I’ve been waiting for this since Monday, actually. Jezebel has weighed in on the Bright Young Things backlash: “The Right Wing Disinformation Campaign Against Victoria’s Secret”
All week, I’ve also grown increasingly antsy about how the discussion of the story got more and more hyperbolic and the age of the girls discussed dropped from teens to tweens. When HuffPo quoted my blog lumped in with outraged parents, I actually took a minute to rethink my argument. When I started getting tens of thousands of hits on a single blog post in a single day, it gave me pause. Here’s what happened from my side:
Saturday afternoon I took a break from reading to check the web and from someplace I can’t remember I got linked to the Today Show story about Bright Young Things. I am already doing a WGS paper in which I tangentially discuss the appropriation of Native American culture in the VS fashion show, so it caught my attention. One of the major issues I write about on this blog is the way girls are portrayed in media and consumer culture in narrow ways. For example, I have written about the positive portrayal of girls in Oscar nominated films, complicated and reductive ways girls are presented in education and international aid campaigns, race, class, and ANTM, high-achieving girls on Glee, Bunheads, Brave, the beauty industry, even in relationship to Liz Lemon. Admittedly, I do tend to slip a bit and discuss young women or the portrayal of femininity or beauty more broadly. Nonetheless, the argument I make time and again, and will make until I’m blue in the face, is that media literacy is an important tool to teach young people. I encourage not only more diverse and inclusive media representations of girls and women, but also that adults talk with the girls in their lives about media representations on the ground as they’re presented in order to empower girls to think for themselves, push back, and develop a sense of self that won’t be threatened by narrow representations of beauty, intelligence, femininity, race, etc.
In this context, in response to Bright Young Things, I simply wanted to point out that this marketing strategy was part of a larger cultural trend of age compression and strategies to tap into the teen market (which, btw, is a huge historic trend–source pending). Further, I wanted to point out that actually Bright Young Things was part of a larger strategy of objectification by VS. I also, however, was sure to emphasize that I wasn’t arguing against sex or sexiness, but rather in favor of discussing these images and marketing strategies with girls. I appreciate Miss Representation’s connection to body image as well. I can see the tactic for what it is, but I also have four years of grad school and half a certificate in WGS under my belt (pun intended?) in addition to amazing women and men in my family who raised me to think for myself. Most often, this is a learned skill. We have to have these conversations precisely because there is not one right answer for how to navigate coming into one’s sexuality and identity.
Now, I’m kind of red in the face because as the weekend wore on I became aware that what I thought I was writing about was not exactly what was reported. I updated my post to reflect that Bright Young Things was a marketing campaign, not an actual line. Even the Snopes report, however, points out that the brand’s strategy does target younger teens:
[CFO Stuart] Burgdoerfer’s comments suggested that the Victoria’s Secret PINK line was indeed intended to appeal to teenage girls (even if not explicitly marketed as such), and back in 2002 news accounts noted that the soon-to-be introduced PINK line had been announced by Victoria’s Secret as a ‘lingerie line for the 15- to 22-year-old market.’ Critics have contended that whatever Victoria’s Secret may claim as the targeted age range for their PINK line, their promotional efforts are intended to appeal to-and many of their customers are-younger girls.
So, though I think that Jezebel is right on a lot of points, I think they also are not acknowledging or addressing some of the issues implicit in the very debate over Bright Young Things. For example, columnist Jenna Sauers writes,
Others merely devoted valuable column inches to far-right rhetoric about the need to protect the “innocence” of “our” girls (it’s always “our” girls, because while boys know they belong only to themselves, girls are raised from birth in a society that tells them their bodies are never fully their own) from the potential harm of their own sexuality.
First, let me be clear, I don’t think girls need to be protected from their sexuality. I think they absolutely need to be taught to think critically about how their peer group’s sexuality is represented in the media, movies, tv, books, etc. She also argues:
But the story’s origins in the conservative blogosphere, and the way it caught on in the wider media by linking the sexual “purity” of young women to the moral fate of society, mark it as a story that exemplifies the most retrograde anti-feminist values. This is your bog standard Girls In Peril story. Lots of people love to get Very Concerned™ when talking about young women and sex for no better reason than they believe young women shouldn’t be having or thinking about sex under any circumstances.
I agree with that statement. In large, the accounts of the controversy were centered upon discourses that I like to call “Save the Girls!” stories. This discourse is something that I’m very critical of in my own work because it is flatly disempowering even as it often addresses issues that need to be addressed. I also think, however, that what is getting left out is that this whole conversation reveals an important part of the discussion about girls’ sexuality. There seems to be two narratives at work when we talk about girls’ sexuality. Either A) girls’ sexuality needs to be controlled because of morality, discourses of purity, teen pregnancy, they’re not mature enough, they’ll be used, etc. or B) Choosing to wait or to delay having sex, or choosing to wait again because you did have sex before you were ready, etc. are disempowering, repressed (my personal least fav.), or backward. I know that there are examples in-between: Rory Gilmore and Veronica Mars come to mind. But the major discussion of girls’ sexuality screams one of these two points and doesn’t usually include girls’ own voices, actually.
So, what I take issue with about Jezebel’s response is that there is a way to argue against the sexualization of teen girls without arguing against girls’ sexuality. (I know they think this whole thing isn’t sexualization. But I think they’re giving VS too much credit.) My issue with sexualization is that it works against the power of a person–young or old–to define herself or himself as a person with a sexuality, whatever that means to her or him. Instead, I think that it imposes discourses upon them and how other people view them. One of the things I love about feminism is that it can be a process of living with and working through contradictions, cultural and personal, and that it acknowledges a broad spectrum of sexualities and femininities. (Choosing celibacy falls on this spectrum.) I don’t think that we do the movement any favors when we shut out the voices of men and women who think selling a “Call Me” thong to a 15 year-old is sending the wrong message. We have to have these conversations, and not in a way that keeps things contained to internet or academic shouting matches.
Has there been an overreaction to this whole Bright Young Things campaign? Yes, most likely, but I don’t think I personally overreacted and I stand by my argument. Victoria’s Secret habitually encourages objectification of women–by themselves and in the media. I hope, however, that through all of this noise we can have real, honest conversations about how and when we talk with girls about sexuality–not just the sex talk, but how sex and sexuality are portrayed in our culture. Whether a teen girl decides to have sex or not, she is going to be exposed to a media that bombards her with images of meaningless sex, purity discourses, slut shaming, and hyper-sexual representations of women, retouched models, and “Look how shitty this gorgeous celeb looks without makeup!”. Our conversations tend to be pretty bipolar. And that’s why we need more of them, more inclusively, and to have them with girls, not just about them.