Perhaps the most striking thing about the Department for Education’s announcement of yet another government review of the ‘commercialisation and sexualisation of children’ is the official statement given by Children’s Minister, Sarah Teather, which includes the following statement:
We’ve all read the headlines about high-street shops selling inappropriate products for children and many of us are worried about some of the marketing practices that are being used specifically to target children. By reviewing commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood we want to better understand not only how we can help parents resist these things, but also how we encourage all businesses to take their responsibilities as seriously as the best ones already do.
Oh dear, yet another policy review driven by newspaper headlines – although to give Teather a little credit, at least she’s admitting it even if, as you’ll see in a moment, its all destined to end very badly indeed.
Before going any further, I should make a bit of a declaration of interest.
My own daughter will be celebrating her eleventh birthday during the Christmas holidays. She is already 5ft 1” tall, four inches taller than her 19 year old cousin, and is rapidly developing the kind of looks and other physical attributes that leave me wondering whether or not now would be a good time to invest in a shotgun. Luckily, for my own current piece of mind, and the personal safety of teenage boys in my neighbourhood, she is still very much an innocent. Nevertheless, I’m resigned to the fact that she is growing up and that before too much longer the Barbie dolls and Doctor Who Action figures will find their way to the back of a cupboard to be replaced by an interest in make-up, fashion, crap pop music and boys – or girls, one should never prejudge such things, after all.
The force that will drive this change isn’t advertising and it certainly isn’t the sale of Playboy-branded folders in WH Smith, it’s actually the 150 years or so of welcome improvements in public health and childhood nutrition which, between them, have resulted in the average age of the menarche (first menstrual period) in Britain falling from around 17 years of age to a little under 12 years. The biological development of modern teenagers is, today, running around four years ahead of prevailing social attitudes towards the development of female sexual maturity, a fact that makes some people very nervous but which is, nevertheless, a price I consider to have been well worth paying for the decline in childhood mortality we’ve seen over the same period.
I’ve digressed, for what I think are valid reasons, but now its time to get back to business and to these newspaper headlines about High Street shops selling age-inappropriate products, a subject on which the BBC helpfully provided a few examples in its coverage of last week’s announcement.
Pride of place in the Beeb’s coverage was given to the alleged sale of ‘porn star’ t-shirts, a story that took me a while to run down but which turns out not to have anything whatsoever to do with the UK.
This is actually a three-year old story from New Zealand about a fashion label whose charitable activities – it designed and sold a fundraising t-shirt for children’s hospital in Auckland – put on the wrong side of bit of standard tabloid hyperventilation after a newspaper discovered that the company also produced a range of children’s clothing that sported the legend ‘Future Porn Star’.
Yes, that is a bit tacky and the range’s designer, Francis Hooper, did very little to help his own cause by trying to blow off the media’s overheated criticism by describing the clothes as ‘an adult purchase for children’ before adding that “as a fashion designer I’m being humorous and irreverent”.
Nevertheless, Hooper does have a point. As far as I can tell, the only way to get hold of this clothing range in the UK is by purchasing it over the internet using either a debit or credit card or, at a push, a Paypal account that has to be loaded up with cash by an adult using their credit/debit card. Adults are making the purchasing decisions here, not children.
What’s actually going on here only becomes apparent if you take careful note of the rent-a-gob content of the story.
But Stop Demand spokeswoman Denise Ritchie saw nothing humorous about it, saying it was irresponsible and World needed to grow up.
A lot of “creepy” men found such images arousing, she told the newspaper.
“Stop Demand” is, as you might have already realised, an anti-child abuse/child sex trafficking campaign and in common with most such campaigns displays all the usual ignorance of the actual pathology of paedophilia. The kind of ‘creepy men’ that Denise Ritchie imagines will find the sight of a child in a ‘Future Porn Star’ t-shirt ‘arousing’ are equally likely to become aroused at the sight of a child in Disney Princess t-shirt or any other clothing for that matter, however innocent and demure it might appear to anyone else.
Before moving on, I would sound one note of caution here. There is an actual ‘Porn Star’ line of t-shirts and other clothing that can be picked up easily over the internet, but this appears to be sold only in adult sizes, so it would be sensible to exercise rather more care than the BBC did when commenting on this story given the pernicious nature of our own libel laws.
I’ll come back to padded bra thing at the end, but for now we should move on to the next ‘newspaper headline’ referenced by the BBC article.
This, again, mistakenly suggests that Tesco’s found itself in hot water for selling a ‘lap-dancing kit’ aimed at children when, in fact, it was a pole-dancing kit that was mistakenly advertised in the toy section of its online store.
Mistakes of this kind are not at all uncommon on large retail website selling tens and hundred of thousands of individual items. On one occasion, I found Amazon UK advertising the 18-rated horror movie ‘Ginger Snaps’ as a sale item in its children’s DVD section but rather than run screaming to the media for my fifteen minutes of fame all I did was email Amazon and point out the problem, which they duly fixed. That’s exactly what Tesco did in this case, when the error was pointed out to them. It moved the pole-dancing kit into the sporting goods section of its site, which is where it should have been to begin with and where it was much less likely to perceived to be marketed specifically at children by an overwrought customer.
Moving on to the next item, the now-defunct Woolworth’s chain ran into difficulties over a child’s bed which was sold under the ‘Lolita’ name by its French manufacturer. The story was covered by The Register – thankfully – so we can at least get a pretty clear idea of what actually happened – and it turns out that this whole incident kicked off after the editor of raisingkids.co.uk, Catherine Hanly, spotted the name of the bed and posted this comment on the site’s forum:
“Am I being particularly sensitive, or does anyone else out there think it’s bad taste for Woolies to have a kiddy bed range named ‘Lolita’?”
The correct answer to Catherine’s question was “Yes, you are being ‘particularly sensitive’” but common sense failed to prevail and she didn’t to wait too long for the overheated comments to come rolling in, including:
“What on earth kind of parents would buy this for their children? OK, you might not know the significance of the name, fair enough, but SOMEBODY at Woolies thought this was as suitable name for a child’s bedding range and I am willing to bet that they DID know the significance of the name.”
“I am appalled at woolworths stupidity. The term lolita nowadays refers to a sexually precocious child!!!! taken from the novel and films of the same name. how much encouragement does the paedophile community need!”
No, the name Lolita is still what it always was, a diminutive form of the common Spanish name Lola which is, itself, a diminutive form of the name Dolores.
Sadly, Nabokov’s classic novel has spawned an unfortunately convention in the world of pornography in which images of underage girls, and girl who simply appear to underage, are colloquially referred to as ‘Lolitas’ but this seems to very much an English-speaking thing. It certainly doesn’t seem to bother the French, which is why the company that made the ‘offensive’ bed, Parisot, is marketing a whole range of bedroom furniture for children under the ‘Lolita’ name. The same company also has a bedroom range for boys called ‘Wizz’ that, no doubt, will end up getting slated by the Daily Mail for its coded – as in ‘for dimwits’ – reference to amphetamine sulphate should they ever notice its existence.
If anything seems clear, its that the French don’t automatically associate the name Lolita with either Nabokov’s novel or kiddie porn and nor, indeed, do the Mexicans. So, if you’re planning a holiday in Mexico City any time soon, you could do much worse than consider staying at the 3-star Hotel Bungalows Lolita – just mind the pool as the reviews suggest it’s a bit on the nippy side.
Woolworth’s did respond to the adverse media attention it received by withdrawing the ‘Lolita’ bed from sale because, as the old retail adage, the customer is always right – even if the customer is a hyperventilating idiot with a penchant for projecting their own ridiculous, media-fuelled, insecurities onto an innocent piece of bedroom furniture.
Okay, time to get back to this padded bras thing, an issue that’s been kicking around the media since at least 2003, when BHS were pushed into withdrawing a range of allegedly age-inappropriate children’s underwear featuring the Mr Men character Little Miss Naughty, which The Sun newspaper labelled ‘sick’.
The degree of hypocrisy on display in that last statement is best exemplified by this observation, from Guardian columnist Libby Brookes, which was published at the time:
Last week, the Sun proclaimed victory after BHS agreed to withdraw a line of underwear aimed at children of seven and upwards which the newspaper had branded “sick” in a previous report. The range of knickers and padded bras, emblazoned with a Little Miss Naughty motif, were withdrawn from stores. The newspaper – which that day also carried a double page, colour photograph of a topless teenager posing with an army truck as a war-time morale booster – went on to print a list of other “provocative” high street items, including cropped tops for three-year-olds from Next, kids’ thongs from Etam and a “very adult” bikini from Debenhams.
Little Miss Naughty made her first appearance in the second of Roger Hargreaves’ Little Miss books in 1981 and appears to have led an entirely innocent existence until The Sun decided the character was single-handedly corrupting the nation’s youth during the height of one of its regular ‘Paedogeddon’ campaigns and she remains firmly out in the cold today. Somewhat ironically, as anyone with a sense of cartoon history will readily appreciate, while you can no longer buy your kids any Little Miss Naughty branded clothing at BHS, you can pick up a fairly decent range of Betty Boop items despite that fact the pretty much all of her early cartoons have been out of circulation since the 30’s due their overt sexual content.
For anyone who’s never seen any of the early cartoons and has seen Betty only in her later and much toned-down housewife incarnation, the standard plotline for all her early cartoons amounted to five minutes or so of Betty desperately trying to hang on to her virtue while being pursued by a wolfish character intent on depriving her of her virginity. Oh, and if you do run across any of the early cartoons, the best, by some distance, is ‘Minnie the Moocher’ in which the animated protagonist is a Walrus voiced by the late, great, Cab Calloway.
BHS were only the first retail chain to run foul of the curse of the padded bra.
In the last 2-3 years, the same fate that befell BHS in 2003 has visited Asda, Tesco, Peacocks, Primark, Next, La Senza and Tammy, all of which have committed the cardinal sin of selling underwear ranges for young girls that loosely mimic adult styles and ranges.
Yes, it’s possible to feel just a little queasy at one or two of the items that have been withdrawn from sale under the beady of Britain’s self appointed moral guardians, especially the pink and black lacey underwear set, with padded ‘push-up’ bra that Asda had on sale at one point – that item did, I agree, take the imitation of adult styles rather too far. But most of the other items that the media and others have seen fit to complain about seem extremely tame by comparison. This was certainly the case with the La Senza Girl range that was withdrawn after the Mail on Sunday threw a hissy fit over what appears to have been, from the photos in that last linked article, nothing more than an ordinary pair of children’s knickers.
The more you investigate this issue, the more apparent it becomes that there is little or no evidence that children are being ‘sexualised’ by the sale of allegedly age-inappropriate items but plenty of evidence that adults, many of whom really should know better, are being propelled into projecting adult notions of sexuality – and adult sexual insecurities – on to innocent children by an out-of-control, paedophilia-obsessed and utterly hypocritical media culture.
What retailers are exploiting here is children’s perfectly natural and utterly innocent desire to imitate their parents. Kids naturally go through a stage in their development during which they invest a considerable amount of time and energy in an effort to copy their parents. This, for girls, typically involves slopping around the house in their mom’s high heels and, if they can get into their parent’s bedroom without being noticed, raiding their mom’s supplies of make-up and perfume. What you typically end up with, if the latter happens, is nothing more a kid in desperate need of bath because, despite their best efforts, they always end up looking like Coco the Clown and smelling like a pox doctor’s surgery.
That’s just a normal part of growing up and, for pretty much all parents, once you get over the initial shock of discovering that your precious daughter has doused the cat with half a bottle of Chanel No.5, what you’re left with is a mildly amusing, if relatively common, anecdote to share with your friends. In fact, I have to wonder just how many of the forum dwellers at sites like Mumsnet can either tell just such an anecdote about one of their own kids or, perhaps, have a mother with an anecdote of this kind which relates to them and their childhood. Most of them, I should imagine, as very few parents ever seem to survive their daughters’ formative years without at least one make-up incident.
To a child this is nothing more than a dressing up game – and so too is a padded bra, bikini or a set of underwear that loosely resembles the stuff that mom has in her underwear draw.
The question that has to be asked here is that just exactly who and what it is that people are worrying about?
Is it the children, how they look, how they feel about themselves and their general well-being, or is it – as it certainly seems when you read what’s in the media – that what’s actually got people in a hysterical funk is the largely imagined prospect of adult men perving over teenage girls?
If it’s the latter, and I very much suspect that it is, then isn’t pushing the whole emphasis of the debate towards the issue of allegedly ‘sexualising’ children coming a little too close to blaming teenage girls – and younger – for somehow inducing adult men to lust after them?
It’s one thing, after all, to complain – somewhat ridiculously – about a company marketing a range of bedroom furniture under the ‘Lolita’ brand name but quite another to unwittingly buy into the whole ‘Lolita’ myth – forgetting that Nabokov’s novel is a work of fiction – and conduct the entire public debate on that basis.
By the same token, if you’re at all worried about the role that media plays in pimping out teenage girls for profit then it has be recognised that some of the worst offenders aren’t the ‘Lad’s Mags’ or pornographers – the mainstream porn industry is actually very tightly regulated in regards to the age of its performers – but our own tabloid press. Try searching the websites of the Daily Mail or The Sun for references to Miley Cyrus or Emma Watson and you’ll quickly see what I mean.
To give just one perfect example of the kind of errant media hypocrisy I’m talking about here, a little over three weeks after the Daily Mail slated La Senza for introducing its La Senza Girl range of underwear for children it reported that noted photographer Annie Lebowitz had issued an apology over a tastefully shot,’topless’ photograph she’d taken of the then 15 year old Miley Cyrus, which had been published by the upmarket magazine, Vanity Fair.
Photographer Annie Leibovitz has apologised for the topless picture she took of squeaky-clean Disney star Miley Cyrus.
The legendary snapper caused massive controversy with the picture she took for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, which shows 15-year-old Miley with her back exposed.
But today she insisted the portrait of the star of U.S. TV series Hannah Montana has been “misinterpreted” by its critics.
The story, itself, might just about qualify as news, but even so the Daily Mail were in no sense obliged to reproduce the ‘offending’ photograph on its own website, which of course it did and where it still appears to this day.
If you’re of the opinion, as I am, that this whole ‘consultation’ is little more than a ridiculous and unnecessary exercise in pandering to the censorious instincts of the tabloid press then by far the easiest way of ensuring that it, like its predecessors, fails to achieve anything of note, should be obvious. Simply put forward submissions to the review pointing out that Associated Newspapers, News International and Richard Desmond’s Northern and Shell group are amongst the worst and most prolific offenders when it comes to perving on teenagers and you’re pretty much guaranteed to kill any and all prosepct of the review having any impact at all.
Nanny McTeather might not thank me for that observation, because it pretty much guarantees that the reviews findings will wind up in the bin, but then what else are we do when faced with yet another ridiculous exercise in government bansturbation.