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Patrice Oppliger has three words to describe the trend of marketing makeup, sexy lingerie, and spa days for the prepubescent set: girls gone skank. It’s the title of the College of Communication assistant professor of communication’s new book, which explores what Oppliger calls the “self–sexual exploitation” of women.
She spent several years looking at the ways women were portrayed in the media — and the ways they choose to portray themselves, or their children, on the Web or in beauty pageants. Her conclusion? Even as women experience unprecedented social and professional empowerment, there is more sexual exploitation, and it begins at progressively younger ages. She speaks about Girls Gone Skank with BU Today.
BU Today: How did you become interested in this topic?
Oppliger: I saw this tiny little girl, about nine, with those Juicy Couture sweatpants on, with the Juicy logo across her behind. I just wanted to stop her parents and say, “What are you thinking? Attention pedophiles, come look at my daughter’s ass.” Then I drove by a Hooters and saw this sign for kids eat free night. And I started thinking about girls and women and sexuality.
Then I started looking at a phenomenon like Girls Gone Wild and what’s happening to our culture: the feminist movement worked so hard to get us equal rights and advancement for women, and then these young women with so many opportunities are showing their breasts to get attention. It used to be men who were exploiting women, but now it’s women who are exploiting themselves. We’ve built this culture of getting attention any way we can — even if it’s negative attention.
How did it start?
There are several hypotheses. One is that it’s marketing — the fashion industry. For the older generation, dressing sexy was a way of rebelling against their parents, but now the marketers are selling the sexualized clothes to the children and to the parents, and obviously somebody’s buying them. I’ve talked to parents who say it’s hard to buy decent clothes, because so many of the options are booty shorts and crop tops. There’s a real pressure there for everybody to conform.
It also might be the millennial generation; there’s become an emphasis on kids and making them happy. So parents became more indulgent. There’s this idea of, “I want to give my children everything I didn’t get.” So if parents wanted to dress sexier younger and their parents didn’t let them, they let their kids do it.
You interviewed young women who’ve participated in Girls Gone Wild–style videos, mothers who let their daughters dress provocatively, and people at strip clubs. How do they characterize their behavior?
There was quite a bit of defensiveness in some women I talked to, who said, “It’s not that bad; we know what we’re doing.” Their justification is, “I’m just showing how liberated I am; this is my sexuality and I want to flaunt it.” I think it’s male attention. Things like the MTV spring break shows have generated this atmosphere that this is what girls should be doing.
But a lot of the attitude was, “Our generation’s OK, but it’s my younger brother or younger sister I’m worried about.” We also discussed MySpace pages — they’re really outrageous in a certain age group, 13 and 14, but when they’re 17 and 18 it’s not that bad any more. The older ones look at that behavior as something they did in high school.
Do you think that means they’ll get past this aggressively sexualized phase earlier?
I don’t know if they’re truly past it — I wonder what form it will take as this generation gets older. I think there’s always been a pendulum swinging back and forth — if you look at the 1960s, women weren’t wearing bras, and in the ’70s there was this sexuality of the disco era. But I think now the marketers are involved. In the past, it was coming from the women themselves, saying, “I don’t want to be put down by this patriarchal system.” But now there’s such a dictate from the fashion industry that it’s not even a rebellion. Wearing sexy clothes is not rebelliousness today.
And the manufacturers don’t really care — their attitude is, “What’s the next thing we can push on them?”
So is there any hope of turning the tide, or will the girls gone skank trend progress?
It’s interesting, because the research shows there hasn’t been a really big spike in teenage sexual activity, and teen pregnancy is actually down. Cheerleading outfits are getting sexier and female athletes’ uniforms are getting sexier; it’s so pervasive in all these different areas — but it’s going on at a time when women are dominating college admissions.
I’m also wondering what Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign will mean in juxtaposition to this trend. This is a time in our history when we had the first serious woman presidential candidate, and lots of people were coming out of the woodwork to talk about the sexist attitudes that linger in this country — it was sort of an island in the midst of all this sexualization.
So these young women expect to get ahead, but at the same time, they’re using their sexuality to get attention in their social lives. I wonder if they will be able to separate the ideas that “this is me in my school, or workplace” and “this is me in my life.”
Jessica Ullian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally ran June 10, 2008.