Cross-posted at Love Isn’t Enough.
Diego Costa sent in an image of Jaden Smith, star of the remake of The Karate Kid, at a recent promotional event in China. In it, 11-year-old Jaden has lifted his shirt to show off his abs, while co-star Jackie Chan and a man I presume is the event host marvel at them:
What struck Diego is how this image was received differently than a similar image of an 11-year-old girl pulling up her shirt to show off her abs might be seen. For instance, The Huffington Post showed the image without any comment about its content. We might compare that to the public outcry over the images of Miley Cyrus wrapped in a sheet that came out two years ago. I also suspect The Huffington Post article might say something about the adult men in the above photo if it were a girl rather than a boy they were touching/ogling.
Apparently when he went on The View, Jaden said he’s “already a great kisser” and the audience cheered, though I can’t find a video of it.
Why is the exposure of boy bodies deemed appropriate whilst the revealing of girls’ bodies must always accompany relentless probing, judging and outrage? If we agree that we shouldn’t sexualize children, then let’s not do it to any child. And, while we are at it, let’s also not assume infantile heterosexuality by asking if boys already have “a girlfriend.”
Excellent points. I suspect if an 11-year-old girl went on The View and said she was a good kisser already, she and her parents would be attacked in the press, people would express horror, and rumors would circulate about whether she’s been sexually abused, is already sexually active, etc. etc. But when an 11-year-old boy does it? That’s cute! He’s on his way to being a smooth-talking ladies’ man!
I can’t decide if, or to what degree, race might be at play here. There is certainly a tendency to adultify non-White children — that is, to treat them as mini-adults rather than children at much earlier ages than White kids are. This includes sexuality (for instance, teachers often assume Black girls are sexually active at younger ages than White girls). My recent post on the hypersexualization of a 13-year-old Latino boy discussed this topic.
But I’m not sure if that’s playing a major role here, or if gender assumptions and him being the son of a much-beloved celebrity couple are the more important factors. Thoughts?
For another example, see our post on the Rolling Stone cover with Taylor Lautner.
el.j — June 19, 2010
I noticed something like this in the movie, actually. Of course it's a kung fu movie so one expects the body to be central, and for there to be a lot of emphasis on training, muscles, etc. but there was something creepy to me about how many shots there were of a greased up shirtless Jaden. At times it wasn't just watching an athletic body in motion, but rather distinctly echoed the kind of beefcake shots in action films. I did feel that his body was sexualized in some of the montages rather than just provoking wonder at its strength, flexibility, etc.
As well as the racial aspect, I wonder if that is layered by the idea that since he is Will Smith's son he somehow entirely reflects Will's characteristics - as if his childishness is exchanged for being "a younger version of his daddy" which permits sexualization in a way that would not be as openly available with a child without a famous and "charming" father. I think also worth acknowledging is the different roles black teeny bopper boys play as opposed to white boys - Justin Bieber or Jonas Brothers or whoever are supposed to be good innocent boys appropriate for first crushes for young girls because they are non-threatening, whereas young black boys in that role like Jaden or Lil Bow Wow formerly are supposed to be invested with a particular kind of "blackness" that involves a particular portrayal of cool. I don't know if I'm making sense in the way I want to, but young black male stars are pathologized in a particular way in that they are supposed to provide a more edgy alternative to the good white boy, and thus are expected to perform blackness in stereotypical ways that include attitude, sexuality, physicality, etc. Even though Jaden is as privileged class as they come, his value to Hollywood is still in his ability to play black, which is coded as "hood" (i.e. in the movie he's from the projects in Detroit). Black people who do not play black do not offer suburban white people the vicarious pleasure they get from observing and exploiting the "other." Therefore Jaden is required to have kissed girls, etc. because otherwise he is not playing his role as black correctly.
Liz — June 19, 2010
The worst example of this double standard I've seen was, ironically, in a Disney show, The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, with Dylan and Cole Sprouse. In the episode I saw these 13 year old boys (at the time) were completely obsessed with dating and getting the attention of older girls (in their late teens). It was like if Charlie Sheen was a tween.
This is very different from the adolescent boys I know who might be interested & curious about girls but don't border on stalking them. It was really the behavior that would be a caricature even in a 16 or 17 year old boy on a sitcom. But on the TV show, it was supposed to be "cute" despite it not being age-appropriate.
Anonymous — June 19, 2010
My first assumption was that race is the biggest factor here, moreso than gender in this instance. I was pretty much going entirely on my reaction to the picture though. I didn't realise that he's Will Smith's son, and i guess that plays a part. el.j's comment is great and i totally agree, I haven't seen the movie so i can't comment on that. To me the pic brings to mind the huge gulf between how young blacks are portrayed in contrast to their white male counterparts.
On a separate point, the quote you psoted, about it being accpetable to reveal boys bodies, and outrage when it's girls, I think this is a part of the greater difference in the accetpability of how men and women's bodies are shown overall. Like women in general are under greater scrunity when they reveal too much/not enough, and this scrutiny is also pointed at girl children. I do agree with the quote.
Kunoichi — June 19, 2010
I'm hearing good things about the movie itself, but when I first saw the trailer, I found it really disturbing to see such a young boy being put through that sort of extreme physical training. Young bodies that are growing and developing so quickly are highly prone to injury. Ooh-ing and ah-ing over the over developed physique of an 11 yr old bothers me on many levels.
jennifer — June 19, 2010
i have to say i am routinely disgusted by inappropriate questions to young people when they are on late night talk shows promoting movies. jay leno always seems to ask children if they have a heterosexually appropriate crush and what their first kiss was like.
uh huh — June 20, 2010
just an fyi, i think that comment about being a good kisser was on oprah, not the view.
Little Bumble Bee — June 20, 2010
Everyone here has mentioned the white gaze her and race, which I firmly agree with in this situation. But what about the fact that in this image we have two ASIAN men, including Jackie Chan being the ones facilitating the oogling? What does this mean? Where do Asians stand in this Black/White racial tension?
Syd — June 20, 2010
It's vaguely creepy, and it was in the movie too. I'm actually surprised to learn that he's only 11 years old. He played a 12 year old, so I thought he was actually 12 or 13, and just short for his age. It may not seem like a big difference, but it's the difference between a 5th/6th grader and a 7th/8th grader....which is pretty huge.
Which also may be part of it. Creepy as it is, it's unusual and impressive for such a young child to have such obvious muscle definition, a quality usually achieved via hard work, unlike other qualities associated with sexy adults that children might have (for example, a young girl with a 'good figure,' like in the Miley Cyrus example). It doesn't change the fact that I was wondering why they had a pre-teen boy with his shirt off so often in the movie, but there is a very slight difference.
Anonymous — June 20, 2010
Okay, maybe I'm missing something, but what exactly is sexual about abs?
el.j — June 20, 2010
I think also there's a connection between labour and sexuality. Part of the point of the action movie paradigm is that surrounding the movie are always interviews about how the star got so buff, their workout regime, how they ate only egg whites, etc. So that's also active here with Jaden having obviously trained martial arts for the movie, which means that his body is also correspondingly supposed to be fetishized in certain ways. Where this dovetails with race is that historically, one reason for the hypersexual mythologizing of Black bodies is that the Black body was a labouring one, which both dehumanized and sexualized the body by explicitly physicalizing it. This also meant Black bodies could be violated because they were unnaturally strong, felt no pain, were like animals, etc. Similarly, this discourse was seen with the bodies of working class women who laboured. The association of work with the body being available for consumption is literally seen in the connection between "working out" and hotness.
PS. re: what is sexual about abs: just as there's nothing immediately sexual about legs or arms, when the body is put into certain contexts those parts become sexualized. In this case, Jaden is showing off how developed is body is while adults gawk at him and physically point at his body. Clearly the context is showing his physique, and as a recent post on here about men's magazines discussed, male abs are right now an explicitly fetishized element of the masculine body. Think of "the Situation" as well - abs have for a while now been considered necessary to demonstrating the masculinity, fitness and strength of the male body.
Jessi — June 21, 2010
Just IMHO, this plays into the social more that is common(albeit damaging), that men love all sexual attention, whilst women are damaged by/resist it. For this reason, many men are far less likely to report/resist situations that make them feel objectified and sexually uncomfortable, because in many ways, our society expects them to enjoy it like the insatiable man-beasts that they are (irony intended). For this reason, (amongst many others, I am sure) men are far less likely to report sexual harassment and innuendo that is inappropriate, as well as sex crimes perpetrated against them.
This also is fed by the societal idea of men being sexually aggressive, while women are sexually passive. Because of outdated socio-religious mores and benighted ideals of purity, woman's 'role' is to resist overt sexualization, whilst it is a man's 'duty' to revel in it, no matter how uncomfortable it makes him.
Porky D. — June 22, 2010
This photo can't be compared to the Cyrus shot as there's nothing eroticized about it. The kissing thing on the View is another matter altogether, i can only assume that if he was seduced by Barbara Walters the whole country would say he got lucky. And where are his mom and dad in this?
TJ — June 22, 2010
I agree but I would also submit that it in the artistic world it is an attempt to solidify his heterosexuality and make him more marketable to teen girls. Miley Cyrus marketability works very differently because Miley's audience does not require her to be sexualized her target audience requires her to be a role model. I'm by no means defending just clarifying the origins. Also sexualizing seems strong for a pic of a boy with his shirt up. The discussion on the view however was absurd but its also Sherri Shephard and she is a buffoon.
Valereg — June 22, 2010
I'm not sure how much race or celeb affiliations have to do with this. But I definitely completely agree with the observation of the gender differences. If a 11 year old girl had gone on The View and announced that she was a good kisser, all hell would broke loose.
Porky D. — June 23, 2010
"If it has to do with the body it has to do with sexuaizing."
Hence a discussion about your Aunt Mabel's arthritis "has to do with sexualizing."
"If it has to do with language it has to do with sexualizing."
Hence a discussion about the difference between verbs and nouns "has to do with sexualizing."
nina — June 23, 2010
Let me start by saying that I am a mother and have male and female children. Before I was a mother I was already a fan of dance,swimming and gymnastics.I was also once married to a bodybuilder and he and I both spent a lot of time admiring other people's near naked forms.So I am accustomed to looking at naked and near naked bodies without ever having thoughts of sex enter my mind.
My default view of children's (and most people's) bodies is nonsexual.
When I see the photo of Jaden it is normal and I don't feel he is being sexualized and that it is being ignored by the media. I don't wonder why no one is offended at his sexual objectification. Instead I wonder why we cannot also look at a female child's torso and see it in a non-sexual manner as well.
I think we ALL have our biases. And one, IMO, is the inability to imagine a person looking at or admiring another's body in a nonsexual manner.(I've already stated mine-I tend to see bodies nonsexually) I completely agree with those who do not feel that children should be sexually exploited. However, by insisting that any display of flesh is "sexualizing" someone, it is possible that the person insisting is the one doing the sexualizing by being unable to imagine any other motive or reason for the failure to remain covered,other than sexual objectification. It is like the missionaries who insisted upon covering women in Polynesia, becuase they could not imagine that other people were not looking at their breasts and desiring them, because they were unable to look at their breasts without feeling sexual desire.Or people who can't imagine that nudist communities aren't dens of lust and sex.
The boy is young and already very fit and very strong and a skilled athlete. His musculature and development is exceptional, and from a purely athletic point of view worthy of admiration.What is a shame IMO is not that he is being sexualized, but that a female athlete of that caliber would not be able to show her torso wit non-sexual connotations.
We see what we expect to see. Rather than insisting upon covering people's bodies to prevent people from seeing them sexually, I'd love to see people learn to see women's bodies as neutrally as they see men's, and be able to admire a fit muscular female form without seeing her only as a sexual object.I'd love for women have the same freedom as men and not have to hide their forms to avoid being seen sexually
Daniel — June 28, 2010
You All Are So Hot .........
Sexualizing Boys, Part 2 » Sociological Images — July 6, 2010
[...] Costa recently pointed out to us the sexualization of Jayden Smith. In that post, I wondered if race played much of a part in this process; while non-White boys are [...]
Greg D. — July 9, 2010
One of the reasons why women/girls and men/boys bodies are perceived as differently sexualized has IMHO a deeper reason: a partially physiological partially social constructed difference in male and female sensitivity to visual sexual stimulation.
On the physiological side of things their are solid arguments that male an female react differently to visual sexual stimuli (www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/internet/.../hamann-et-al-efr--1-3.pdf)
On the social side of things I also think that the perception that naked boys body are not sexualized reflect the patriarchal hetero-centric order of society. Men/boys bodies are not considered sexual because they are not of the "natural" object of desire of heterosexual males.
It how different is the perception of homosexual men and women to a set of girls and boys body images to that of straight men and women.
Greg D. — July 9, 2010
My last sentence should read "It would be interesting to see how different is the perception of homosexual men and women to a set of girls and boys body images to that of straight men and women."
Pourquoi Justin Bieber est plus sexualisé que Miley Cyrus? | Actualité Internationale — July 9, 2010
[...] du remake de Karaté Kid, qui, sur une émission télévisée chinoise, soulevait son sweat-shirt pour montrer ses abdos, et expliquait très bien embrasser, sous les applaudissements du public. Et à l’hiver 2009, [...]
Shaping Youth » Media Vamping: Twilight Talking Points, Bite Me Brouhaha — July 10, 2010
[...] you all know, my pet peeve is the objectification of both boys AND girls…(see SPARKsummit save the date post on solutions-building with youth this coming fall!) [...]
lyssa — July 12, 2010
Honestly, I would gawk at any eleven-year-old with muscles like that. They're intense, lol
The difference between this image and the image of Miley is how they're presented. I'm still uncomfortable with both, but Miley looks to be in a sexual pose and completely nude while Jayden is simply lifting his shirt for a minute to reveal his muscles. There would be more of a problem if Jayden wasn't pulling his shirt up himself. This makes me bring up the Bieber-Kim photoshoot where it was suggested he get into water with a white shirt (this is an assumption, though).
I think another point to make would be that Jayden is proud of his work in The Karate Kid. He went through very intense training for it and I'm sure he's proud of his new-found muscles. This is different from Miley showing off her backside for no real reason or Bieber in his see-through shirt. There were different circumstances, but that doesn't make it any less "sexual".
The reason I think that it's worse to do this to girls is because of history. Women have always been considered frail and should be proper. Remember, it was once a large offense for a woman to show off her ankles. Look at how things are now, so much has changed since then. It's unfortunate, but it really is gender role.
I don't like how they do this with anyone, but I know that I have a bigger problem with people who are more feminine being treated like this. I associate feminine with "weaker". That's not to say that someone who is feminine cannot be strong. I think it's more of a "if they look weak, they're probably weak" type though process for me. I'm going to assume that the guy with muscles is stronger than the thin guy.
Sexualizing Boys: Totally OK | Love Isn't Enough - on raising a family in a colorstruck world — July 21, 2010
[...] Written by Love Isn’t Enough guest contributor Gwen; originally published at Sociological Images [...]
EXPL 310 » Blog Archive » Boys of Colour: Sexual abuse and Sexualisation — November 26, 2010
[...] Sharp, Gwen. (June 2010a). Sexualizing boys: Totally OK. Retrieved November 26, 2010, from The Society Pages: Sociological Images web site: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2010/06/19/sexualizing-boys-totally-ok/ [...]
rdangeo — January 24, 2011
I used to show off whatever little muscle I had as a kid the same age. We all checked out each other's muscles. I only feel sad that strength was not considered a feminine virtue and we weren't expected to nurture it, in fact it went against convention for a girl to work out. Being thin was important, but being strong was just wrong. If I had a set of abs like that at that age I'd show it off to the whole wide world and be all the happier. This isn't comparable to the Miley Cyrus shoot.
jc — December 20, 2011
so what if hes showing his abs? it all depends on you if you look at it sexual, i dont get how that is sexual at all, it just means that he probably trains really hard for someone his age, people nowadays just like to twist everything, its crazy