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Little girls or little women? The Disney princess effect

In today's highly sexualized environment – where 5-year-olds wear padded bras – some see the toddlers-and-tiaras Disney princess craze leading to the pre-teen pursuit of "hot" looks. Do little girls become little women too soon?

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In one recent study, University of Buffalo sociologists Erin Hatton and Mary Nell Trautne examined the covers of Rolling Stone magazine between 1967 and 2009. They found a "dramatic increase in hypersexualized images of women," to the point that by 2009, nearly every woman to grace the magazine's cover was conveyed in a blatantly sexual way, as compared with 17 percent of the men. (Examples include a tousled-haired Jennifer Aniston lying naked on a bed, or a topless Janet Jackson with an unseen man's hands covering her breasts.)

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With no way to get away from the sexualized images, Maya says, it's better to recognize and co-opt them.

She and other young women helped develop the website poweredbygirl.org on which girls blog, comment, and share ideas about female sexualization in the media. The site includes an app that lets users graffiti advertisements and then post the altered images – one recent post, for instance, takes a Zappos magazine advertisement showing a naked woman covered only by the caption "more than shoes!" and adds, "Yet no creativity" to the slogan.

"Once it's brought to light in a satirical way, it loses its power," says Jackie Dupont, the programs director at Hardy Girls Healthy Women. "The ridiculousness about what the advertisements are trying to say about women becomes more apparent."

Sexy's not about sex, it's about shopping

Media images, though, are only a part of the sexualization problem. More invasive, Levin and others say, is marketing.

Since the deregulation movement of the 1980s, the federal government has lost most oversight of advertising to children. This has encouraged marketers to become increasingly brazen, says Levin. Marketers are motivated to use the sexualization of women to attract little girls, or violence to attract little boys, because developmentally children are drawn to things they don't understand, or find unnerving, Levin says.

In this context, she says, sexy is not about sex, but about shopping. If girls can be convinced to equate "sexy" with popularity and girlness itself, and if "sexy" requires the right clothes, makeup, hairdo, accessories, and shoes, then marketers have a new bunch of consumers.

"Age compression," the phenomenon of younger children adopting patterns once reserved for older youths, helps with sales. If girls start wearing lip gloss when they are 6 years old (as almost half of them do, according to Experian Simmons national consumer research) and mascara when they are 8 (the percentage of 8-to-12-year-olds wearing mascara doubled between 2007 and 2009, to almost 1 in 5, according to market research from the NPD Group), then it's clearly better for cosmetic companies. This is also why, Levin speculates, thong underwear is now sold to 7-year-olds, and padded bras show up on the racks for 5-year-olds.

Meanwhile, there are deepening gender divisions in toys, clothing, and play activities. Orenstein explores in "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" how the color pink has become increasingly ubiquitous to the point where many young girls police each other with a pink radar – if that tricycle, for instance, isn't pink, well then, you shouldn't be riding it.

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