Infantilizing Women, Sexualizing Girls By Grace Yia-Hei Kao
“Should a 13-year-old and a 20-something really be wearing the same sexy, bustier-enhanced…costume?”
I spent last Friday night on a double date with my husband and another couple at a restaurant that featured a live band. We enjoyed the retro-vibe, food (fondue!), and the music, although I found myself bristling with irritation when the lead singer of the band, who was obviously channeling Betty Boop in appearance and mannerisms, began singing “I Wanna Be Loved By You” in signature Helen Kane style (picture cutesy, affectedly nasally, and childish). Since the critique of the infantilization of women in popular culture is well-trodden territory (and has even been parodied by singer-songwriter Pink in “Stupid Girls”) I found myself wondering what had unnerved me so much.
The answer is simply that my annoyance at the evening’s entertainment of yet another grown woman feigning girlish, coy innocence and thus not “owning” her power, maturity, or sexuality was precipitated by what had come in my mail that afternoon—a catalog of Halloween costumes and paraphernalia.
While the catalog featured a predictable assortment of costumes (e.g., animals, superheroes, scary monsters), I was caught off-guard by how sexualized many of the costumes for girls, tweens, and teens had become. I’m talking exposed midriffs (genie costume—don’t get me started on a spin-off Orientalist critique), short flared mini-skirts, fishnet stockings, and tight bustiers (intended simultaneously to slim waists and push-up breasts). Even more shocking was how identical or virtually identical the costumes marketed for “girls/teens” and “adults” were, as seen in the examples below.(Teen)
Should a 13-year-old and a 20-something really be wearing the same sexy, bustier-enhanced “Queen of Hearts” costume? Should a 4-year-old and a college coed really be wearing virtually identical (also bustier-enhanced) outfits while posing with a similar hands-on-hips stance?
Toddler-Child (2/4, 4/6)
According to the implicit (heterosexual) male gaze that is incessantly marketed to us, women are supposed to express their sexuality in girlish ways (notice that these adult models are costumed as children’s book characters or candy), while girls-tweens-teens are supposed to dress provocatively in ways that suggest sexual experience beyond their years. Full disclosure here: these observations are coming from someone who was once herself a girl-sexualized-for-Halloween-in-ways-she-didn’t-quite-appreciate. To give two memorable examples, in fifth grade (in the 80′s) I went as Madonna; in eighth grade, I went as what I would now describe as a sexy black cat (but thought at the time was “just a cat”).
Much Ado About Nothing?
The case of the female lead singer at my date night locale was arguably one of life imitating art or even art reproducing itself (in the entertainer’s deliberate adoption of the Betty Boop persona). However, in the case of these Halloween costumes and other examples of overly sexualized children’s clothing, we are talking about a more alarming possibility—of art imitating life—a scenario all the more frightening in light of the documented “market demand for young victims” of sex-trafficking in the world, including in the U.S.
Some might contend that I am making much ado about nothing—that we should celebrate the choices of grown women who infantilize themselves for their own purposes (n.b., Paris Hilton has made millions beyond her inherited wealth doing just this), just as we should regard as innocuous girls-tweens-teens playing “dress-up” by simply donning “what mommy [or her cool aunt] wears.”
Naomi Wolf, author of the international bestseller The Beauty Myth, gave an interview on April 16, 2009 where she observed that third-wave feminists in contrast to their second-wave foremothers tend to be “much more pluralistic about sexuality and personal expression and…fashion choices and much less dogmatic.” She was not, of course, talking explicitly about the parallel phenomena (of women infantilized/girls sexualized) described here, though one might reasonably suspect that a similar difference in judgment between second-wavers and third-wavers would apply in this case.
If so, I would have to place myself as closer to the second-wave on this score.
Stop the Infantilization of Women and the Sexualization of Girls
Put simply, the infantilization of women cannot be reduced to mere “choice” when it takes place in contexts with vestiges of patriarchy, just as the hyper-sexualization of girls cannot be rendered as harmless child’s play when it is empirically linked to negative mental health consequences, as a task force by the American Psychological Association has recently concluded.
The ethicist in me accordingly wants all people to take responsibility for their sexuality (and accordingly not feign childlike innocence) if they are to engage in acts of sexual expression or activity. And the feminist in me wants all girls, tweens, teens, and women to be comfortable with whatever authority or power they might have.
This last point (about power and authority) bears underscoring, for we live in a world where discrimination on the basis of sex is still common and where sacred texts are often used to keep women subordinate (to men) as well as to prohibit women from developing their full range of spiritual gifts in positions of religious leadership. (So-called “clobber passages” in my own Christian tradition include 1 Tim 2:11-15, 1 Cor 14: 34-35, and the various New Testament haustafeln or “household codes.”) This is why it is so disheartening to see grown women elect to undermine their own authority through girlish regression.
We are all impoverished when girls and women either cannot or will not “claim” their rightful place, either because of de jure forms of sex-based discrimination, or because they choose instead the temporal rewards of conforming to de facto gendered social norms which generally restrict assertiveness and boldness as virtues only for men.May those who share my commitments accordingly work together to create a world in which adult women can confidently come to “own” their own sexuality, power, and authority in morally responsible ways, and where girls/tweens/teens can have the space to develop and claim the same without external pressures to rush the process. Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is currently teaching “Feminist Ethics” to 25 MDiv/MA/PhD students. Read more about her work at her website. *The author would like to thank Gina Messina-Dysert, Caroline Kline, Monica A. Coleman, Najeeba Syeed-Miler, and Nathaniel Walker for helpful advice on an earlier draft of this blog.