pedophile stepfather, Humbert Humbert. (True confessions time: shamefully, I haven't actually read Lolita, so I'm taking Durham's word for this.) She is also emphatic about not being anti-sex or advocating censorship. On the contrary, she suggests that previous works and authors on this topic (hel-LO, Mary Pipher!) have often tended toward an overly dualistic, "moral panic" approach that makes for some strange bedfellows (i.e., traditional, mostly Christian conservatives and progressive, usually sex-positive parents and teachers). Explains Durham,
"[I]t is not girls' sexuality in and of itself that is a problem; the problem is that the expression of girls' sexuality seems to be possible only within an extremely restrictive framework. Girls' sexuality, it seems, has to comply with the markers of sexuality that we recognize, and it cannot be manifested, recognized, or mobilized in other, potentially more empowering and supportive, ways."
Most of the book is devoted to defining the five myths that constitute the Lolita effect. These are as follows:
  1. Sexuality equals looking sexy, or, in Durham's words, "if you've got it, flaunt it."
  2. Exactly what looks (and therefore, is) sexy ("hot," in common parlance) is very narrowly defined. In short, the perfect girl/ woman looks like Barbie. Not only is this an unrealistic, unhealthy ideal for girls to aspire to, but it's racist and classist (after all, who has the money to buy The Look?) to boot.
  3. Younger is better -- not just as in, society thinks women in their 20s are more attractive than those in their mothers' generation, but as in, very young, still a girl. Hearken back to the days of Britney Spears' Catholic school miniskirt-wearing, pigtail-sporting, lollipop-sucking debut, among other examples.
  4. Violence is sexy. Here, Durham cites slasher films, music videos and lyrics, and violent video games a la Grand Theft Auto as examples.
  5. Sexy is defined for and by the male gaze. Boys choose girls, girls are sex objects, and alternate pairings -- male-male, female-female, or even non-traditional male-female -- Just Don't Exist.
Durham is a professor of journalism and communication, so it's not surprising that the remedies she proposes tend heavily toward increased media literacy and consumer education. Again, she's very clear about not advocating censorship, partly because that's a slippery slope that might lead us to censor Lolita and Romeo and Juliet, and partly because she takes the matter-of-fact position that yes, children and adolescents are sexual, and we need to respect and acknowledge that ... it's just that we should be doing so in "more empowering and supportive ways" than we've tended to see of late. Her list of internet and print resources is impressive and useful, as well. It's been a while since I've said this of a book on parenting and/or sexuality, but I recommend this one highly.

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