I received a question on Twitter from the owner of Pigtail Pals today. As someone committed to putting an end to the sexualization of girls in popular culture, she was asked by a parent how female sexualization affects young boys.
In essence, the parent was asking what young boys think when they see: Emma Frost’s abundant cleavage and bare midriff in Wolverine and the X-Men (pictured here); Ventress’ peek-a-boo top in Star Wars: The Clone Wars; Wonder Woman’s bare legs in Justice League; or, an unsettling example I recently discovered, Fone Bone looking for a rhyme for “smooth brown thigh” when writing a “love” poem for female character Thorn in the Bone series of graphic novels. (I could go on—and on—but you get the idea.)
I have tried, ever so gently, to broach this subject with my eight-year-old son and have not gotten much of a response. I honestly think he is not old enough to notice yet. But, as I say in my book, such depictions add to the “environment of images” that teach children how girls relate to boys (to quote Cardiff University journalism professor Dr. Justin Lewis, speaking in a documentary about Disney’s influence on children. Click here to access a transcript).
In addition to such sexualized images, there are others that place females in a position of relative inferiority to males while emphasizing their looks over any other qualities they might possess: females are depicted in domestic settings far more than males (especially in toy advertising) implying that they can do little outside the home; female characters in films and TV shows aimed at boys are rarely afforded the opportunity to be hero; female characters talk about and worry over their looks far more than male characters; a female’s looks are, depending on the program, commented on by male characters and sometimes quite rudely (“hot doctor” is a phrase I heard once in a Justice League episode–talk about diminishing a woman’s accomplishments!)
Such images lay the groundwork for a boy’s future attitudes about females, especially if these attitudes are reinforced by peers and ignored in the home environment. (Pop culture is just one piece of the puzzle, albeit it a powerful one, in a boy’s gender socialization. Parents can counteract these attitudes to a large degree if they are proactive and aware of what boys are seeing on TV and in films and books.)
What is the more immediate impact for children? As an article from Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital noted, girls are marked by boys as sexual at an early age, independent of the girls’ behaviour. If such views of girls are allowed to escalate, they can result in sexual harassment at school, a form of social aggression that occurs at the age of ten or earlier.
It is true that both boys and girls can experience sexual harassment, but their responses to it are different. In a study done in 2000, girls were far more likely to report harassment as “scary” than boys. Sexual harassment was also reported to have negative effects on girls’ self-esteem but not on boys’. Some of boys’ sexual harassment was also carried out by other boys, meaning that, as traumatic as it might have been for those involved, it did not reflect “gender status.” (A full citation of the study is available here.)
Will all boys who see excessive amounts of T&A in female characters grow up to believe it is okay to taunt and harass girls? Of course they won’t. But enough might—studies have shown that some 50% of females aged 11 to 16 reported experiencing sexual harassment and 30% to 50% of college-aged women did. (From the same study cited above.)
Something to think about the next time your son turns on Justice League, Wolverine or any other show where females are dressed less than the boys.
Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood and Corporate Power. http://www.mediaed.org/cgi-bin/commerce.cgi?preadd=action&key=112
Murnen, Sarah K. and Linda Smolak. “The Experience of Sexual Harassment Among Grade-School Students: Early Socialization of Female Subordination?” Sex Roles 43, no. 1-2 (2000): 1-17.