The Lolita Effect: Why the Media Sexualize Young Girls and What You Can Do about It
by M. Gigi Durham
Reviewed by Brenda R. Weber
The Lolita Effect makes alarmingly clear that Lolita, the flirty, 12-year-old protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, has grown into cultural shorthand for a "prematurely, even inappropriately sexual, little girl." M. Gigi Durham argues that the media oversexualizes girls and supports her case with an accounting of a range of products advertised for them, such as the Little Miss Naughty push-up bras for preteens and Peekaboo Pole Dancing kits for children. These products, as well as television, music, magazines and print ads, conspire to turn young girls into what Durham terms "prosti-tots," "kinderwhores" and "sex bait."
Durham is a "pro-sex" feminist. She believes children are sexual beings who have the right to experience and express their sexuality -- and by children, she means an age range of roughly 3 to 18. Yet she is concerned by a volatile social and media dynamic dominated by either Christian fundamentalist chastity or hypersexual excess. "Why is there no middle ground?" she asks. The Lolita Effect is her attempt to provide one by teaching parents how to talk with their daughters about sexualized images in popular culture.
The book is based on what Durham describes as the five myths of sexuality. She offers helpful, if generalized, discussions on how they came into being, their pervasiveness in the media and why they have so much appeal for girls, capping each discussion with a list of talking points designed to help parents engage with their kids.
One exercise Durham offers to debunk the myth that violence is sexy is to ask girls to substitute another type of person, or even an animal, for the girl or woman depicted in the media text. When the substitution of an old person or a kitten turns the image from sexy to sinister, girls gain a new tool for understanding. This is the sort of thing Durham surely does in her classroom at the University of Iowa, where she teaches journalism and mass communication. The degree to which these strategies will be effective with children seems debatable, but that's why this book is meant more for parents than for girls, particularly since kids can't obtain most of these products without parents' help.
Peekaboo Pole Dancing kits, designed "to unleash the sex kitten inside," were available online through the giant British-based retailer Tesco and cost £49.97 (roughly $100). Tesco argued the poles were meant for adults (as does Amazon.com, which sells them in the U.S.), though the pole appears too flimsy to support a grown-up woman's weight. Its "cartoon lady" packaging indicates that if not meant for kids, the Peekaboo Pole marketing doesn't intend to exclude them.
Under public pressure, Tesco removed the Peekaboo Pole from its Toys and Games website, and British Home Store stopped selling the Little Miss Naughty bras. The Lolita Effect does not advocate censorship, but Durham does want adults to more actively and consciously monitor the sexualized products and images that mass media encourage children to consume. This will help prevent the Lolita effect from taking hold of girls, thus keeping Lolita the stuff of fiction, where she belongs.
Brenda R. Weber is an assistant professor in gender studies at Indiana University, where she teaches gender and popular culture.