Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Five Things about Skanks

Warning: the video clips and photos that follow are slightly NSFW.

1. Does a sex tape make you famous...or do famous people just make a lot of sex tapes?

Earlier this month, headlines screamed about an alleged Marilyn Monroe "sex tape." My first reaction to this news was utter disappointment. I couldn't decide if I was more upset that it existed at all or that someone would sell it for public consumption? And then I wondered, why is it so much more shocking and terrible for an icon like Marilyn Monroe to be caught in a sex act on film than any one of our contemporary sex tape starlets (i.e. Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian)?

Because Marilyn Monroe represents a time in our culture when selling your sexuality was nuanced, and, arguably, more artful. The idea of Marilyn engaged in fellatio on film just seems wrong on a fundamental level. Her image is inherently associated with class and mystique. And this legacy doesn't make room for the overt type of sex Paris and Kim K. are selling. These girls became famous after their sex tapes surfaced. Marilyn Monroe continues to command fame decades after her death. If this Marilyn film had surfaced at the outset of her career and was shown at every movie house in middle America (the equivalent of the internet then)...would she still have a legacy at all? Would she have ever been exalted to the status she enjoyed during her life? I doubt it. Yet, here we are in 2008 making mainstream stars of people who are profiting from the exploitation of their most intimate moments with past lovers.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to compare Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian to Marilyn Monroe. That'll be a cold day in hell. And the Marilyn film ended up being bogus anyway, but I just think it's an interesting example of the contrast between sexuality in society today compared with 50 years ago. Oh, and apparently Jimi Hendrix has a sex tape now. Which is a whole 'nother talk show.

2. Miley Cyrus is the new Britney Spears is the new Brooke Shields.

Exploiting your kids for profit is not new. It's probably gone on since the beginning of time. That being said, parents walk a fine line when they manage their kids' entertainment careers. They're responsible for guiding the child through the process of becoming famous. And sometimes becoming famous means, unfortunately, selling your sexuality. But is this a symptom of greedy, irresponsible parenting or the logical effect of a society bent on an unhealthy obsession with Lolitas?

Who's to blame for the Vanity Fair/Miley Cyrus/Annie Leibowitz scandal? Should we even be making a big deal out of it? Haven't we been here before?

Britney Spears, then 17, graced the cover of the April 1999 issue of Rolling Stone. Controversy ensued.

*Had to take this image of Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby down because I was getting major traffic through Google image search for "lolitas."*

In 1978, a 12-year-old Brooke Shields did full nude scenes in the historical drama, Pretty Baby. Shock! Horror! But hey it was the seventies...

It's hard to draw any conclusions here considering what happened to Britney didn't happen to Brooke. But let's look at some extreme examples of how this kind of thing can get out of hand.

a. "Teen Model" sites--Yes, underage girls as young as 9 are escorted by their own mothers to the offices of photographers who run these "members only" websites where their daughters are shot dressed in bikinis and posing seductively. And the mothers claim it's a step towards their daughters' success in the entertainment business. I'm not even going to post what these pictures look like, but if you must know, here's an investigative piece from Capitol Hill Blue that includes the shots. (Note: you are not linking directly to one of these sites. Promise.)

b. Fathers who drive their daughters to jobs at brothels--yep, Tyra puts the T in WTF. Here's a clip of a dude who takes his 18-year-old daughter to work at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch in Nevada. Right after HE GIVES HER A BIKINI WAX. Sooooo creepy.
3. But what if you're old enough to know better?

When I was a kid, Madonna was the one pushing everyone's buttons with her SEX book and her album, Erotica. She came from a repressed upbringing in the Catholic church and felt it was her mission to liberate people of their sexual anxieties and to "promote tolerance of sexual diversity."

Here's an interview she did in Europe in 1992 to promote the SEX book/Erotica album.

Now look at Belladonna. She's exactly my age. And she's a hardcore pornstar. Like Madonna, she was raised in the repression of the Mormon church. According to her blog, she's also hoping by doing what she does, she'll open people's minds to being sexually liberated. This is an interview she did in 2003 with Diane Sawyer. PrimeTime Live had been following her since her porn career started when she was 18 and were doing a follow-up on how she's progressed. The real reason for showing this interview is to note what happens about 4 minutes into the interview.

So, what's the difference between Madonna and Belladonna in these interviews?

A 12-year age difference, that's what. Madonna was 34 when the SEX book came out. She'd had enough life experience to deal with her sexuality and to own it. Belladonna was 22 in that interview. I remember being 22 and I know I didn't have the capacity to deal with much. I was always having some kind of identity crisis. And to add a porn career to that would've been irreversibly damaging. Maybe Belladonna has escaped the damage thus far and has moved into a healthier state of mind. I don't know...the only thing that is certain is her porn career is bigger than ever and she's set to become a millionaire at 27. Meanwhile, I'm scraping by paycheck to paycheck, overwhelmed by student loan debt and living on a prayer. Who's the exploited one again?

4. The Skank Effect.

So, what does Science have to say about all this? (Ah, Science. Glory to thee in the highest. We pray to thee.) According to the APA's report from the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls,
Sexualization occurs when

* a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;

* a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;

* a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or

* sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

The report goes on to say that in the media, women are more often sexualized than men. This gives many young girls the impression that these models for behavior are appropriate. And there are consequences. Surprise! Here are the highlights:

  • Cognitively, self-objectification has been repeatedly shown to detract from the ability to concentrate and focus one’s attention, thus leading to impaired performance on mental activities such as mathematical computations or logical reasoning.
  • In the emotional domain, sexualization and objectification undermine confidence in and comfort with one’s own body, leading to a host of negative emotional consequences, such as shame, anxiety, and even self-disgust.
  • Research links sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression or depressed mood.
  • Sexualization of girls has negative consequences in terms of girls’ ability to develop healthy sexuality. Self-objectification has been linked directly with diminished sexual health among adolescent girls (e.g., as measured by decreased condom use and diminished sexual assertiveness.)
  • Girls and young women who more frequently consume or engage with mainstream media content offer stronger endorsement of sexual stereotypes that depict women as sexual objects...They also place appearance and physical attractiveness at the center of women’s value.
  • More general societal effects may include an increase in sexism; fewer girls pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); increased rates of sexual harassment and sexual violence; and an increased demand for child pornography.

There's more good stuff in this book:

Girls Gone Skank: The Sexualization of Girls in American Culture by Patrice A. Oppliger, available at Amazon.

5. Mommy, I want to be a stripper when I grow up.

I'm not a prude, people. I don't think porn is bad, I don't think strippers are (all) skanks and I owned that Erotica album when I was 12 years old. But I have to say, if I had a daughter, I would not want her goal in life to be a millionaire porn star...or a sexy teenage pop star...or a best-selling sex tape actress. I would support her no matter what, of course, but ohmigod please don't let her think her only assets are her tits and ass. That's what bothers me most. These women are banking on things that will fade, parts that will naturally transition over the years, leaving them to rely on other competencies, skills, etc. I, for one, think Brooke Shields got it right. She got naked and provocative at a young age, but then she went to Princeton. Ditto Jodie Foster. Bottom line: if your daughter wants a life in the spotlight or she's just heavily influenced by those who are in the spotlight, do you drive her to a risque modeling shoot or an acting class where she keeps her clothes on? You make the call. And then think to yourself What Would Brooke Shields Do?


Anna K. said...

The sexualization of little girls breaks my heart.

If I had known some of these things when I was younger (and even more impressionable than I am now, at 31) I think it would have eased the pain of figuring out who I am. Perhaps I should use the word "accepting" rather than saying "figuring out." When I look back I see that I knew all along who I was, but it didn't match who I thought I should be: thin, pretty, liked by boys.

I grew up listening to Free to be You and Me. I had a favorite song by Tickletoon Typhoon about sneakers that make you really fast. There were no bare midriffs, provocative lyrics; I didn't learn to gyrate until I was a teenager. I was almost sweet sixteen and never been kissed. I still love to run.

How do you tell girls to value their hearts and minds without sounding like you have no idea what their going through? How do you help girls to grow into self-assured women in the storm of messages working against it?

Anna K. said...

You are brave for tackling such a difficult subject, by the way. Thank you for your candor.