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The Lolita Effect: Why the Media Sexualize Young Girls and What You Can Do about Itby M. Gigi Durham
Synopses & Reviews
Americans are bombarded with perplexing and alarming media images: brand name thong underwear for ten-year-olds with the slogans "Wink Wink" and "Eye Candy" written on them; oversexed and underdressed celebrities gone wild; Bratz dolls and their "sexy" clothing line for preteen girls. How do we raise sexually healthy young women in this kind of environment?
In The Lolita Effect, University of Iowa professor and journalist M. Gigi Durham offers new insight into media myths and spectacles of sexuality. Using examples from popular TV shows, fashion and beauty magazines, movies, and Web sites, Durham shows for the first time all the ways in which sexuality is rigidly and restrictively defined in media — often in ways detrimental to girls' healthy development. The Lolita Effect offers parents, teachers, counselors, and other concerned adults effective and progressive strategies for resisting the violations and repressions that render girls sexually subordinate. Durham provides us with the tools to navigate this media world effectively without censorship or moralizing, and then to help our girls to do so in strong and empowering ways.
"We've all seen it — the tiny T-shirts with sexually suggestive slogans, the four-year-old gyrating to a Britney Spears song, the young boy shooting prostitutes in his video game — and University of Iowa journalism professor Durham has had enough. In her debut book, she argues that the media — from advertisements to Seventeen magazine — are circulating damaging myths that distort, undermine and restrict girls' sexual progress. Durham, who describes herself as 'pro-girl' and 'pro-media,' does more than criticize profit-driven media, recognizing as part of the problem Americans' contradictory willingness to view sexualized ad images but not to talk about sex. Chapters expose five media myths: that by flaunting her 'hotness' a little girl is acting powerfully; that Barbie has the ideal body; that children — especially little girls — are sexy; that violence against women is sexy; and that girls must learn what boys want, but not vice versa. After debunking each myth, Durham offers practical suggestions for overcoming these falsehoods, including sample questions for parents and children. In a well-written and well-researched book, she exposes a troubling phenomenon and calls readers to action." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Several years ago my husband borrowed a Shania Twain CD from the library. When my then 5-year-old daughter saw me roll my eyes at the barely dressed singer's provocative poses on the liner notes, she was smitten. She played the CD over and over, tossing her hair and wiggling her hips in imitation of those photos, oblivious to the innuendo but aware that she was doing something daring and rebellious.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) What, I thought, am I going to do when she's 13? Reading "The Lolita Effect" five years later, I wonder why that episode even stands out in my memory. To hear M. Gigi Durham tell it, young girls are gasping for air in an ocean of sexual imagery. As early as kindergarten, they are being coached to dress and vamp by Bratz dolls that look like strippers, Disney heroines shaped like centerfolds, teeny-bopper Web sites that glorify "hot" girls — even products like kid-sized thong underwear and pink, plastic pole-dancing kits. Meanwhile, teenage models in ads directed at adults pose in pigtails, sucking on lollipops. "Childishness is sexy, these messages imply," Durham writes. "Ergo, children — especially little girls — are sexy." Sure, it's all just entertainment, as savvy kids will tell you. But Durham argues that the images, so well crafted and so pervasive, seep into our consciousnesses, making the sexual objectification of girls seem normal. Durham calls this the "Lolita effect," which she links to a host of social ills by presenting a disturbing (and soon wearying) litany of statistics about eating disorders, teen pregnancies, battery, child pornography, forced prostitution and rape. From her first sentence ("'The Lolita Effect' begins with the premise that children are sexual beings") to numerous descriptions of herself as "pro-sex" and "pro-media," Durham takes pains to show that she is no prude or censor. But she sees a vast gulf between healthy female sexuality and the one dictated by "hooker chic," which is all about turning boys on with the public display of girls' bodies (thin, of course, yet voluptuous). Why, Durham asks, can't girls' sexuality be about their own pleasure? And why must teenage girls, in particular, live in fear of slipping over the delicate line "between acceptable hotness and unacceptable sluttiness"? Girls should be allowed to say no to virginity pledges and to "Girls Gone Wild," Durham argues. But she does not develop a clear definition of healthy sexuality, beyond describing it as "inclusive, diverse, and affirming" and unyoked from commerce. Occasionally, Durham goes too far in marshalling her evidence. She blames the Lolita effect for the murders of women in Basra who were wearing makeup and displaying other "unIslamic behavior." And her reluctance to sound like a censor keeps her from even suggesting that parents limit their children's exposure to pop culture; absent from "The Lolita Effect" is any notion that girls might spend some time reading good books or jumping rope or playing ball. Still, I accept Durham's premise that no one is immune from the media's influence, and her book offers dozens of helpful, specific ideas for rendering it less potent. Durham calls (rather optimistically, given the economic and political climate) for media-literacy education in the K-12 curriculum. She writes wisely that there's no point in trying to force girls to reject the Lolita effect outright. But we can raise questions and present different interpretations of the images that surround us. Elementary schoolgirls, for example, might be asked, Why do you think the girl in this picture is wearing hardly any clothing? Older girls might consider how words and images work together to convey messages. If Cosmopolitan were named Sleazy or Trashy, would we read its cover image differently? We can help children see that the fashion, beauty and fitness industries — along with the mass media that need their ads — depend on purveying titillating, unrealistic pictures of what it means to be "hot." As my daughter hurtles toward adolescence, I am grateful for such strategies. It's good to know I can do something more useful than shout "You'll wear that out of the house over my dead body!" Jennifer Ruark is an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reviewed by Jennifer Ruark, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Dr. Durham offers insight, information, and instruction on combating early sexualization and allowing girls to just be girls. Her scholarly expose of the 'Lolita-ization' of young women describes why cleavage is the new yardstick for female achievement. Women young and old can benefit from the wisdom in this book." Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., author of Surviving Ophelia, Girl Wars, and Mean Girls Grown Up
"A fascinating book that explores the charged topic of sexuality beyond moral clichés...An important advocate for healthy sexuality, education, and media literacy-key ingredients for ushering into a safe, empowered adulthood." Ophira Edut, Editor of Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image
"Durham's provocative and erudite study of the demeaning way society views girls serves both to alarm and educate; consider it required reading for parents and their daughters." Booklist
In this expos of how young girls are sexualized in today's media, the author uses examples from popular TV shows, magazines, movies, and Web sites to show for the first time all the ways in which sexuality is defined in media — often in ways detrimental to girls' healthy development.
About the Author
M. Gigi Durham, Ph.D., is a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa. Her research on adolescent girls and media has appeared in Youth & Society and Critical Studies in Media Communication, and she served on the editorial board of The Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents and the Media. A passionate advocate for children's rights and social justice, she lives with her husband and two daughters in Iowa City.
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