Scope | Sonia Ghalian
As a part of my larger research project that aims to understand the various ways in which notions of childhood are constructed in the cinematic medium, my recent interest has been towards observing the various popular trends that have emerged in the cultural imagination of children and adolescents. For example, my niece, who is now seven years old wears everything that is pink in colour, is curious about nail art and does not like her hair oiled on school days. My cousin brother, who just turned thirteen, updates his Facebook profile every single day and shares his tales of being “love” struck with his mother. Without being nostalgic about how different my childhood is from theirs, these changes in the perceived self-image of children urges me to explore the cultural history of childhood and various societal factors that mould and shape it.
Foucault begins his analysis by tracing the history of sexuality, which has been established on the premise of ‘repressive hypothesis.’ According to the repressive hypothesis, sex as a concept has always been repressed in societies and thus sex is posed to be the only means to liberate oneself from social, political and economic subordination. By questioning the repressive hypothesis, Foucault does not simply contradict it, but instead he uncovers the underlying ‘Discourse’ behind such a premise. He disagrees that sex has been silenced in history and proposes that this so-called repression of sexuality has only led to its proliferation since the beginning of the 18th century.1 He explains how by regarding sex as an activity only suitable within the norms of marriage, the discourse of sex established certain notions about good and evil, normal and abnormal behavior in society. Sex instead of being treated, as an act of pleasure, became an object of medical and demographic study that ultimately claimed to explain the truth about human character.
Through his analysis, Foucault infers how with sex becoming a locus of explaining everything about an individual, made it an object of obsession rather than repression. He gives several examples from history where sex has been made a discourse in various aspect of society. Religious confessions about sexual act and desire were an important aspect of Christian pastoral in the 17th century. Emphasis given to sexual deeds, in any aspect became a matter of public interest that required to be studied rationally. This was later extended to into demographics in the 18th century where sexual lives of people were studied in order to regulate population.
According to Foucault, the scope of sexual discourse also extends itself to understand or rather control a child’s sexuality. With the advent of the 18th century, discourses on children and their sexuality gained momentum through the medium of education. During this period, school became an identified institution that was designed with an emphasis on preventing sexual engagement between students, both in theory and practice. Pedagogization of child about sex became an important practice at home, school and clinic. Children were taught to preserve their sexuality by all means and understand or rather gain knowledge of sex in the most non-perverse and moralistic manner. Foucault identifies this silencing of sexuality as a necessary aspect to understand how the discourse about children and sex was changing.
One can also trace the history of such an association to the Victorian period that established a strong link between children and sexuality (Foucault 1978). Law and Education at the time, in particular, was determined to preserve the sexuality of the young ones. Such a pristine notion of childhood mostly stemmed from the Romantic idea that saw children as innocent, natural, and unspoiled creatures who needed protection from the adult world. Most of the literature2 of the time produced sentimentalized images of children, whose innocence was threatened by the growing industrial, modern world.
Borrowing Foucault’s analysis of sexuality, where he unravels the relationship that sex has with power and knowledge, one can begin to explore the contemporary notion of childhood, which has developed from the above complex historical trajectory. Foucault argues that the concept of sexuality has never remained fixed and is constantly evolving to suit the need of different ages at different point in history. This premise also helps one to understand the relationship between a child and sexuality, which has also constantly changed from age to age, shaped by various factors.3
As already established by Foucault, how sexual repression only led to its abundance, we can begin to analyze one of the levels at which sexuality permeates our world, the mass media industry. Media is one of the dominant cultural products of today, which produces sexually saturated images of individuals in various forms. One would not be wrong to call our contemporary world, a hyper sexual one (Walter 2010, Gunter 2014).
The younger generation is today born into a globalized space that thrives on mass production and consumption. Visual images and mass produced products thus enter the world of children at a very nascent stage and constantly interact and engage with them in various spaces like school, home, neighborhood and public spaces. These images are today, all pervasive and available through various mediums such as television, cinema, web, magazines and books where children and adolescents are mostly found spending more time with media than doing any other activity, besides may be sleeping. Such excessive exposure to media images and messages, have triggered ample debates among scholars that reflect the growing anxieties about the changing nature of childhood in contemporary societies (Buckingham 2002, Kapoor 2003, Douglas 2005). Though each study has found its own merits and demerits, the larger scenario of the sexualization4 of children through media gives rise to much larger questions of identity construction related to gender and selfhood. While Foucault indicates the school as a site through which sexualities were controlled or constructed in the 18th century, mass media seems to be the pervasive site that influences sexuality today.
It is natural for a young child to imitate his/her parent’s walking style or dress up in their clothes, which is often the creative space for them to play the role of adults and develop a sense of adulthood with their own imagination. However, given the current nature of the mass media, children largely consume the constructed imaginative world of images and meaning as opposed to exploring the world on their own (Gunter 2014, Egan 2013). In other words, the larger spectrum of cultural products and images provides a window for a child to grow or mature far beyond their years.
Over 100 years, feminists from Simon De Beauvoir’s Second Sex (1949) to Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1991) have critique the notions of feminine beauty ideals that were created by patriarchal society. These notions, far from fading away, have become more defined and intensified by sexually loaded media images in today’s media culture. Not only, the omnipresence of media has reduced the gap between children and adult consumers, it has also blurred the boundaries been femininity, beauty and sexy (Walter 2010). Adult sexual motifs like large breast, tiny waistline, and heavy make-up are deployed in children’s merchandise and plaything. The popularization of doll culture5, especially among young girls is a direct consequence of such media exposure. Fashion magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan seem preoccupied with the message that girls are to look ‘hot now, not later.’
By posing these examples, I do not intent to outright criticize the proliferation of media, neither am I advocating repression of sexuality through strict censorship as that would only lead to its multiplication (borrowing from Foucault who explains how repression of sexuality only leads to its intensification through the discourse on sex and ‘will to knowledge’). By examining the magnitude of sexualized mass culture, being consumed by the younger population of the society, I wish to elucidate how this current abundance of sexuality, itself is a symptom of the repressive hypothesis.
As opposed to invisibility of women in public spaces in earlier times, the current media culture with dominance of women images, celebrates women’s liberation and empowerment. On the one hand, media can be seen as a tool to sexually liberate women from the conventional parameters of morality and chastity. Sexually active images and narratives are posed as a symbol of women’s freedom and empowerment who now are not repressed anymore. This is where’s Foucault’s argument against the repressive hypothesis stands true, where one kind of repression or rather power dynamics gets disguised in another form. By creating stereotypes about feminine beauty and sexual behavior, gender distinction is sharpening in societies rather than diminishing. Today media with its hypersexual images of young girls and women is often seen as an evidence of woman’s liberation. However, it is exactly the opposite. Sexual objectification of woman that occurs through such images, is equated with liberation and similar ideas of beauty, sexuality, seep into children’s popular culture. There seems to be an implied sense of urgency, to create a ‘sexual’ image based on physical appearance that is now saturating the world of young girls. Popular princesses of the fairy tales such as Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast and Little Red Riding Hood share the common trait of physical attractiveness that defines who they are. More recent princesses like The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas are depicted exhibiting their cleavage and adorned with clothes that can be seen as ‘sexy’ as opposed to beautiful. Overload of perfect beauty idols at a younger age has led to a cultivation of desire among children to look beautiful and sexually attractive not just as adults, but while still children. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Task Force report (2010) has been instrumental in surveying U.S culture with regard to the sexualization of girls and girlhood over the years.
The problem with the increasing proliferation of such alluring sexual images, especially of girls is that it does not only create a particular notion of beauty based on physical appearance but it also presupposes physical desirability and attractiveness as the most important accolades for one to achieve. Exposed to such images on a daily basis, begin to define identity roles for children. Thus we find sexism disguised under the name of sexuality, where not only do children tend to desire a certain kind of beauty (sexy in case of girls and macho in case of boys) of a certain kind but it also carves a fixed image of them in the world they inhabit. These images begin to associate sexual appeal with the personal value of an individual, this is when children begin to be seen as an object of commodity. Visual media then becomes a medium that supports the construction of certain identities for children where they are more of an object than a subject.
Here, Foucauldian analysis of sexuality in relation to ‘will to knowledge’ helps us to understand the underlying power dynamics of the contemporary culture. Media here becomes an agent to reinforce gender notions among children and adolescents through sexuality. The danger is not only for them to form identity roles for themselves but also perhaps of appropriating sexualized behavior, long before they are able to understand what it means to be a sexual being.
- All the arguments borrowed from Foucault in this paper have been understood from first three parts of The History of Sexuality, Vol.1 Will to Knowledge. See Foucault (1978)
- Novels of Charles Dickens, one of the most popular authors of Victorian era, revealed a great sense of vulnerability of children at the hands of an unequal capitalist world.
- The changing attitude towards childhood over the centuries supports this claim.
- Here sexualization is used with reference to physical appearance, where sexual appeal and behaviors define a person’s quality (as defined by APA Task Force Report 2010)
- For more on the Doll culture, see Walter (2010).
American Psychological Association,Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2010). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf.
Brode, Douglas. Multiculturalism and the Mouse Race And Sex in Disney Entertainment. University of Texas Press: Austin. 2005.
Buckingham, David. Teaching Popular Culture: Beyond Radical Pedagogy (Media, Education and Culture). London: Routledge. 2002.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol.1: An Introduction. New York: Random House. 1978.
Gunter, Barrie. Media and the Sexualization of Childhood. London: Routledge. 2014.
Kapoor, Neeru. Television Advertising And Consumer Response: Children Buying Behaviour. New Delhi: Mittal Publications. 2003.
Walter, Natasha. Living Dolls, The Return of Sexism. London: Little Brown Book Group. 2010.
About the Writer
Sonia Ghalian is a doctoral candidate at Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, working on children’s films.