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Teens Call Hyper-Sexualized Media Images 'Normal'

By Sandra Kobrin

Many female teens in a study last month said hyper-sexualized media depictions of women are "normal." Author Ariel Levy and media scholar Constance Penley offer different responses to what that means for the young women.

Pop star Jessica Simpson

LOS ANGELES - On her wildly popular 2005 music video, "These Boots Are Made for Walking," teen idol Jessica Simpson sings, dances and washes her car as her breasts pour out of a skimpy top, her shorts creeping ever higher on her toned behind. When Nancy Sinatra first recorded the song in 1966, it entered popular culture as a feminist anthem. The album cover featured Sinatra in a long-sleeved sweater, tights and knee-high boots, posed with a come-hither look.

Dressed in stripper-influenced attire for their 2005 megahit "Don't Cha" video, the Pussycat Dolls sing "Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?" On their way to stardom, the all-female dance band was featured in Playboy magazine in June 1999.

The debutante pop star Paris Hilton, meanwhile, shows up in a slew of magazines and newspapers, photographed wearing as little as possible as often as possible. Internet videos of Hilton performing oral sex on a man have only enhanced her image as a sex idol.

Concerned about how the outbreak of such highly sexualized images might be influencing young women, the San Francisco-based Women's Foundation of California last month held nine focus groups with female teens, about 30 young women in Los Angeles and 60 in Fresno and Oakland. They also conducted an online survey of 700 women and 300 men aged 13 to 18. Women's eNews was permitted to observe several of the focus groups through a two-way mirror with the requirement to respect the anonymity of the participants.

The young women were selected by age, economic status, race and family status. The various groups included respondents who were white, Latina, Asian and African American, as well as female teens in households headed by single mothers, those who attend church, youth leaders and those from extremely low-income families.

The foundation plans to use the data for a 2007 report. While the findings have not been analyzed, the teens' responses during the focus groups provide a tentative picture of these young women's reactions to media.

Respondents Review Videos

Los Angeles respondents gathered in three meetings at the offices of Lake Research in Sherman Oaks, Calif. They looked at images and videos of Simpson, Paris Hilton, the Pussycat Dolls and others.

Almost all of the teens polled said such highly sexualized images are "no big deal," part of their daily life, what they expect to see on television and in magazines.

While many said they believe the images are often not beneficial to women, the responses suggest that many of the young women are resigned to this being the way society is right now and that women's bodies are used to sell practically everything.

"I know in my head the images are excessive, but to me they feel normal," said a 17-year-old Southern California student class council representative, part of the group of students aged 16 to 18 assembled for the panel, all of whom held some type of leadership roles--political, scholastic, athletic or extracurricular--at their high schools.

"Sex is what sells, even to me," another 18-year-old said. "If you buy a magazine and it says sex or has a sexy cover, it intrigues you and you buy it and whatever makes them sell more they'll use," she said, in an apparent reference to advertisers. "The sexy images do have an effect on me even though I know it shouldn't because it is based on materialism and shallowness."

Images Geared to Men

Most of the young women noted that the images are geared toward men and may be harmful to women because they contribute to men's perceptions of women as sexualized objects.

Constance Penley, a professor of women's studies and film studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-creator of the film and media journal Camera Obscura, however, says there is no research to suggest that young women are "used to" or "desensitized" by the flood of the highly sexual media images.

"While there is a flood of mass media images, we believe people have very complex responses to the use of images in ways that are surprising," she said.

Penley teaches a class that studies how female performers such as Madonna, Sandra Bernhard, Roseanne and Whoopi Goldberg have managed to command public attention, even though none but Madonna conforms to traditional standards of beauty.

"We learned you needed to be perceived as bad girl, a rebel to get heard," said Penley. "Women who appreciate feminism might be shocked by these young women's admiration of Madonna. They use her 'bad girlness' to come up with an identity of their own. How they are receiving it and transforming it is complex, but they're taking in those images and doing something with it for their own end."







Rising Raunch

Ariel Levy, author of the 2005 book "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture," takes a darker view.

"It gives them a message before they are even sexually active. They have already been taught through music videos, reality TV, My Space, etc., that part of the job of being a female is to put on shows of wantonness . . . even if it has nothing to do with what you want," Levy said in an interview. "Young women are trying to look and behave like those images, as if they were porn stars. As if being able to incite lust is women's work. That's just your first job, inciting lust."

Many young women in the study seemed to share Levy's dismay.

"Women that sell their sexuality on TV influences the way we want to be," said a 16-year-old student council representative. "For girls that already have low self-esteem it makes them feel even lower."

"The way women are portrayed in the media causes domestic violence," a 15-year-old said.

Levy says "raunch culture" has taken words such as "empowerment" from the women's rights vocabulary and applied it to sexual exhibitionism. "As if stripping was empowering and sexually liberated; all the emphasis is on performed sexiness," she said. "It's not empowering. It is trying to teach women that strong and hot are the same thing. It is not. Raunchy does not mean empowered."

At least one teen in the poll seemed to agree that the trend toward hyper-sexualized female pop stars did not serve their sense of empowerment.

"My parents' generation had the '60s and '70s, women's rights and the Beatles," she said. "What do we have? Paris Hilton."


Pop Singer Pink Makes Slaving for Beauty Look Ugly

By Courtney E. Martin

Pop singer Pink's "Stupid Girls" hit song and MTV video expresses outrage at young women's self sacrifice to beauty and fashion. Some have applauded her for being outspoken, while others say the song's name is insulting.

Pink - She leans over the sink in the bathroom of a hot nightclub, sticks a toothbrush down her throat and vomits while screaming, "I want to be skinny!"

This is just one scene of the action-packed music video for "Stupid Girls," first aired on MTV Jan. 26, as the first single released from pop star Pink's most recent album, "I'm Not Dead."

Pink--born Alecia Moore on Sept. 8, 1979, in Doylestown, Pa.--has built a reputation for being sassy since her debut album, "Can't Take Me Home," in 2000. The "Stupid Girls" video, though, and another controversial track on the album titled "Dear Mister President," have certified her as a rebel.

Early sales figures reveal a fan base hungry for her message. "I'm Not Dead" will most likely compete with her previous successes: 2003's "Try This," which has sold 700,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and its predecessor, 2001's "M!ssundaztood," which has sold 5.2 million copies to date.

Played over and over on MTV, the "Stupid Girls" video parodies conspicuous consumption, cosmetic surgery, eating disorders and vacuous celebrities. One refrain also raises a puzzling political question: "What happened to the dreams of a girl president?"

"Stupid Girls," which is the top debuting single of 2006 so far, has spilled beyond the usual TV and Internet margins of pop music. It has been taken up by bloggers interested in pop culture and feminism and has been discussed in high schools, colleges and families across the country.

'An Important Message'

"I am a mother of a 10-year-old daughter," reads a posting on Pink's Web site. "A few weeks ago I came across Pink's song 'Stupid Girls' on MTV. I immediately called my daughter into the room and we watched the making of the video together. What an important message."

With a broadcast range of 169 countries and 28 languages, the "Stupid Girl" video on MTV resonates internationally. "I am just glad that the girls from my classes (who are having a hard time growing up and finding their way) can listen to your songs," an English teacher in a German high school posts on Pink's site. "We sometimes talk about your lyrics in class."

Pink--one part pop, one part rock and one part hip hop--pens her own testimonial to her song and video. "A lot of people are relieved that someone has finally said something about the mindless epidemic of unhealthy girls out there promoting consumerism and escapism," she writes on her site.

In an early April appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Pink emphasized that the main message of her controversial video is that "smart and sexy are not oil and water."

Slaving Away

Another message that Pink conveys--as she falls off a treadmill, fake tans herself bright orange and lies on a gurney waiting for the surgeon's knife--is that slaving away to look good is ugly.

Jessica Weiner, author of the 2006 "Do I Look Fat in This?: Life Doesn't Begin Five Pounds from Now" book, which exhorts active self-acceptance, applauds the message. "We do have more opportunity open to us as girls and women and yet we starve out this freedom, nip and tuck it, focus on the surface and don't show up to vote, protest or make noise."

Social activist Adrienne Brown, co-author of the 2004 book, "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office: The Anti-Politics, Un-Boring Guide to Power," agrees. Brown calls the behavior that Pink mocks "a distinct brand of political paralysis" and says the singer is telling girls and young women "to be alive and active and fearless . . . the implications of which could include power: voting, advocacy, protest even."

Pink has also stirred uneasiness, in part because she is perceived as attacking women rather than darker forces at work in mass culture.

Culture Draws the Image

"My initial reaction was, 'Thank God someone is taking this stupidity as cool nonsense and doing something about it'," writes Feministing.com founder Jessica Valenti, who featured a link to the video on her blog. "But it also kind of made me sad. Should we really be calling each other stupid? That's not doing anything to solve the problem of how young women are being portrayed. Why aren't we analyzing the culture that demands this kind of image from them?"

Audrey D. Brashich, author of "All Made Up: A Girl's Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty," which was published last month, wonders if Pink's commercial medium can be trusted to convey a serious social message.

"Pink's marketers might have just tapped into the song because they thought it was funny, or because they like the 'catfight' aspect of it, not because they recognize the importance of its contribution to cultural debate," says Brashich.

A young woman posting on Pink's Web site felt maligned by the video: "I myself am struggling with binging and purging, but I am not a so-called 'Stupid Girl'. I have a high GPA, and I'm a very independent girl, but I am still struggling with bulimia and I was really disappointed to feel lumped in with the bimbos in your music video."

On Oprah, Pink explained what she means by stupid. "My definition of stupid is wasting your opportunity to be yourself."

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