My next book is about the impact of sexualized culture on boys. Given the subject matter, it will come as no surprise when I say that my research recently introduced me to the musical stylings of Lil Wayne. For those unfamiliar with the rapper, here is an excerpt from a song called Love Me which reached the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in March of this year:
“All she eat is dick/She’s on a strict diet/…She say I never wanna make you mad/I just wanna make you proud/I say baby just make me cum, then don’t make a sound.”
I thought that this song being in the top ten was bad enough, but then I read last week about Lil Wayne’s endorsement deal with PepsiCo. He signed on last year to promote Mountain Dew®. I was stunned. How does someone who writes lyrics like those get an endorsement deal?
I am late to the game with the whole Lil Wayne thing. He has been around for years and I have honestly never paid attention to him. Were it not for my research I would have maintained my blissful ignorance, at least until this week’s news about the endorsement deal potentially blowing up in the faces of PepsiCo executives. Seems that in a recent song Lil Wayne made a vulgar reference to Emmitt Till, an African-American boy who was brutally murdered in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. Lil Wayne used his name in this lyric: “Beat that pussy up like Emmett Till.”
Lovely image, no?
Pressure is now on PepsiCo to drop Lil Wayne as a spokesperson, jeopardizing what is certainly a lucrative deal for the rapper. Add this controversy to another involving the Mountain Dew brand—an appalling ad that was pulled this week—and you see that PepsiCo has really put their foot in it.
The Till family has every reason to be outraged and to expect an unequivocal apology. People supporting the family and asking PepsiCo to fire Lil Wayne have a strong argument too, but I have to ask, what was the company thinking when they hired this man?
He has a long track record of misogynistic and violent lyrics. As far back as 1999, at the age of just 17, Lil Wayne was rapping things like “I just slap you a couple of times, never fight it girl/That’s cause I likes it girl” and, from the same song, “Wobble that ass right, then pop that pussy…Nice workin’ bitch.”
How could PepsiCo overlook his musical history? What made them think that someone who refers to women in this way would make a suitable spokesperson?
The answer to that question is frustrating and infuriating, but painfully obvious—sexist and misogynistic lyrics carry no stigma for a male artist.
I wrote years ago about Canadian band Nickelback being lavished with awards despite the incredibly sexist treatment of women in their songs and videos. What I said then applies today: a male artist would be ostracized for racist or homophobic lyrics (and rightly so) but lyrics describing women as sex objects in sometimes degrading and dehumanizing ways are dismissed as “innuendo” or, worse, lead to awards and endorsements.
I will join the protests by sending PepsiCo a copy of this post. The type of corporate sexism evident in the company’s selection of Lil Wayne as spokesperson is fairly well entrenched, so my post might not do a lot of good, but neither will staying quiet.
“Here’s what I want you focused on…Sexy adult swimwear (totally okay) being made into miniature versions for children as young as four (totally not okay)”.
These words appeared in a post by my friend Melissa Wardy written in response to a story about Gwyneth Paltrow endorsing designer Melissa Odabash’s bikinis for little girls. As Melissa (Wardy) emphasizes in the piece, there is nothing wrong with age-appropriate two-piece bathing suits for girls, but shrinking a suit designed for an adult female body and placing it on a little girl is wrong. Here is the ad included in Melissa’s post.
I wonder if the girl was asked to look this miserable, or if this was her way of appearing serious and grown-up? Why so much sadness in such a young face? I find that just as disturbing as the bathing suit.
I checked the US version of the Odabash website. There are several images of girls laughing in their bathing suits, but there are also these:
The black suit is called “Baby Shorts” and the other is “Baby Heart.”
There are plenty of people who defend these images and this type of swimwear for little girls. To them I say: picture a 4-year-old boy in a teeny tiny Speedo posing like the girl in the Baby Shorts picture, or standing with a big red heart plastered on his little bottom. Creepy, huh?
If a designer made a revealing suit for a boy and posed him this way, that person would likely be accused of pedophilia, especially if the designer were male. But Ms. Obadash gets a major celebrity endorsement for doing that to girls. (Please note that I am not calling Ms. Obadash a pedophile—just pointing out the double standard.)
Compare the types of swimwear marketed to 4- and 5-year-old boys to that sold to girls and tell me there isn’t something amiss:
These two suits for girls from Old Navy are designed for ages 12 months to five years. To be fair, Old Navy also sells a tankini and a few one-pieces, but when you compare them to boys’ suits, the contrast is jarring:
This unequal treatment of female bodies starts so young and is so common that people hardly notice it. Thanks to Melissa Wardy for continually pointing it out. I hope that this juxtaposition of girls’ and boys’ swimwear will make it harder to ignore.
My heart goes out to these young women—one who is scarred for life and the other who decided that her wounds cut too deep and the pain could no longer be endured.
Raped, then publicly humiliated, verbally abused, laughed at, and blamed for the crimes of others. The abject cruelty involved—not only in the assaults but in the broadcasting of them and continued attacks—is incomprehensible, but it has raised important questions, chief among them: what is going on with boys today?
The outrage generated by these two cases has placed the spotlight squarely on boys and the people who raise them. The concerns are many:
- How can boys who commit acts like these not understand that what they are doing is rape?
- Even if they are murky on the definition of rape, why on earth do they think it is acceptable to publicize pictures of young women in this type of situation?
- Worse still, how could they ever find humour in the suffering of another person, much less feel the need to prolong that suffering with ongoing harassment of a girl? (This last question applies equally to the young women who feel it is their right to torment a victimized girl with words like “slut.”)
- And, perhaps most importantly, why did no one intervene?
I’ve been doing a lot of reading about media, peer culture, and the influence of parents on the sexual attitudes and behaviour of adolescent boys. All three of these forces act on a young man in sometimes complex ways, framing his ideas about what sex should be. Media affects each child differently, with some young people being more vulnerable to negative messages than others. Peers are extremely influential, which might explain why multiple boys were involved in these two cases and why no one stepped up to stop the assaults from happening. Parents also play an important role. In fact, the more parents talk with their sons about their emerging sexuality and communicate their own values about sex, the less likely it is that their sons will act like the boys in Steubenville and Cole Harbour.
But few parents have those conversations with their sons. A big part of the problem, as I see it, lies in the stereotypes many people hold of boys as tough and independent. As reports I’ve read have indicated, many adults think that when it comes to sex, boys don’t need a lot of talk. Rather, the thinking goes, they’ll just figure it out—they’re young, their hormones are raging, and nature will take its course.
But boys don’t all figure it out, at least not in the way that they should. In the absence of guidance from a parent, another caregiver, or a teacher or other trusted adult, they may rely on friends who are just as uninformed as they are. They may also turn to media, which offers far more negative messages about sex than positive ones. And I’m not just talking about porn here. Mainstream music videos and “lad” magazines are replete with misogynistic sexual imagery and stereotypes that position men as sexual aggressors and women as willing, submissive playthings.
Actually, I should correct myself. Boys will figure out the act of sex—that part does come naturally to them as it does to girls. But they need more than just basic instinct. They need to learn about consent and boundaries, neither of which is emphasized in sex ed classes, in the popular culture from which some boys and girls receive their first lessons about sex, nor, I would wager, in the stilted conversations some parents have with their sons about the “act.” (Steubenville and Cole Harbour may change this though.)
Clearly, the majority of boys are not rapists but these two cases demonstrate that even among those who do not commit rape consent is neither valued nor entirely understood. If it were, onlookers would have stepped in, not laughed at the victim or posted pictures on Facebook. Actually, let’s take it back one step further: if consent were valued and understood, those boys would not have raped “Jane” and Rehtaeh in the first place.
This confusion about consent is common and is a major component of rape myths: she didn’t say no, so she must have meant yes; she said no, but didn’t stop me; she was drunk but I knew she really wanted it so I went ahead.
A recent article about a new sexual education initiative for LGBT youth noted that discussions of consent and communication are “completely overlooked in sex education now.” For kids who get their sex ed from television and film, messages about consent are also basically nonexistent, as a writer at Toronto’s York University noted in an article posted today:
…how often is sexual consent given in film and television? And extending from whatever the probable answer is (hint: almost never), what does it mean?
What’s shocking is the lack of statistical documentation about this. There hasn’t been a single study done on approach and consent in film. It’s simply there, and taken for granted, which is intensely troubling.
As I said earlier, the media is not the only influence on adolescents but there is evidence that safe sex messages in popular TV shows can change attitudes, so maybe the presence of clear discussions of consent would help too. Such messages would certainly be a good starting point.
I am not the first to talk about consent, of course, but I will join the chorus calling for more emphasis on consent in sex education and popular culture because it is so incredibly important. If the boys in Steubenville and Cole Harbour had known to ask for consent and understood what consent actually sounded like, two young women would not have suffered in the terrible ways they did.
Consent and boundaries go hand in hand. When you ask for consent, you respect boundaries, and people who respect boundaries respect the individuals those boundaries protect. Consequently, they do not make jokes when someone’s boundaries are violated, nor do they continue the humiliation of another person in social media or in school hallways.
One commenter on Facebook called the Rehtaeh Parsons case a complete failure of society. True. And educating our sons about consent, boundaries, and respect is one way of ensuring that things get better instead of continuing their downward spiral.
For more on culture and consent, read this post from Jennifer Shewmaker. http://jennifershewmaker.com/2013/01/05/steubenville-and-sexualization/
And for a great post about Steubenville and the importance of “total sex ed”, read this one from Henry Rollins. http://www.underthegunreview.net/2013/03/18/henry-rollins-comments-on-steubenville-rape-verdict/
 Farrar, Kirstie M. “Sexual Intercourse on Television: Do Safe Sex Messages Matter?” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 50, no. 4 (2006), p. 645.