On average, children in elementary school watch four and a half hours of television a day: At that rate they see almost 80,000 examples of “sexy girl” role models, in children’s programming alone, every year. A new report details why we should we be concerned about how much more they will watch during school closures due to the pandemic.
A new briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families examines the mixed signals the mass media sends to girls when they say “Girls Rule” but continue to present “Sexy Girls” as role models. “The media want kids to do what they say, not what they show,” notes Stephanie Coontz, CCF Director of Research, “but as every parent knows, kids pay more attention to what we practice than what we preach. This research shows that ‘The Talk’ may be equality, but ‘The Walk’ is something else entirely.”
The report, “Media Messages to Young Girls,” authored by Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, spells out how children learn the desirability of “looking sexy” from the mass media– and the ways this undercuts their own self-confidence and the respect they get from others. For example, girl characters continue to be under-represented in the most popular tv shows for elementary school children, but when they are shown, they are mostly portrayed in a sexualized way. Girls learn the rules quickly, telling Brown and her team that “the way to achieve high status and popularity is to be sexy,” even as they also tell them that sexy girls are not very nice, smart, or athletic.
Even when school is in session, Brown calculates, elementary school children watch four and a half hours of television a day, and see more than 75,000 examples of “sexy girl” role models a year. With 21 of the 25 largest school districts in the country choosing remote learning instead of in-person classes, such exposure to sexualized images of females is likely to balloon this fall as children spend more time with media than in classrooms, playgrounds, and sports.
And that is a big problem, Brown’s research shows, because when girls prioritize sexualized attractiveness, they minimize traits they think are “incompatible with sexiness, such as intelligence….When researchers gave some elementary-aged girls a sexualized doll (“Fashion” Barbie) to play with for just five minutes, the career aspirations they reported afterwards were more limited than those of girls who played with the non-sexualized Mr. Potato Head.” Even more disturbing, children in elementary school exposed to pictures of sexualized women rate those women as less worthy of being helped when in danger than non-sexualized women.
Brown notes that the girls who buy into these media-fueled “sexy girl” aspirations are not responding to pressure from boys their own age. “When we ask children to tell us about the sexualized girls, it is girls who recount elaborate stories about why sexualized girls are more popular and attractive. Boys in elementary school are still pretty clueless about the different implications of a girl wearing a belly shirt or a hoodie.” In other words, says Virginia Rutter, author of The Gender of Sexuality, who was not involved in the research, “this is not so much a kids’ problem as a grown-up problem. Girls are trying to live up to what the media tells them is valued in grown-up women by grown-up men.”
For Further Information
Christia Spears Brown, Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky; christia.brown@uky.