Miley, Bratz and sexualization of girlhood

The News TribuneAugust 29, 2013 

Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus perform at the MTV Video Music Awards Sunday.

SCOTT GRIES/INVISION

Miley Cyrus, bless her flesh-toned togs, has given America a teachable moment.

It’s hard to deliver sexual shock to jaded 21st-century America. Cyrus gave it her best shot on MTV’s Video Music Awards Sunday, simulating sex in various weird ways, but merely came off as a coarse 20-going-on-40 woman trying too hard to outdo the pros in the porn studios.

Cyndi Lauper summed it up: “So sad. So sad.” Those of a certain age may recall the day when the marketing of females as sex objects was considered retrograde.

But what were those teddy bears all about Sunday night? Someone in the marketing department obviously liked the idea of mixing up icons of girlhood and tarthood — a combination that pretty much describes the persona of 20-year-old Cyrus, like Britney and Lindsay before her.

Miley first came out as a vixen at age 15, posing topless for Vanity Fair when she was still Disney’s Hannah Montana. Killjoys call this kind of thing the sexualization of girls. It’s a far bigger phenomenon than a debasing performance on MTV.

Miley Cyrus is a profit engine whose fan base has been young females — mid-teens and pre-teens. There are still plenty of 13- and 14-year-olds who see her as what they’d like to be. And plenty of advertisers eager to pitch that brand of womanhood to girls.

Grade-schoolers are being sold pushup bras, lingerie, false eyelashes, makeup and even thong underwear with very adult statements on the crotch. Bratz dolls — a brand marketed to kindergartners and even preschoolers — feature “Sasha,” “Jasmin,” “Jade” and “Cloe,” a lineup of plump-lipped party girls who sport mini-skirts, fishnet stockings and heavy mascara.

We could go on, but you get the idea. Strangely, comparably sexed-up products never seem to be aimed at 7-year-old boys.

When young girls get told that being female is all about lithe sexiness — and when adults don’t challenge that message — they are prey to a host of problems.

Comparing themselves to media sex goddesses with slender-but-busty shapes, they may develop miserable body images. They may start smoking or stop eating to stay unnaturally thin. They may accept sexual harassment and abuse from boys and, later, men.

Saddest of all is the simple loss of childhood. Girls ought to be able to get muddy, play hide and seek, read “Little House on the Prairie,” learn to pitch and fish, and generally romp around without obsessing about how male-worthy they are.

Part of the idea of performances like Miley Cyrus’ is to elicit finger-wagging and harumphing lectures from out-of-touch grownups. Happy to oblige. One job of grownups is to watch out for girls and girlhood.

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