Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Times (UK) Looks at M.Gigi Durham's THE LOLITA EFFECT

Carol Midgely looks at The Lolita Effect, by M. Gigi Durham, in The Times: "Last Halloween, Gigi Durham opened her front door to find a five-year-old girl standing on the doorstep. The child was wearing a boob tube, gauze miniskirt, platform heels and glitter eye-shadow. “I’m a Bratz!” she declared. Durham was put more in mind of a child prostitute that she had once seen in Cambodia. There wasn’t that much to choose between the two girls’ outfits.

So begins Durham’s new book, The Lolita Effect, a critique of the modern obsession with prematurely sexualising young girls and a manifesto on how to renounce it. We have all seen this “effect” — the push-up bras for pre-teens, the satin thongs and “Eye Candy” T-shirts, the pink plastic “Peekaboo Pole Dancing” kit that was sold at Tesco, the magazines that tutor girls who have barely started their periods how to pander to an imaginary “he”. Who would disagree that the “baby-faced nymphet” — perhaps embodied most explicitly by a school-uniformed Britney Spears in the Baby One More Time video — is a regular fixture on the media landscape? What we might disagree on though is how to counteract it. Some believe that shielding girls from sex for as long as possible — preaching the abstinence message and the pregnancy/STD/victimhood perils of sex — is the only way.

Durham disagrees. Girls do not need “rescuing” from sex, she says. Merely the media’s one-dimensional, profit-driven version of it, which is based purely on male fantasies without a nod to female needs or desires. Rather, girls should be encouraged that it is their right to enjoy it, thus reclaiming their sexuality from a culture that increasingly positions them as passive, objectified sex kittens who are not encouraged to actually want sex or get any pleasure from it yet are mandated to be desirable to males — to look up for it but not, of course, act on it, for that would be sluttish.

What we should also do, says Durham, is empower them to see how skewed marketing messages manipulate females to reach for impossible standards of beauty — the Barbie body — as the one and only way to be “hot”. The reason this is peddled globally as the ideal female model is because it is profitable. A billion-pound industry of cosmetics, diet aids, fashion and plastic surgery depends upon it. It is this that makes millions of girls develop, very early in their lives, a false “self”.

“The Lolita effect begins with the premise that children are sexual beings,” says Durham. “As they mature they deserve to be furnished with factual, developmentally appropriate and useful information about sex and sexuality.” She describes herself as a “pro-sex feminist”. “I think sex is a normal and healthy part of life, even of children’s lives. I want my two young daughters — indeed all girls — to grow up unafraid of and knowledgeable about their bodies, confident about finding and expressing sexual pleasure.” This is not to encourage under-age sex — though she believes that non-coercive sex between teenagers is not automatically harmful and that we shouldn’t always treat it as though it’s the end of the world — but to encourage more public discourse on it. “I think that a lot of girls under 16 have sexual feelings. My belief is that the longer they wait the better they’ll deal with it because the older you are, the more capable you are of thinking through the consequences, where you stand and what you want. But we shouldn’t though be so terrified of the idea that kids are thinking about it because it really is a very normal part of adolescence.”

We cannot, however, just blame the media for this state of affairs. None of this would happen if people didn’t buy into it. True, says Durham. In fact, studies have shown that parents, teachers and other adults may unconsciously perpetuate the Lolita effect.
Do you? Do you instinctively favour prettier children who meet the Lolita criteria, while reacting negatively to plainer girls with larger bodies? Do you compliment female children on their looks, clothes and hairstyles, sometimes forgetting their achievements in a way you never would to boys?

“I see this a lot . . . when I watch people interacting with children,” Durham says. "People are very quick to praise girls especially for their looks, ‘Oh, how pretty you are/ great dress/ I love your hair today’, those kinds of things. And girls don’t get complimented on their achievements [in the same way that boys do] or at least it’s much more infrequent.” It’s easily done — we all want our daughters to look lovely, not least, if we’re honest, because a compliment to them is a vicarious one for us. Durham says that we can combat such effects by focusing much more on their achievements — on what they do creatively, in sport, for the environment, for charity — rather than how they appear. Magazine covers, she says, hardly ever feature images of young female writers or athletes, but of models and actresses, fortifying the message that looks are everything. We can help to make girls media-literate, teach them the lies of the airbrush, engage little girls in discussion about why it’s awfully dated that Disney princesses always need a man to rescue them, send e-mails and letters to companies that use images that we find unacceptable and tutor girls in how to challenge the mythical male gaze which is so often ill-informed about what boys really “want” anyway.
What Durham advocates in her book, which she describes as a feminist manifesto, is to find a way to think about sex separately from money and with young girls perpetually cast in the man-pleasing role. “Can we move to a place where we can consider sexuality as a human impulse that’s about ethical relationships between people and not just something that generates profit?”
In other words let’s not focus not on the imaginary He but the actual Her."

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