September 13th, 2009

Something is very odd with the images of femininity we’re passing down to kids these days. I know, I sound like I should be sitting in a rocking chair on my front porch shaking my walking stick at pesky youngsters. But hear me out. Even as a sex writer I was shocked to see how sexy the women in popular girls’ toys and games have become.

While I was in France last month, I worked on a farm with a couple who had a six-year-old daughter, Gabrielle. Each afternoon, hiding inside from the midday heat, I would help Gabrielle out on the family computer. Her favorite site, Jeux de Fille, was little more than a collection of girl-oriented flash games — dress up, makeup, “seduction” — but most seemed harmless. The women in the games though, electronic paper dolls, were surprisingly sexualized: fully formed, nearly naked, striking seductive posing and pouting out at the player.

Gabrielle herself didn’t seem to notice. She clearly stated when she did or didn’t like certain outfits, but her only real comment on the females before her was to stick her tongue out at redheads and declare them “pas jolie!” Thanks, kid.

The coloring books and toys in Gabrielle’s room revealed much of the same. Call me old-fashioned, but I imagined girls playing with images of — well, other girls: young, innocent, mischievous, but decidedly non-sexualized characters like Madeline, or old-school Dora the Explorer before TV execs turned her into a lithe beauty pageant contestant, or Strawberry Shortcake when she still had pudge. Sure, you hear a lot of fuss over the adult curves and skimpy outfits of Bratz doll (and missing noses — what up with that?), but I didn’t realize that this new way of presenting womanhood was so pervasive.

Then the question becomes, is this a problem? Is any of it so different than the decades of shapely Barbies that have come before? I’m saying “yes,” and it’s not because I’m worried that seeing a few extra sets of pouty lips and matching underwear is going to corrupt our youth. Instead, I’m worried about how we’ll continue to mess with women’s self-image when they grow up seeing unrealistic bodies from day one — about how girls of all ages are becoming complicit in their own objectification by getting used to seeing their gender as sexualized, aesthetic objects.

Maybe it’s backwards-thinking. Maybe it’s naive. But years down the line, if I have a daughter of my own, I’m playing things safe. Sexualized women? Boo. Stick the to the adorable androgyny that is Winnie the Pooh.

Tags: girl games, little girls, toys

6 Responses to “Little girls’ play things: how sexy is too sexy?”

  1. Rosepixie Says:

    It’s been proven to be a problem: The study is a few years old, but still very valid and cited often (and quite a few similar studies have been done that show basically the same results).

    One of the biggest things sociologists are finding is that sexualized images are more prevalent at a younger age, and that’s when you realize that it’s an even more serious problem. Little boys are getting it too and forming similar constructions of what women are and what makes one worthwhile at younger and younger ages. Another recent study (which I’ve lost the link to, sorry) found that forth grade girls are not only dieting a lot more than they were twenty years ago, but that many of them are doing so because of the opinions of the boys around them (the boys were interviewed and did, indeed, comment on the girls being “fat” and this basically making them bad people).

    Now, none of this is to say that we should sensor everything and make our media asexual, because that has some pretty serious repercussions too, but clearly we have a problem. The fact that they changed Dora really horrifies me since she was so iconic and normal looking, for a cartoon character. Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me.

  2. Corvus Says:

    I watch all of my television on non-ad-based media (DVD or download) and I was really irritated when I turned on the hotel TV at PAX this year. I saw two ads in one commercial block for Dora dolls–one where she’s wearing a long dress and dancing and one where she was a makeup mannequin.

    Now, there’s nothing wrong with long dresses or dancing–I reserve my right to be a little judgmental about makeup–but it’s hardly in keeping with the explorer image that makes Dora such a strong role model.

  3. Linda Says:

    I worked as a nanny not so long ago and the two boys I took care of (age 6 and 10) were obsessed with being skinny, and indeed they were skinny. These were BOYS! I might expect this more of girls but these kids spoke daily of how bad being fat was and often they teased classmates for this very reason. When they fought, their insult of choice for each other was fatso, fattie, or fat butt. They even had a song about “Fatso” Raven (That’s so Raven.) Huh?

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