There is an episode of Mad Men entitled “Love Among The Ruins” which begins with several characters watching the opening number of “Bye Bye Birdie”. The male characters are all completely enamoured of Ann-Margret, the worryingly childlike singer, and Peggy, the only woman in the room, disgustedly comments that what the men are attracted to is the singer’s “ability to be twenty-five and act fourteen”. This really struck a chord with me as it did with many female viewers as it speaks to the way in which women are expected to be young in order to be appealing – from The Sun running a countdown to Emma Watson’s sixteenth birthday, to the age gap in Hollywood movies.
Ann-Margret in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’.
One thing that caught my eye recently was quiteirregular’s blog post about the sexualisation of women in education. I realised how disturbing it is that the phrase “sexy schoolgirl” collocates in an acceptable and expected way (can you tell I’ve been revising for my English language exam?). The phrase “sexy schoolboy” is jarring and disturbing but the reverse is totally normal. This is also reflected in the portrayal of students of different genders on television (speaking in a gender-binary sense as the TV industry primarily does). A typical representation of teenage boys would be something like ‘The Inbetweeners’ (a problematic way of looking at masculinity but that’s a discussion for another day) – although the Inbetweener boys are presented as sexual beings, it is from the perspective of them attempting (often unsuccessfully) to pursue women – or as Jay might put it, trying to get “knee deep in clunge” – and the viewer is supposed to be repulsed and embarrassed by these boys’ first forays into adult sexuality. In contrast, girls of the same age are portrayed as alluring, unattainable and above all sexually attractive objects.
This imbalance in the portrayal of girl versus boys on TV could because an unrepresentative proportion of TV programmes and films set in schools are told from a heterosexual male perspective, or because high-schoolers are almost always played by adults in their twenties and the standards of beauty in order to be allowed on TV are much higher for women than men, or maybe it’s just because women in wider society are judged by their sexual appeal. In any case, the effect is that school-age girls are viewed, if not as sexually viable themselves, then as theoretically sexy. I don’t know about the wider implications of this, but speaking from a personal experience as someone who left school only a couple of years ago this has a very real effect on the way teenage girls view their sexuality. From a shockingly young age (10, I think – definitely before I understood what sex was) I was aware of a pressure (real or perceived) to present myself in a way that was sexually attractive to adult men – this is almost entirely because the media gives the impression that that was the primary way in which women gain validation and maturity. Especially given that I am asexual, this performance of sexuality was entirely for the benefit of onlookers rather than myself.
Even more disturbingly, when things like pigtails and school uniforms become accepted sex symbols it directly affects those girls for whom school uniform is their life not a costume.
All in all, the creepy perception that the appearance of youth is inherently sexual can fuck off.