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New Feminist Coalition Slams Sexed-Up Images of Girls

Feminists launch a movement to push back at pole-dancing for preteens and hypersexed images of girls -- without being anti-sex.

It was the photo shoot that produced a thousand groans: a provocative, sexed-up Glee spread in GQ. Staged and shot by controversial (and notoriously creepy) photographer Terry Richardson, it featured Glee's three straight white stars in problematic poses: a fully clothed Cory Monteith flanked by his scantily clad female co-stars Lea Michelle and Dianna Agron. The two young women were seductively photographed with their mouths agape and skin showing, both dressed in outfits that seemed half porn film, half high-school.

For feminist media watchdogs, the photos' aesthetic of teen fantasy meets blatant adults-only allusion represents a troubling trend: the sexualization of girls. It's a trend that includes pole dancing kits, thongs and padded bras packaged for the prepubescent set (not to mention those high-heels for toddlers) and the yearly phenomenon jokingly known as "slut-o-ween" in which women and young girls are encouraged to wear scanty costumes. And then there are even more systemic problems like advertisements’ ubiquitous sexist messages, and ritualized media scandals around young female celebrities. After all, "edgy" magazine spreads such as the Glee fiasco have become a rite of passage for young women in the entertainment world who want to make a splash. Agron and Michelle were following the same cookie-cutter trajectory that stars like Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears have taken: baring midriffs and pouting at the cameras to signal sophistication and availability.

As a result of this saturated media environment, a massive coalition of women’s groups are launching a movement called SPARK, to “take sexy back” and encourage young women to critique and protest the way they are portrayed in the media and marketed to by advertisers. SPARK (“Sexualization protest: action, resistance, knowledge”) held its kickoff summit on Friday at Hunter College in New York. A slew of big names riled up the crowd of women young and old, including actress Geena Davis, sex educator Amber Madison, and trailblazing filmmaker and writer Jean Kilbourne. Representatives from dozens of prominent women’s organizations organized and attended the event, as did a large contingent of teenage girls. A livestream and chat broadcast speeches to viewers around the country.

SPARK is not opposed to girls being sexual or having sex. In fact, Women’s Media Center’s Jamia Wilson had the audience repeat the mantra “we are not anti-sex” several times during her early-morning speech. Instead, the message is about rejecting a standardized, commercialized and denigrating take on what girls ought to do to be sexy: lose weight, purchase stilettos, or make out with other girls for male amusement, for instance. “Sex and and sexuality are an important and vital part of life,” Wilson said. “Sexy is not just a look, but a feeling.”

This week, conservative-leaning groups including the Parents Television Council also voiced concerns about the lack of family-friendly material in the “Glee” GQ photo shoot. But feminists have done their best to distance themselves from that kind of censorious hand-wringing. As Wilson took pains to note, the SPARK movement has no objection to sexual content per se. Instead, their beef is with the disturbing, and disturbingly predictable, dynamic in the GQ spread--its themes of male dominance and female subservience, its posing of its 20-something actors known for playing teens in markedly high school garb, and the absence of Glee's coterie of queer, disabled and minority characters. In other words, its reinforcing of patriarchal norms.

“When the culture offers girls and women only one way to be sexy, it can hardly be considered an authentic choice,” Kilbourne told the SPARK audience, also pointing out that U.S. culture combines an onslaught of porn-inspired images with a prudish lack of proper sex education for actual teens. 

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