by Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D

Anyone half paying attention to the media in the past few weeks has seen the YouTube video of a dance troupe of seven and eight year olds doing their thing to Beyoncé’s Single Ladies. If you haven’t seen it, trust me, it’s impossible to watch and not be mesmerized. The girls hit it hard; they are frenetic, fearless, and full of themselves—and very, very good. Gyrating. Grinding. Pulsating. Bouncy balls of energy we might expect of girls this age, but in adult packaging.

The controversy in the wake of the video was almost immediate. Not surprising, the reaction has been divided – between the ‘shocked’ and the ‘defenders.’ Those shocked by the video point out that the black and red burlesque-inspired costumes are more risqué than even Beyoncé’s outfit in her Single Ladies video. They’re appalled to watch little girls do the same dance moves they’ve seen in sexist rap videos on MTV. To the shocked, such dancing can only lead to sexual behavior. They say things like “these girls will be pregnant by 15.” Worse, it’s pedophile bait. It’s morally depraved, sick, bordering on child abuse. They blame the clueless parents, the clueless dance instructor, the clueless audience cheering the girls on, and the clueless idiot who posted the video. 

Facing off against the shocked are the defenders of all things girly. What is your basic maladjustment, they wonder? Lighten up. This is the new girl power. Today’s version of girls having fun, a Gen Z rendition of flappers or jitterbugging girls kicking their feet in the air to reveal their panties. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. You with the dirty minds, get a life.

The shocked are looking for simple answers and personal responsibility. They want someone to blame, and that usually means the parents. Good parents turn off the TV, they say, and by that I think they must mean “raise their children in a vacuum,” because, of course, TV represents a small fraction of the media kids are exposed to these days, and all of it contains highly sexualized imagery. I guess good parents also don’t let little girls take dance lessons, because I mean, really, have any of the shocked been to a local dance recital? Burlesque is the norm.

The defenders, on the other hand, refuse to entertain reality. Just girls having fun doesn’t cut it, not in an increasingly pornified culture where the boundary between childhood and adulthood is all but gone. Not when research tells us exposure to sexualized media is associated with greater acceptance of teen dating violence and sexual harassment. Not when a 2007 American Psychological Association report linked media sexualization to girls and young women’s top three mental health problems: depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem. And not when having this kind of fun makes girls targets for name-calling, often by the shocked themselves, who like to call little girls who dance this way things like “little sluts in the making.”

Whether it’s a demand for individual responsibility or a defense of individual right to fun, neither the shocked nor the defenders acknowledge the elephant in the room. Since the FTC lifted restrictions on children’s media in the 1980s, media and marketing companies have targeted younger and younger girls with sexier, thinner, more beauty-conscious and more boy-obsessed imagery and messages. As marketing to children has skyrocketed, so has children’s consumer spending. Blaming parents delights marketers and media because they’re off the hook for their unconscionable behavior –the ways they use developmental psychologists to help them reach kids and create a desire for their products, the way they immerse their brands in everything a child plays with, dresses in, or watches, the way they use the very concerns we have about the sexualization of little girls to boost their so-so ratings. 

When the video played and the reporters surfaced, I felt the way I feel each and every time “sex + girls” hits the airwaves. Whether it’s Britney going commando, junior high girls sporting rainbow bracelets, Miley pole-dancing at the Kids Choice Awards, or elementary school girls dancing to Beyoncé, reporters always sound eerily the same, a creepy mix of hand-wringing and barely hidden glee. Tell us why this is bad, they ask. How did we get to this point? Why don’t parents parent anymore? Tune in to Dr. Phil, Anderson Cooper, Fox News, Video at 6. Watch the girls with us, again and again and again and again. Isn’t it awful? 

I know what they want. They pretend to represent the shocked, calling for some parent’s head on a platter. But it’s classic bait and switch. Like so many, I also watched the parents of the dancers being interviewed and nothing in their answers made me want to chase them with pitchforks and torches. I felt for the deer-in-the-headlights father when he said he never thought of his daughter this way. I believed the mom, calm and rational, who explained that they weren’t copying Beyoncé’s moves but the Chipettes’ from the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks movie (Really, 20th Century Fox? Chipettes? How about becoming 21st Century Fox?). 

No one in their right mind can blame French maid Halloween costumes, pole dancing kits in toy stores, Tots and Tiaras-type reality shows, and Bratz dolls on parents. No one in their right mind can say this sexualized version of growing up is just good, clean fun. To ask parents to take responsibility for the billions of dollars marketers and media invest in making this stuff normal and creating little girls’ desire for this stuff, is simply crazy.

Since the APA Report on the Sexualization of Girls in Media came out in 2007, the landscape has gotten worse and the answer isn’t as simple as the ‘shocked’ and ‘defenders’ claim. So what do we do? Because we have to do something. Join Hardy Girls Healthy Women and our sister organizations, True Child, Women’s Media Center and ASAP on October 22nd at Hunter College in NYC for a national summit on the sexualization of girls. We’ll be working with parents, educators, researchers, media experts, policymakers, and most importantly, teen girls to examine the complexity of this issue, generate creative responses, and commit to policy, media and activist solutions to spark a movement and demand something better for girls. For now, save the date and we’ll keep you posted!