In this era of supposed female equality, it is surprising to find that sometimes the old clich are true – for instance, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” A new study by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California examined the top 100 grossing movies of 2009 and found that Hollywood movies “marginalize and sexualize” women as much as ever. One of the study’s authors said, “There are about 4,300 characters across 100 films per year, and under a third are female. There’s a remarkable stability. It becomes normative without some content creators even thinking about it. It’s a status quo.”
The marginalizing is very surprising when women have made such strides in educational attainment, in sports, in medical and legal careers, and in breaking the glass ceiling in terms of salaries and opportunities across the board. Yet, the Annenberg study reveals that in movies, men have over twice as many speaking roles as women (32.8 percent of speaking characters are women and 67.2 percent are men). These movie trends perpetuate the attitude that women are nothing more than “eye candy.” Television, too, perpetuates that attitude when male news anchors are in their 40s, 50s and sometimes 60s, while the female anchors are still in their 20s and early 30s.
The sexualizing is not surprising; it is very disturbing, because of the influence of movies on the culture and on the behavior of teens, as well as even younger children. The study showed that women were clothed in sexy attire more than six times as often as men (33.8 percent of the teen movie actresses wore sexy clothing as compared with 5.3 percent of the teen male characters). Even more troubling is the fact that the female teens – even those barely in their teens – were as likely to be sexually provocative as the women in their 20s. Such film trends encourage young men to treat girls as sex objects – even in some instances condoning and normalizing the sexual exploitation of young girls and women.
I and numerous other cultural commentators have become increasingly troubled by the early sexualization of our children and the numerous negative ramifications of that sexualization. Even pre-teen girls now want to look “hot” or “sexy” – not to mention the lack of emphasis on accomplishment and academic or sports achievements. The American Psychological Association (APA) formed its “Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls” to research the problems related to the early sexualization of girls. They found that the consequences of early sexualization are a “big deal” – it affects girls’ self-esteem as well as their emotional and physical health, along with their personal safety and achievements.
Many girls perceive their worth solely in terms of their sexuality; many look at their undeveloped and/or not-fully-mature bodies and find themselves lacking. Others despair that their pre-teen chubbiness is not “hot.” School counselors are very concerned about the increased number of girls who are dealing with issues of body shame, appearance anxiety, anorexia, and bulimia. While accurate numbers are not available, investigators say that between 10 and 35 percent of young women have an eating disorder, and about 15 percent of girls with anorexia die within 12 years because of complications. Clearly, in extreme cases, early sexualization can be disastrous – even deadly.
Many parents are concerned about the difficulty of finding clothing for their girls that doesn’t look like it was designed for streetwalkers. Abercrombie and Fitch recently marketed thong underwear for the pre-teen set with names like “Eye Candy” and “Kiss Me” to add to the cool kid appeal. The APA task force identified media – the Internet, movies/television, music/videos, and literature/magazines – as primary factors that contribute to the early sexualization of our children. Indeed, the typical adolescent is said to watch more than 40 hours of such media a week – usually more time than they spend with parents or with other activities except school and sleeping.
As long as our children live in a culture saturated with images of women as sex objects, they are going to be exploited by that culture. The APA task force reported long-term consequences for such early sexualization; they indicated that it could hinder children’s ability to form healthy relationships, even to the point of hurting their marriages and families later in life.
Indeed, young people seek out role models and learn their behavior from those they observe. Teens who watch the most television tend to begin sexual activity at a younger age than those who watch the least. Teens also form their values and are influenced in their attitudes by what they see depicted on screens, whether their computer monitor, the television, or movies.
While these trends are disturbing, it is encouraging that the primary influence on teens today remains their parents. Parents can view movies and other media with their children and use the scenes as fodder for discussions about the teen’s experiences and attitudes; such discussions can counter the prevailing messages of the culture and help the teen to develop positive attitudes and values. There is no denying the grip that media has on our children. It influences every facet of their lives, from the products in the shopping mall to the pace of their maturation. It is up to us to counter those outside influences so that our children can avoid the consequences of too-early sexualization and learn that they are more than hot bodies. They can learn to value who they can be as unique creations of God – persons with strong character, well-educated minds and caring hearts who will transform the world around them, rather than conform to the worst of their generation’s culture.