Being plastered with a wet kiss from your three year old is for most parents a familiar contact sport. But when my daughter test-drove a full-romance, Disney-derived pash down my throat, I recoiled in horror before I could gather my mother-wits. For a moment she and I gaped at each other across a very complex cultural divide; the mismatch between a child’s and an adults’ understanding of sex and how we each relate to its pervasive presence in everyday media.
Emma Rush’s report on the sexualisation of children in advertising has struck a chord with parents already angry at retail products that sexualize kids. However, the image analysis which forms a part of Rush’s report seems literal and prematurely conclusive.
This Australia Institute report, rather intemperately entitled ‘Corporate Pedophilia’, is to be commended for attempting to hold retailers to account. There is no question their products and imagery are part of the broader malaise of shrinking childhood, and it is high time we surveyed the entire cultural landscape and thought about its impacts on our children.
However, Rush’s approach potentially damages an argument she in fact shares with many parents. Listing off ‘social indicators of sexual difference’ and then hunting from them in the content of images leaves her open to criticism that her reading is literal, out of context and subjective.
She describes one image of a girl as ‘pouting and her eyes are wide open, with eyebrows arched. The facial expression combined with the pose is suggestive of a sexual challenge or invitation, as is the ‘Hawaiian’ setting of beach, palm tree, and frangipani behind the ear’.
In spite of once convening a campaign ferociously called The Coalition Against Sexual Violence Propaganda, I cannot decipher a pout or arched eyebrow in this image, and it is not because, as Rush argues, such indicators of sexual availability have become so habituated they are now invisible. I see her body is arched in much the same way adult models pose. This is probably a function of displaying the cut of the dress, and yes, it might be careless of the retailers. If you were a pedophile I imagine that arch could play a role in fantisizing a sexual ‘challenge’ from a child in a tropical setting. But it is something of a leap to collapse the perception of a pedophile with that of retailers and advertisers.
Rush argues that all the girl models have long hair and because it is a social indicator of sexual difference, it is one of the details of the ads that sexualizes children. This begs the question, when is long hair not sexual? Rush finds that ‘cosmetics emphasise the secondary effects of sexual arousal. Lipstick mimics increased blood flow to the mucous membranes, and blush mimics temperature increase’. It also mimics good health and paradoxically, youth. But should we Mummies store our make-up in childproof medical cabinets?
Can we in fact, deflect pedophiles’ gaze from our utterly beautiful, shiny-faced children? In the same way that the possibility of predators in every park has led to the phenomena of the bubble-wrapped housebound kid, should we let the possibility that children can be sexualized stop us from buying them ‘bolero crossover tops that draw attention to the breast area’?
If Rush had made the distinction between dress-ups and clothes retailing, between say, kids pulling on their Mummies’ bras and heels, to bralettes and platform shoes being sold as necessary everyday wear for girls, her argument about retailers’ complicity in the sexualisation of children might have had more force.
There is a difference between kids playing at being adults, and retailers targeting that universal yearning as a ‘reptilian hot spot’ to inveigle small children into their ever-expanding markets. Bralettes for 2 years olds are a classic instance of characterising children’s bodies with adult sexuality, an important point Rush makes. In a wider culture where sexual abuse of girls is still prevalent, this is reckless and irresponsible of retailers. I think about the room set aside, at the rural sexual assault centre I once worked in, jammed from floor to ceiling with disclosure files and I want to string the manufacturers of those bralettes up with their own shoe-string straps.
Just this week I’ve been scouring the retailers Rush tackles, for cotton bicycle shorts so my eight-year-old can hang off a monkey-bar without attracting comments from her playmates. She is aware that her body is seen in ways which don’t match with her experience of it as a physically irrepressible child. She and her playmates are entitled to a childhood, a time of their life which is distinguished by all sorts of innocent pleasures, including a hazy picture about adult sexuality. The imposition of that knowledge on children is part of what makes pedophilia abusive, and Rush is to be applauded for raising the alarm.
There is however a broader picture we need to attend to if we want to protect childhood from the interference by marketers. Why have products like bralettes and Bratz dolls, which are all about ‘strutting’ your desirability, sold so well? Why have parents and relatives become such passive consumers? Why are the dictates of the designers in clothing and toy companies uncritically accepted? Rush’s answer is advertising. But why is this advertising so effective? Because in myriad ways we aspire for our kids to be adults and as a result we are failing to protect their childhood.
Consider kids’ film and their highly articulate, precocious stars, be they animated or otherwise. Say you’re a kid that speaks like a kid and not some postgraduate New York lawyer who can outsmart any psychotherapist your woeful but well-meaning parents sick on you. You might wonder, should I try to be smarter, or should I dispense with childhood altogether and skip straight to adulthood?
We’re increasingly invested in our children being more like adults. It is as though we have become less tolerant of their difference and dependence. While there is no question that supersonically advanced kids need to be better provided for in our public schools do we really need some 30 accelerated SEAL programs for ‘gifted’ kids in Victoria? Does this facilitate kid’s aspirations or their parents?
Sexualised imagery of children is one facet of a much broader cultural malaise – the cult of the accelerated child. When we rush kids into adulthood one of the effects is to sexualize them, and when our cultural wallpaper is put up with sex-saturated paste we can become inured to it. Rush’s report makes a valuable if somewhat compromised allegation. We are investing our children with adult desires.