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Not a Figment of Our Memory

We’ve ignored the sexualization of girls in the media for too long

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It is to no one’s surprise that commenting on women’s bodies in the media still persists. One could even assert that it has become the standard for rising stars to have their appearance take precedence over their talent, as has been the case for nearly every woman in the entertainment industry. Despite the world, including the entertainment industry, shifting directions to become increasingly “woke” and supposedly aware of issues perpetuating today’s culture, the sexualization of female celebrities has remained constant. Gender equality has been at the forefront of conversation over the past three decades, but the male gaze has yet to back down. Throughout the years a single trend has remained the same: the younger a female celebrity is, the more sexualized they are. Society’s obsession with young, virginal girls has turned into an insidious epidemic — not only affecting the victims, but also reshaping beauty standards for generations to come.

While the sexualization of women in the media is nothing new, its true repercussions became evident throughout Britney Spears’s career. Debuting at the age of seventeen, the young girl quickly became a pop sensation, a status which subjected her to the cruel judgment of the public eye. Spears’ image screamed innocence while her songs placed deliberate emphasis on sexual innuendos. Of course, she wasn’t the only one who played off of the “untouchable creature” stereotype, as Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, and Mandy Moore — to name a few — were also presented through this lens of naivety. In the manufactured entertainment industry of the 90s, it was almost a requirement to appeal to audiences as the virginal girl next door, arguably regressing progress made in women’s sexual independence. In fact, Dr. Jenna Drenten, an associate professor at Loyola University, found that the obsession with untainted female pop stars stemmed from a societal desire to take “control of these women again and get them to literally sign pledges for abstinence” — since “purity and virginity has always been something that’s been intermingled with women in the spotlight.”

Moving forward in time, the widespread popularity of child actors on the Disney channel gave way for another round of mass sexualization in the media, particularly for Selena Gomez. After rising to fame through Wizards of Waverly Place, she turned to a career in music. To thrive in this industry, the innocent young girl narrative was once again used to drive appeal and continued interest in Gomez. Driven by a pressure to succeed, her sexuality was manipulated in album covers, music videos, and public appearances. This multi-layered system of sexualization is dangerously insidious, in that it occurs both on behalf of entertainment companies and the masses who consume their media. Gomez has acknowledged her role in this system as a young girl by saying, “I know they put you through a system and make you feel like this is how you have to do it.” In the late 2000s and early 2010s, however, these structures of sexualization continued to be pushed under the rug. Although feminism was a popular movement during this time, we allowed these young girls to feel helpless at every turn in their career, further perpetuating their sexualization.

Despite growing awareness of the public’s inappropriate perception towards female celebrities, we can’t claim that sexualization is not prevalent in today’s cultural strata. Through the advent of social media, commenting on the bodies of young women has become so easy — drastically unlike how gossip and rumours spread in the 90s. Billie Eilish and Millie Bobby Brown have both spoken out about their struggles and how society has treated them. Brown noticed the shift between the sexualized remarks she received when underaged and those made upon her turning eighteen, which abolished her previous “untouchable” status. One particular moment she noted in an interview with Teen Vogue were the extreme reactions from online users over her wearing a low-cut dress. Such behaviour continues to reflect the stereotypes of pop star virginal identity that was so strongly emphasized nearly 30 years ago: our culture has yet to change.

The roots of our collective ignorance on this issue stem from the proliferation of patriarchal views that are projected onto women and girls in the media and entertainment industries. The “ideal” standards of femininity, such as being docile, naive, and obedient, are pushed onto those in the spotlight, turning these figures into distorted representations of women. It is another effort to control women’s self-expression and individuality by limiting promiscuity and allowing men to believe that these girls hope for their virginity to be taken from them. This toxic coming-of-age narrative is also interwoven into every young-adult plot line — such as Laney Boggs in She’s All That, or Josie Geller in Never Been Kissed — always showcasing the female characters’ desire to engage in sexual or romantic behaviour. Without a critical reassessment of the current social structures where women face perpetual scrutiny for their every opinion and action, misogyny will keep thriving. Dismantling our inherent biases is no easy feat, but it first requires an acknowledgement of the harm being done towards these victims of sexualization.

Although Billie Eilish has been a target of the same sexualization process that most young female celebrities have gone through, her resistance to being seen in such a light has created a slight shift in the overall perception of female musicians. By emphasizing individual choices and freedom — in constantly changing her manner of dress or speaking her mind — she has caused a rift in the image of innocent femininity in the media. Her choice to rebel against roles women have traditionally been forced into opens the door for women to achieve success in ways other than the overt selling of their sexuality. While those gates have not completely widened, this shift can at least provide hope for a future world where women don’t have to face the scathing pain of being sexualized by the male gaze before anything else. For now, the first step entails acknowledging that internalized misogyny within the media has been woven throughout our history like a thread. It exists faintly in our memory: ignored, repressed, and avoided.