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Guest: Subverting the media sexualization of young girls


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Modern parents have more challenges and responsibilities because of sensationalized media channels. In the 1980s, when I was growing up, there was only one popular children’s show, “Sesame Street,” so my parents had to face less challenges of media sexualization.

Now, parents have a difficult conundrum: how to explain to their kids the messages coming from different media channels. To explore the right answer, I contacted Gigi Durham, a profound author and an associate journalism professor at the University of Iowa. Her most recent book is The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It.

Durham has always been a feminist activist with a deep concern about sexual violence against women and girls. She has been researching media representations of female sexuality for approximately 15 years. So the book was the endpoint of a long involvement with this topic.

Her book is about empowering girls to recognize the more damaging messages they’re getting from the media about their bodies and their sexuality and encouraging them to make good decisions for themselves. The book presents a different perspective on the issue with new, sagacious advice every parent should know.

Based on her experience as a mother of two girls, Durham started talking to her own daughters about this when they were very young — around 3 years old. “Not necessarily about sexuality, but about how to tell the difference between fact and fiction,” she said.

“I would ask them why TV ads were telling us that sugary cereals were good for us, when they weren’t; or whether they thought Disney princesses could really walk on such skinny legs,” she said.

Durham believes it helped them learn to be critical of the media, rather than passive consumers. These conversations need to start early so there’s a basis for having deeper, more complex discussions as kids grow older.

In addition, Durham said, she thinks her book could be used by parents from diverse cultures, because it provides adults with accessible information about how to analyze and understand the media.

For example, many international students are living with their families in Iowa. Most of the married students are concerned about how to save their kids from the negative effects of the media or glamorized society. For such families, Durham’s book also offers suggestions for opening up conversations and dialogues with kids about these topics, so parents can adapt the ideas to their own cultural contexts and frameworks.

The most important part is opening up safe spaces for conversation and critique. But we can also praise girls for accomplishments beyond physical beauty. We can encourage girls to create their own media. And we can encourage them to become activists on behalf of girls and women, Durham said.

Still, the UI associate professor argued, it’s almost impossible to change these media myths, because they are so lucrative. They make billions of dollars for media corporations, and there’s synergy between these myths and the products that they are tied to, such as diet aids and fashion. So education and grass-roots resistance seems to be the more productive avenue.

“In our media-saturated environment, the skill to understand the media is as crucial as math or writing,” Durham said.

Lamia Zia, a freelance journalist, worked in print and broadcast journalism in Pakistan and now writes a regular column for The Daily Iowan.

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