Last week, I was asked to chair a panel discussion on an important new book about the sexualisation of girls, Getting Real (edited by Melinda Tankard-Reist). The main reason I was asked was because a friend of mine is acting publisher at Spinifex Press, and she’s heard me angrily hold forth on the subject over the years, bringing observations from my son’s kindergarten and schoolyard to the cafe table.

getting real

I started really thinking (and fuming) about this issue at my son’s school concert a few years ago. One of the junior primary classes performed the Aqua song Barbie Girl. The lyrics included ‘I’m a blonde single girl in a fantasy world/Dress me up, take your time, I’m your dollie’, and ‘You can touch, you can play/You can say I’m always yours’. One of the dance moves involved all the boys singing ‘Come on Barbie, let’s go party’, then humping the air, pumping their fists and making sound effects (‘uh, uh, uh, uh’).

At the end of the number the parents stood and clapped, as they had for every number before and after. I stayed seated, my hands in my lap, a silent protest that more or less went unnoticed.

After several more items of questionable taste, the female teachers dressed up in hotpants and fishnet stockings and performed a song from Cabaret. Really. When an older boy in Year Five or Six groaned ‘yuck’ from the audience, the teacher responsible for organising the night glared at him, a hand on her fishnet hips. What response was she expecting from a pre-pubescent boy watching his teachers dance in their underwear? Was he supposed to be titillated? I looked at him, and yes, he might have been a naughty kid, but more than anything, he looked embarrassed and uncomfortable.

barbie girl

I went home inordinately depressed and angry about the values my son’s school were teaching – or, more to the point, the way they were unthinkingly mirroring the more questionable values of our culture. It’s one thing to turn on Video Hits at 9am on a Saturday morning and see scantily clad women gyrating; it’s one thing for pop stars to croon that women are dolls to be played with and admired. It’s another thing entirely for teachers, who we entrust with shaping and educating our children, to turn into video vixens at a school concert and coach their charges in misogynist lyrics and sexual entendres.

After a day of grinding my teeth and ranting to my friends and work colleagues, I fired off a letter to the school principal, questioning the school’s values and professional judgment, and calling for an explanation for the decision-making that went into the concert – focusing on the Barbie Girl item. I was pleased to receive an apology, an acknowledgement that it had been in poor taste, and an assurance that the teacher responsible for that item had been counselled and would be required to attend a professional development session addressing the issues involved. The principal referred repeatedly and unhappily to the fact that my complaint had been ‘in writing’, which I found interesting. When I told some of the other mothers about what I’d done – tentatively, expecting disapproval – they visibly exhaled their relief that someone had said something. They’d had the same reservations but had not spoken out for fear of being considered prudes.

Since then, both of the other young school-age children I know who attend different schools to my son have performed Barbie Girl in their school concerts, to no controversy. It seems to be this decade’s Dancing Queen. In my son’s Year Two class, incentive gifts for girls who did well included lipstick and nail polish. I’ve seen countless little girls on casual days dressed in miniskirts and halter tops, aged five and over. They wear make-up to school discos.

In Getting Real, Tania Andrusiak observes: ‘From ever-younger ages, girls are not just sexualised … but indoctrinated into consumption-driven lives by cosmetic, diet and fashion industries which demand they reject who they are and what they look like to instead pursue an “improved” version of themselves.’ Little girls wearing make-up, not as dress-ups, but as preparation for a social night out, seems to illustrate this point.

The book – which includes contributions from Clive Hamilton, Maggie Hamilton, activist mum Julie Gale and an introduction by Noni Hazlehurst – cites a series of shocking and illuminating examples of where our culture has gone too far, and its effects. But it also offers suggestions for what we can do about it.

‘Much needs to change if we’re to raise happy, healthy, resilient girls in this culture,’ writes Melinda Tankard-Reist in her introduction. Indeed. And, as other contributors point out, this kind of culture is toxic to our boys, too, if they’re to grow up with healthy attitudes towards girls and women. It’s beneficial for them, too, to see girls as people, as friends, and not just potential sex objects. And when they do get around to forming relationships, it benefits everyone if they are well-rounded relationships built on mutual respect, not fetishisation of the exotic other.

What do you think about this subject? Have you noticed any examples that you’d like to share? When should we speak out, and how do we draw a line? Feel free to argue or disagree if you like.

Spinifex Press have donated a copy of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls for us to give away to the person who posts the most thoughtful or provoking comment.