It can be very useful to look at the world through a seven-year-old’s eyes. This only occurred to me as I watched my daughter and two of her little friends dancing and singing the lyrics to Ke$ha’s Die Young (“that magic in your pants, it’s making me blush”).
They shook their tiny bottoms while watching a video of the singer, who appeared to be attending a funeral in a black leather bodysuit you wouldn’t normally consider mourning garb. With a click, they could have watched other music videos offering depictions of women’s professional contributions to the world: dominatrix (Britney Spears’s Work Bitch); undersea pole dancer (Rihanna’s Pour It Up); licker-clean of industrial tools (Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball); and naked, goat-carrying appendage to a fully clothed man (Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines).
I am a weary old feminist, which means I have sexism cataracts. I’ve become inured to magazines selling nubile female flesh for profit, and presenting young starlets as if they’re only as interesting as their underpants. I rolled my eyes at Miley Cyrus’s antics. But when you have a daughter, you start to look at the world through her eyes and to see it, unchanged, as a place where women are valued for the content of their bras, rather than the content of their character (if I may take sacrilegious liberty with Dr. King’s words).
There was a singer smackdown this week when Sinead O’Connor decided to issue an open letter to Ms. Cyrus about the perils of the raunchy image the young star has been putting out in the world. The Irish singer, known for her passion rather than her tact, warned that the music industry was exploiting Ms. Cyrus’s youth and beauty and that the younger singer deserved better. This, to me, was the crucial passage: “It is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.”
The fight got ugly from there, and you can read about it online if you’d like. But Ms. O’Connor’s comments, which she said were written in the spirit of “motherliness,” echo what many mothers think: That despite decades of second-wave feminism, our girls are taught, at an earlier and earlier age, that their sexuality is not a private thing but a public one, a commodity that is the most valuable thing about them. In 2007, a study by the American Psychological Association found that “the consequences of the sexualization of girls in media today are very real and are likely to be a negative influence on girls’ healthy development.” That was even before the golden age of social media, when Twitter was just a sound birds made.
There are feminists who gravitate to the idea of empowerment and argue that Ms. Cyrus or Rihanna are exploring personal freedom through sexuality, but that assumes they are armies of one, gyrating for their sole delight. It ignores the giant power mechanism they operate within.
Just this week, Ms. Spears acknowledged that the raunchiness of her own videos made her uncomfortable and that she feels pressured to push the boundaries. (The fact that three men – her father, her director and her manager – immediately denied that their golden goose was subject to such pressures was creepy in the extreme.)
Ms. O’Connor was really only echoing, with a lot more profanity, what singer Adele said last year when talking about other, unnamed female performers: “Exploiting yourself sexually is not a good look. I don’t find it encouraging. … I have never seen magazine covers and music videos and thought, ‘I need to look like that to be a success.’ ”
Adele is the secret weapon in my daughter’s re-education, by the way. I realized, with horror, that what girls hear at the mall, or see online, is a pretty steady stream of semi-naked, writhing, undifferentiated pap: Rihanna, Ms. Cyrus, Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj. Not a girl with a guitar or drums among them. (Never mind pants.)
Of course, it’s a parental ritual to tut-tut over kids’ music. (I still remember the look on my mother’s face as I opened Mick Jagger’s crotch zipper on the cover of Sticky Fingers.) Still, I felt it was my duty to give my daughter at least another view, and thanks to YouTube, I introduced her to some of the music I loved when I was young: Chrissie Hynde and Carole Pope, Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox.
She loved Judy Garland but found Janis Joplin a bit terrifying. “Why is that lady angry?” she asked; angry women are not a staple of playlists these days. Adele was the biggest hit, with her ridiculously beautiful, emotional voice. My daughter sang Skyfall for weeks afterward, the only time I doubted the wisdom of the experiment.
Do I expect my daughter to lead all the other Grade 3s in a rousing playground version of Respect? No, although it would make a nice video. But I do want her to know that things were different once, and will be again – and that it’s all right for her to be different, too.