Every day, I encounter a new challenge to the idea that things can and should be open and real.

Be it social, political, or personal, serious or trivial -- every time, I ponder the implications.

I hope you'll join me in the conversation!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Something Wicked This Way Comes

This is a tough topic, but here goes nothing. I’m really struggling with what is going on with product marketing and very young children, especially marketing to girls.

I realize this is not a new topic, but it struck me in a new and disturbing way on a trip to Target with my daughter this week. I despise what they are doing with Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell and her fairy girlfriends (http://disney.go.com/fairies/fairies/fairies.html), but mostly it has been my frustration that the come-hither poses, cleavage, and general body language seemed inappropriate as role models for young children. This week changed all that.

For the first time – and perhaps it was because my daughter was with me – I looked at one particular product that seemed insanely sexed up, and got a cold chill down my spine that still hasn’t gone away. It’s no longer for me what these images say to children about how they should behave. It’s what these images convey to adults about children.

I’ve spent a good portion of my professional life focused on children’s well-being. As part of that work, I made it my business to know as much as I could tolerate about specific threats to kids. There are a lot of things I wish I didn’t know about what our children face out there in the world. Without going into the weeds, I want to state a clearly as possible that little girls being seen attracted to and interacting with the kinds of images Disney is churning out with this fairy money machine is not increasing their safety.

What makes me most angry is that it is Disney. As in Walt Disney -- the alleged magic kingdom where we are all safe and respected and can explore our dreams as kids to our hearts’ content. They are sucking these kids and parents in on a reputation that they simultaneously are sending up in flames to anyone who is paying attention.

Sure, little girls are suckers for pretty. And for cute. And the more you ply them with pretty and cute, the more money you make. Probably no one will notice much if you show more of Tink’s leg, or give her bigger breasts. Probably no one will make a fuss if you add a few more girls to the mix. More girls, more money. It’s basic math. I mean, any adult who complains about this has issues, right? It’s just for fun. It’s for the kids.

Here’s the deal: I know when my spine goes cold with fear. I know when my mind’s eye races at 90 miles an hour down to the image of an innocent kid being perceived as a sex object and where that is headed and who’s to blame. And I know all about how big companies like Disney try to cover up what they are selling for their own profit.

I wish I didn’t but I do.

I’ll try to chill this weekend, and see you next week in a better place.


Maura said...

Hi- new reader- really dig the blog :)
and completely agree regarding disney. I have a 4 month old and am terrified of the culture she'll be entering into, despite my efforts.

The EDG said...

Maura, thanks for getting it. I look forward to reading more of your adventures with your little one as well.

Beth Newman said...

Hey! I hear you. I've been thinking about your post since I read it. Let me share with you how we have chosen to deal with these issues, for better or worse.

First, we talk about the difference between what is real, and what is a character. T's question to me often is, "Is ______ in this word?" (Pooh, Barbie, Wiggles, etc.) We tell her that is a character, not real, not "in this world."

For us, at least, these characters don't exist in a vacuum. They are part on narratives, and, honestly, I'm OK with the narratives for the most part. Some of the Barbie movies are quite well done. Barbie is always playing someone else. It would have never crossed my mind to have let her watch them until I ran into a friend of mine who is a presbyterian minister at a conference. Over dinner she told me that her brother is the ex. producer for all the Barbie movies, and that he really works hard at making the stories reasonable. Over time I've come to realize that for T, Barbie is strong, values her friends, risks and learns. She is never rescued. The same thing with the Tinkerbell movie, which is all about friendship and finding your true gifts.

I think your points are completely valid, no questions asked. I have found this stuff unavoidable, and quite frankly, I'd much happier dealing with fairies and Barbie than with the princesses. I think the preteen stuff Disney puts out is over the top, but T is already talking about "Hannah Bananna." It's out there, and I know T would be 1000 time more interested in it if I tell her she can't watch it and make it taboo.

I read something lately that said girls' body images are something like 80% (I can't remember the exact number, it was really high) dependent upon how their mothers view their own bodies. My intent is to help T interpret these images as best she can and to show her you can be happy with who you are.

Maybe this is all a copout, because I'm certainly not trying very hard to protect her, just direct her. What do you think?

The EDG said...

Wow, thanks for the extensive thoughts on this. Really cool.

A couple of things come to mind. One, I am right there with the concept of the primary female role model in a little girl's life has a huge influence. That is no doubt a very important thing, I 100% agree with that.

I also think the primary male role model in a little girl's life has an equal if not even heavier responsibility. We all know the daughters of dads with bad attitudes towards women's bodies, and they seem to carry an even heavier burden.....but right on. Yes. (Your girls are super lucky in both cases!)

My next thought is that not today, and not tomorrow, probably many years from now, our girls will have questions about our choices for them. And totally....This post is just about one product and one concern, so I have no judgements about any of those other critters or what other parents are deciding works for them. That's hard to convey in a short space. But I agree each child is different, each family is different, and people have got to weigh these things for themselves and make the best choice for their families.

What I was trying to explore, and I don't think I did a great job if I prompted body image issues, is what children being seen associated with these sexualized images as playthings does to our society's processing of very young children's sexuality.

Again, not thinking about anything but the fairies.....kids don't know that these looks and poses evoke soft porn. They have no clue. But adults know, and adults with bad intentions are very good at rationalizing their mistreatment of children.

All I was trying to say is let's be careful out there. And let's not let someone pee on our shoes and tell us it's raining, if you know what I mean.

Great, great comment. Thank you so much.

The EDG said...

Just one more thought. It seems obvious but few of us act like it is.....kids don't have any money. They can't drive to the store.

All of this exists because adults drive the car and turn over the cash. If we stopped doing that, these things would not exist. I'm pretty sure the companies behind these products exist to make money, period. If "we" told them "we" were not interested, things would change.

Not because they are great philanthropists, but because they want to make what we will buy. They depend on all of us caving in. Just a thought.

KathArine said...

This engendered a really interesting conversation between me and my hubby, a life-long Disney fan. He says he doesn't disagree with you. He said it would be nice if they took their responsibilities to family values more seriously but "that's not how the machine works." He also said that just because a company or entity could be socially responsible that didn't mean they were required to be. Which is certainly true in our capitalist democratic society but sort of disappointing nonetheless.

I got where you were going with the soft porn. I did a report for an ethics class in high school on pornography and women's issues. I'm unclear on the exact topic or how in the world I got to do the research I did, but I remember some of the research. And one of the most important things I remember was the impact of these images on, well, everyone. If being bombarded with images continuously didn't affect us as human beings then companies wouldn't spend millions of dollars on advertising.

So, yeah, it's really scary that, thanks to the constant bombardment of media images, it's ok for children to be seen as sex objects and ok for children to play with toys that are sexy.

Thanks for keeping me thinking.

Connie said...

I got those same chills when I found out that Limited II (Limited for tweens) was selling thongs in little girls sizes. Some things are just wrong - and dangerous. i believe they discontinued it when the public reacted badly. Bad PR seems to be effective.


Jerrilyn said...

Thanks for inviting me to the blog. I did, indeed, enjoy and appreciate this latest posting and comments (as well as some older ones I checked out while here...)

Although not as well-informed as you I suspect, I have attended several seminars on protecting our kids, specifically from sexual predators & abuse. The idea that we parents, moms especially, are helping provide bait for pedophiles' sick thinking & rationalizations by buying products that are unnecessarily sexualized should be alarming to us all.

Those who would abuse our kids are scarily good at what they do, and we as parents must be good at what we do too - protecting our kids.