Is childhood becoming oversexed?
With their made-up eyes, pouty lips and short skirts,
these girls look like real party dolls.
In fact, they are dolls. They're the Bratz, the 10-inch “girls with a
passion for fashion” whose skyrocketing popularity among young girls has
ignited a marketing war with Barbie, the long-reigning queen of the
fashion doll world. Compared with the flirtatious-looking Bratz, Barbie
looks like the scrub-cheeked — albeit curvaceous — girl-next-door.
As thousands of girls dump Barbie for the Bratz, child development
experts worry. They see the Bratz as the cutting edge of a worrisome
trend: the increasing use of sexual imagery in products marketed to
They call it the “sexualization of childhood” and point to other
examples: thong underwear emblazoned with sexually suggestive phrases
for 6-year-old girls; “pimp” Halloween costumes for little boys; the
increasingly sexually explicit content of TV shows, movies, and music
Some products, like the Bratz dolls, are specifically
aimed at children. Others are marketed to teens but attract younger
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report showed that most American
children age 8 and above have TVs in their bedrooms and no parental
rules about what they watch. Among the top 15 TV shows with children age
2 to 11 are “American Idol,” “Survivor” and “Desperate Housewives,”
according to recent A.C. Nielsen statistics reported in the Orlando
Child development experts worry that such a sex-saturated culture
encourages children and young adults to define themselves mainly by how
sexy they are, and to see sex as the most important quality in a
“It's not the fact that children are learning about sex when they are
young that is a problem. The problem is what today's sexualized
environment is teaching them,” said Diane Levin, a Wheelock College
child development professor.
That environment, she said, is undermining normal sexual development and
promoting precocious sexual behavior, such as the apparently increasing
popularity of oral sex.
“It doesn't bode well for the future of intimate and
caring relationships in which sex is a part when today's children grow
up,” said Levin, whose essay, “So Sexy, So Soon,” is included in the
newly published. “Childhood Lost: How American Culture Is Failing Our
Children,” edited by Point Park College psychology professor Sharna
Marketers, however, contend that today's kids are growing up in a
different world than their parents did and are savvier at younger ages.
Some also complain that adults read too much into products that kids see
merely as “fashion forward” or “cool.” They point to government data
showing a decline in teen pregnancies and an increase in the number of
kids who wait longer to have sexual intercourse for the first time.
Ultimately, marketers say, it's up to parents to
decide what their children buy and watch.
“That's what parents are for — they can't duck that
responsibility,” said Daniel Jaffe, executive director of the
Association of National Advertisers, a Washington, D.C.-based group that
represents major advertisers. “My own view is that this is the most
important thing that parents can do for their kids — setting limits.
Kids are looking for parents to tell them what is right and what is
Child development experts counter that this often is an impossible task
for parents when they are up against companies that spend more than $15
billion a year on marketing to children. That figure includes more than
just sex-linked products, of course, but it helps highlight the
challenge, the experts say.
“People have been making money off this for a long time, but I think it
is getting worse,” said Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a Cornell University
professor and author of “The Body Project: An Intimate History of
Jean Kilbourne, a visiting research scholar at the Wellesley College
Centers for Women and author of “Can't Buy Me Love: How Advertising
Changes the Way We Think and Feel,” said “children are sexual beings.
But in an ideal world they grow into their sexuality gradually, and in
an age-appropriate way. Now, there is so much pressure on them at a
young age to model an adult version of sex that is way beyond their
Vicky Rideout, a Kaiser Family Foundation vice
president who heads the group's study of entertainment media and health,
said “kids are just consuming huge amounts of media. ... As part of
that, they watch a lot of TV, video and movies that aren't intended for
their age and, in the process, pick up a lot of messages.”
Many parents don't believe it, but focus groups that Kaiser recently did
with “tweens” — children age 8 to 12 — showed a “50-50 split,” Rideout
said. “For some of these kids, it's going right over their heads. But
others are picking up on every single thing.”
Gary Cross, a Penn State University modern history professor and author
of “The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American
Children's Culture,” said children always have liked to emulate older
kids or grown-ups. And “being more grown-up in a society that is highly
sexualized means being sexual,” he said.
Jim Silver, editor of “Toy Wishes” magazine and a veteran observer of
the toy and children's entertainment scene, said it was the popularity
of pop singer Britney Spears that inspired toys like the Bratz dolls and
clothes like the navel-showing “belly” shirts.
“It's the Britney-izing of America,” Silver said.
“People don't realize how big she really was five years ago.”
Many parents, however, can attest to the persistent cultural power of
Spears and other sexy pop stars like the Spice Girls, Levin said. A
woman recently told Levin the story of how her 4-year-old granddaughter
began gyrating and singing the song “Let Me Be Your Lover” when a shoe
salesman asked what was her favorite Spice Girls song.
The ubiquitous nature of sexual imagery and content has “de-sensitized
parents” to its impact on children, who don't understand much of it and
sometimes even find it scary, Levin said. Parents “have come to accept
such sexualized content as Britney Spears, Bratz dolls and professional
wrestling females as a regular part of even young children's
Issac Larian, president of MGA Entertainment, which makes the Bratz
dolls, contends that child development experts have got it wrong.
“Unfortunately, it is the polluted mind of some adults who 'see sex' in
everything. If you ask the kids (and we have) what do they think of
Bratz, they will tell you they are beautiful, inspirational and
multiethnic,” Larian said.
“Bratz dolls show the society and the girls and their
parents the positive messages of: 'It's O.K. to be multicultural and
multiethnic in this world' and 'it's O.K. to be able to express yourself
and have self-confidence as a girl.' ”
Sean Pillot de Chenecey, an international marketing consultant, believes
some marketers have gone too far and are risking a backlash from
parents. “Last year, there was outrage in the U.K. over thongs for
10-year-olds being sold with an image of a cherry and the words 'Eat me'
on the front,” he said. “You couldn't make this stuff up, it's so
Daniel Acuff, a veteran youth marketing consultant, agreed that “there
is a backlash in the offing” and that marketers must take responsibility
for pushing products that are too sexy, violent or unhealthy for
Acuff, the co-author (with Robert Reiher) of the about-to-be-published
book, “Kidnapped! How Irresponsible Marketers Are Stealing the Minds of
Your Children,” said parents need to get involved and understand that
marketers are bottom-line driven.
“A lot of the marketers are young themselves, and don't really have the
values perspective that is needed,” Acuff said. “Raising health children
truly 'takes a village,' with everyone playing their part.”
8 May 2005