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 actressGeena 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. 

At the SPARK summit and its constituent women's organizations, leaders emphasize a subtle but crucial difference between "healthy" and "harmful" iterations of teen sexuality. A rigid, male-oriented, surface conception of sexuality being thrust upon girls a la the Pussycat Dolls is pernicious. But young girls taking charge of their own sexuality and making choices that are smart, healthy and feel good is fabulous. It's a difficult line to delineate for the general public, especially considering the average American IQ on nuanced sexual issues, not to mention the average media-maker's apathy about any social message he or she sends. But the "own your sexuality" mantra is aimed at young women viewers as it is at conglomerates, a consciousness-raising tool designed to generate outrage at future scandals.

Media personality and sex educator Amber Madison, the emcee of the SPARK summit, explained the way social definitions of sex began to strike her the minute she hit puberty at age 13. She described getting the sensation that “I was constantly being sexualized” and never felt like her sexuality was “under my control,” she told the audience. “Today is not about telling you what to wear,” she told the young women present. “It’s about realizing you don’t have to be a passive observer.”

Control and agency are major talking points of the SPARK ethos. Geena Davis, who started a foundation to improve women's representation onscreen, spoke of the importance of embracing female characters in movies and TV who dohave agency over their own lives and sexuality--”the baseball player, not the baseball player’s girlfriend.” She said the iconic ending of Thelma and Louise influenced her burgeoning media activism: “We’ll do anything, even drive off a cliff, to retain control over our own lives.”

SPARK organizers cite a 2007 American Psychological Association task force report (pdf) on the sexualization of young girls; the most downloaded study in that organization’s history. The report summarized findings that exposed a correlation between girls’ low self-esteem, low performance and the viewing of negative images in the media. Other studies SPARK relies on link overexposure to sexualized media images of women with depression, eating disorders and risky sexual behavior in girls--and demeaning, sexist attitudes in boys. Their goal in pointing out these troubling statistics isn’t finger-pointing, but instead getting girls and women to get outraged and become critical, participatory media consumers.

Young women and older women alike participated in panels and workshops at the summit, adding their names to letter-writing campaigns and even trying podcasting, blogging and video exercises. All the activities were designed to give participants practice flexing their collective muscles and raising their voices in opposition to the material they see onscreen or on magazine pages. The message couldn’t have been clearer: “Resist those images,” Davis told attendees. "If all of us can start noticing and actively working, we can get the critical mass.”

SPARK's launch of a new "movement" is a clever approach to a perplexing problem of how to fight degrading images without curtailing sexual expression. The mainstream media may not be able to absorb this kind of message without losing its head over the words "girls" and "sex" in the same sentence, but perhaps some young women in the audience at SPARK will end up influencing programming at a major network. Maybe they'll encourage their stars to stay away from those GQphotographers and instead pose, as a regretful Dianna Agron wistfully wrote on her blog in response to the controversy, "in a treehouse ... playing with my pet dragon."

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Sarah Seltzer is an RH Reality Check staff writer and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Bitch, Venus Zine, Women's eNews and Publishers' Weekly.