Hot pants or hot air?
Is the 'sexualisation of young girls' really getting worse - or has it been exaggerated for the sake of shocking tabloid headlines? Ruth Whippman reports
I was a TV researcher for several years. As well as being mind-blowingly fascinating, it's a strange and often stressful job. You are, in effect, the personal concierge to the uniquely demanding creature that is the TV producer (I later became one of those too, so feel I can speak freely) and it is your job to fulfil his or her every creative whim.
You must interpret the weird, cosmic ordering - "I need a man who is so addicted to gambling he wears nappies! By five o'clock! Plus a kilo of moon rock!" - and bring back each bizarrely specific item on the list. Given that your job depends on it, you get pretty good at making items materialise out of thin air that one might have believed did not actually exist at all.
This is a skill that comes in particularly handy when the 'sexualisation of children' story rolls around again, usually in response to another government review on the subject (there have been five separate reviews into this issue since 2008 - it's a great vote-winner for politicians.)
Reading what the tabloids had to say on the matter, it would be easy to believe that Britain's high street was brimming with pint-sized prostitute apparel; that Bratz dolls were turning tricks on the shelves of Toys 'R' Us and Matalan's childrenswear buyers were little better than a paedophile ring. So when your producer asks you to get hold of a few sleazy items for kids for a programme on the subject, it should be a doddle.
"I want crotchless knickers for four year olds!" I remember one producer bellowing (and, in case that was a little on the subtle side, helpfully clarifying: "something that shows off the kid's vag.") Mentally adjusting the request for legality and plausibility I would obediently trot off to the shops.
It allows the tabloids to adopt the tone at which they most excel: that of simultaneous sanctimony and titillation
And each time, the same thing would happen. After days of scouring the darkest corners of the high street, I would draw a blank. Despite the compelling motivation of the TV researcher's crushing fear of failure, it was almost impossible to come up with a single item that even the most assiduous Daily Mail hack could get particularly worked up about.
The children's sections of the shops were filled with jeans and t-shirts and leggings and plain white cotton training bras. No Playboy t-shirts, or shockingly short skirts or black lace underwear for eight-year-olds anywhere in sight.
In fact, the general landscape of creepiness seemed, if anything, to have gone down a notch since I was a kid back in the 1980s, when the sight of a five-year-old Sheena Easton impersonator in nightwear and full make up, crooning "night time is the right time...we make love" on prime-time television was considered a wholesome evening's viewing.
But instead of throwing our hands up in defeat and putting out a programme admitting that the whole issue had been exaggerated beyond all proportion, we would dredge up a couple of pairs of fishnets in a size extra-small from a market stall somewhere, that could possibly fit a largish eight-year-old with a bit of hoiking up, and maybe a couple of shortish skirts, and a Bratz doll or two, and would put it all together, throw in some shock-horror commentary and thus perpetuate the moral panic.
The 'sexualisation of young girls' story is a favourite with the media (the observant among you will notice that there's a clue to this in the words 'sex' and 'young girls'.) It allows the tabloids to adopt the tone at which they most excel: that of simultaneous sanctimony and titillation - admonishing with one hand and wanking with the other - and gives everyone a free pass to show lots of pictures of teenagers in skimpy outfits.
Exaggeration and scaremongering are all very well when it comes to the tabloid press, but when this issue starts taking up a fair amount of valuable government time and resources then it starts to become a problem, especially when the it starts to obscure other more real and pressing concerns.
As we gear up for yet another government 'crackdown' on child sexualisation, this has never been more in evidence. The policy recommendations unveiled to business leaders in Downing Street this year, were inspired by the findings of last year's Bailey Review commissioned by the Prime Minister, into the so-called 'commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood'.
The Bailey Review is a perfect example of how the pursuit of a tabloid-style moralising agenda can divert attention away from problems that are far more important.
The review was headed up by Reg Bailey, the CEO of conservative Christian charity, the Mothers' Union, whose work involves, in part, lobbying on this very issue (other projects include selling toys and other children's products on their website - nothing sexual of course, unless you happen to have a fetish for nursery prayer books.) It was tasked with exploring all aspects of the commercialisation of childhood, including, but not exclusively the issue of sexualisation.
Given the work of Bailey's organisation, it would seem likely that he would be keen to pursue the sexualisation agenda at the expense of other concerns, and that is exactly what happened.
The unisex toys of my childhood have largely disappeared
At the outset of the review, Bailey's team asked parents what their most pressing concerns were for their children under the broad subject heading of the commercialisation of childhood. Predictably, given the media coverage given to the subject, and the general nature of the questioning, they mentioned sexualisation. But they also gave equal weight to another topic, one which is much less popular with the media.
The issue they mentioned repeatedly as being of particular concern, was that of gender stereotyping, in toys, products and marketing aimed at children.
Parents are right to be worried about this. Gender stereotyping in children's products in recent years has taken a leap into the realms of caricature.
Far from a steady march towards equality of the sexes, a segregation now exists that would have been considered laughable in my childhood in the 1970s and '80s. Walk into any toyshop (except the weird middle-class ones that only the sell the unidentifiable wooden toys that your kids hate) and you will find a neon pink girls' section displaying a Lilliputian dystopia of domestic drudgery (hoover! Do laundry! Find fulfillment in childcare! Apply kiddie make-up to disguise the dark hollows under your eyes caused by valium addiction!) A slightly more fun but equally restrictive boys' section will offer up various miniaturised means of mass slaughter, with a handy selection of emergency vehicles to clean up the bloodshed. And social ridicule awaits children of either sex who break out of the shackles of their gender.
The unisex toys of my childhood have largely disappeared, with even Lego, the last bastion of Scandinavian common sense, recently releasing a range of pink and lavender Lego for Girls, complete with beauty-salon themed set.
A growing body of scientific research points to the fact that this type of gender stereotyping is harmful for children, impacting significantly on cognitive ability, confidence and life prospects as well as encouraging bullying and alienation for those who don't fit the bill.
And, as pointed out by Meg Barker, senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University, unlike gender stereotyping, no corresponding research exists to demonstrate that sexualisation of children in products and clothing has long term damaging effects.
Despite the claims of certain popular science authors, this growing gender divide is not about biology but about money. Treating boys and girls as entirely distinct groups of consumers - each needing their own complete colour-coded set of toys - can double sales.
Marketing executives are highly incentivised to exploit children's fledgling sense of gender identity to make them persuade their parents to part with their cash. This is certainly one of the clearest examples of the growing commercialisation of childhood, exactly the area that the Bailey Report was supposed to be exploring.
Despite this glaring truism, and the fact that parents cited gender stereotyping as a key concern, the Bailey Review managed to dispense with the issue with breathtaking dismissiveness.
Bailey concludes, contrary to the scientific evidence, that far from being the problem that silly old parents thought it was, gender stereotyping is actually 'healthy' for children
The 99 page review document devotes just five paragraphs to the problem (although, to give Bailey credit, they punch above their weight - between the five of them they manage to pack in the full range of clichés, offensive stereotypes and cod-science commonly deployed on the subject.)
Bailey starts with the tedious and largely discredited neuroscience argument, regurgitating the idea that gender differences are biologically driven and there ain't much that nurture can do about it (Cordelia Fine dismisses this myth particularly effectively with a meticulous look at the evidence in her book Delusions of Gender.)
And then immediately contradicting his initial insistence that what we like and dislike is pre-ordained by our gender at birth, he then suggests that gendered marketing can indeed change behaviour, but...wait for it.... in a good way!
Girls who wouldn't normally be able to handle something as difficult and 'boyish' as science could, it turns out, grow to like it after all, as long as it was marketed to them in a pink package, as an activity that could encompass their true calling - that of beauty and pampering. (It's not quite clear how he squares his 'science is for boys' worldview with the fact that girls have long been outperforming boys in science at school.)
He then offers up a case study, provided by a toy manufacturer named Bob Paton, who states:
We were selling chemistry sets at a rate of 15,000 per annum, but when we put them in pink packaging and called it a craft activity sales went up to 80,000-120,000 sets per annum ever since!... Experience has taught us that the success or otherwise of a toy depends largely on... communicating quickly to the consumer whether a toy is best suited to boys or to girls.
Which seems to put Bailey in the unlikely position of defending gender stereotyping on the grounds that it furthers the noble cause of Helping Shops Sell More Stuff, a viewpoint one might think was a little out of place in a document that is supposed to be combatting the commercialisation of childhood. Incidentally, it would have made interesting reading had the same logic been applied to a case study in the 'sexualisation' section of the review, for example:
We were selling plain white cotton underwear for children, but were only shifting 15,000 units per annum. As soon as we shifted to black lace peephole bras we were our sales went up to 120,000 units per annum ever since!
Bailey finishes up his brief foray into this issue by concluding, contrary to the scientific evidence, that far from being the problem that silly old parents thought it was, gender stereotyping is actually 'healthy' for children and that no action should be taken on the matter. He then moves on from the issue with breakneck speed, devoting the rest of the 99 pages of his report to his pet cause and thereby crushing forever the fledgling hope that someone might somehow take a real look at how this problem might be tackled.
As well as it being amazing that such blatant sexism was allowed to pass through unquestioned in a 21st century government document, the Bailey Review is a real missed opportunity. As the captains of industry gather in a series of meetings at Downing Street to discuss Bailey's recommendations, this issue will not be on the table.
Gender stereotyping in marketing to children is one area which could truly benefit from some light regulation, or voluntary codes of practice, or at least a genuine discussion which looks objectively at the evidence of the harm this issue causes. If Bailey hadn't been so blinded by his own moralising agenda, things might have been different.
Image of the front page of the Bailey review, 'Letting Children be Children' in the public domain. Picture of an advert for dressing-up costumes shows a boy and girl wearing aprons, with the boy's apron reading 'Super Chef' and the girl's apron reading 'Super Cook.' Picture of an advert for boys and girls dressing-up trunks: boys' trunk is brown and contains costumes for pirates and cowboys, girls' trunk is pink and contains fairy costumes.