One of my objections to the current moral panic over the sexualization of children is that it lacks historical perspective. It is in the nature of moral panic to exaggerate the extent and urgency of the problem and to demand immediate action. However, when one goes back and studies the advertising of the past, especially the era prior to the sexual and feminist revolutions, we see very clear evidence of the sexualization of children, young girls in particular.
I think it is important to note that during this pre-feminist era the ideal woman was seen as child-like and naive, in need of a man to take control. Thus sexiness was equated with innocence, dependence and gullibility. There was not as much of a gap between a girl and a woman. I have already examined some of the films of the era that depict a young girl/woman molded by an older man: My Fair Lady and Gigi. In many ways the young girl was seen as a smaller version of the adult woman. No wonder there were so many ads depicting the young girl dressed identically to her mother or older sister. The message was clear. The young girl was being prepared to fulfill her only role – as wife and mother.
What is interesting about the contemporary panic over the sexualization of girls is a concern that young girls are being ‘adultified’, that is, being expected to wear adult styled clothes. A recent Witchery campaign raised the ire of several groups pusshing the moral panic over sexualization and adultification.
But where is the deeper analysis? How is it that these advocacy groups have come to believe that there must be a separate type of children’s fashion? How are they not aware of the popular trend of matching outfits of the 50’s and 60’s?
It would seem that they have constructed an ideal that bears no relation to living history. Indeed, it seems to be an ideal constructed from highly selective cultural memory.
This also applies to the sexualization of girls. We like to think that this is a new phenomenon. We assume that in the past the advertising industry did not place adult sexual concepts on to children. This again, is wishful thinking. The conservative 50’s and 60’s clearly produced images that would today be regarded as inappropriate and banned. Indeed, any modern advertising executive would know these ads were inappropriate.