So Sexy So Soon: the New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids
© 2008 Diane E. Levine, Jean Kilbourne
For me, the filthiest show on television is Toddlers and Tiaras. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned: I’m generally repulsed by the stereotypical idea of ‘sexiness’ in western culture — provocative clothes, made-up faces, and posed behavior. What attracts me to a woman is more an internal matter: I like character, strength, and self-respect. Perhaps I dislike the idea of sexiness because it’s only about sex, missing the real substance of human relationships altogether. In any case, as objectionable as I find sexiness in general, to see children attempting to invoke it is outright horrifying. Although parents and guardians tend to be protective of their children and have always worried about the declining morality of the younger generation, since time began, surely today’s problems are extreme enough to not be dismissed as the simple historical pessimism of the old. We live in a world in which Victoria’s Secret markets g-strings to little girls, where the toys are hookers, and top 40 stations play songs like “I’m Sexy and I Know It”. This is a far cry from Aristotle kvetching about rebellious teenagers. So Sexy So Soon is similar to Consuming Kids in that it examines the effects of advertising upon children. However, it is much more narrowly focused (on premature sexualization) and written with a greater emphasis on helping parents address the problem, primarily through communication.
The authors are not prudes: they acknowledge from the start that human beings are sexual creatures from the moment of our births. There is nothing the matter with sex or children being curious about the differences between men and women: has any generation of tykes not wondered where babies come from, or played the equivalent of “doctor”? The essential point of So Sexy so Soon is that advertisers are using sex to sell products. They’re not interested in educating children about sex, let alone guiding them towards sexual responsibility. Their only concern is manipulating children into thinking sexy is a concept they should be concerned about, and to realize it they must buy these products or listen to this music or wear this makeup. So what if kids grow up with warped attitudes toward sex, gender roles, and their own self-worth? So what if little children, in the process of trying to emulate adults, start talking about oral sex and grinding against one another? Sex sells — even to kids.
Levine and Kilbourne both write with an eye toward helping parents. While moderating the home environment is crucial, they stress communication. At least one of the authors specializes in parent-child communication, and she advocates asking open-ended questions to find out what kids know, and letting them know that if they’re confused about the barrage of messages they receive through television, music, and the Internet, that they can express that confusion with an adult without being judged. Children are the victims of premature sexuality, not its creators. Political action is also necessary: marketers and companies must take responsibility, because the tide of garbage they produce in their quest to maximize profits is overwhelming parents, setting their children against them. That tide has been building since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan deregulated child-targeted advertising. The same agency which allowed the problem to transpire should be held accountable for fixing it.
So Sexy So Soon is of eminent interest to parents; both it and Consuming Kids are eye-opening works that detail the problems of childhood advertising. I would read them together.