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They are everywhere we turn these days; images of scantily clad women selling you a product, an image, a sound, and even sometimes an attitude. If an alien was to come down from his planet and judge this planet from the images that dominate our society, besides assuming that everyone is drop dead gorgeous according to our planetary standards, he would also come to the conclusion that everything on earth revolves around women and that therefore they must dominate our planet. From a human point of view, one can only assume that American culture despite its puritanical roots is obsessed with the notion of sex, for it is an important catalyst to several industries that fuel the economy (Binkowski). Perhaps the most pertinent question that arise when addressing this obsession is: How are the younger members of society affected by these images that bombard their fragile intellect, often times exposing them to notions they have very little grasp on (Durham)?
In researching the issue of sexual content in popular culture and its impact on teenagers, I chose to focus on how the girls are affected by these images, believing that in turn it would provide the reader with some insight as to how if affects the boys. Indeed, in accepting the notion that society is obsessed with women from a sexual point of view, one must in turn accept the notion that it is the people that dominate this society that are projecting their obssession on the global scale. In other words, we are in fact talking about white males and their fantasies (Borzekowski). It has long been argued that advertising uses sex to sell products, and to do so, they appeal to the notion of happiness. If you want to be happy buy our product and you will get everything you want, you will be perceived as successful, you will be attractive. I t goes to the heart of the belief that all that men want are women and that they would do and believe anything to get them. Simultaneously, it projects the notion that women have only one basic function in this society, which is to be the object of desire of men, which one could easily argue leads to the belief that women s main purpose in society is to entice the men towards reproduction, because that is what sex leads to (Offer). And so, we live in a society that appears to reward those that fit the mold so neatly established by centuries of white male domination. Although this is surely not the case, it is never the less made to be through the molded perception of the consumer (Binkowski). To exemplify these trends I chose to focus on the recent phenomena of Christina Aguillera and Britney Spears and attempt to trace the beginning of these trends to the mid 1980 s, when the media virtually canonized Madonna into the living embodiment of every man s desire. Perhaps the most interesting parallel appears when one considers that both Christina Aguillera and Britney Spears are both children of the Madonna era. When in the mid to late eighties, the media questioned, yet continued to provide exposure to Madonna s envelope pushing antics, the one aspect that was continuously emphasized was the amount of control held by Madonna in the decisions that involved her own exploitation. In affect, the controversy surrounding Madonna created a new image for the women of this later part of this century. With the media over-emphasizing Madonna s sexuality as her open sesame to the top of the charts and ultimately the music industry, while never investigating the actual reasons behind her ability to maintain a firm grasp on her career, they left millions of teenage girls with one lasting message: sex equals power equals control equals survival in society (Wald). At the same time, it provided the music industry with further proof of the old dictum that sex sales. It is therefore not surprising to see that more than a decade after Madonna first burst on to the music scene, two of America s most popular female artists are following the exact same path blazed by the material girl, while raising the same passions among teenage boys and adulation among teenage girls (Gaar). In a society whose initial construct is based on puritanical beliefs, it is almost logical that sex would most appeal to its most influential members, teenagers, who often seek to break out of their structural confines and gravitate towards what is considered as taboo by this society. The explanation as to why so many teenaged girls are willing to become the pawns of the music industry and be turned into sexual objects lies in this very notion. Sex is at the heart of American society, it is the primary selling tool for all products, and those that have the ability to exude it are rewarded by society (McRobbie). Madonna s continually enhanced status as music royalty only serves to legitimize this use of sex and further entrenches it as the norm of this society. The tragic irony in this matter is that the main point of control has been lost on many of the generations that followed the explosion of Madonna to the forefront of the music scene (Wald). Herein lay several ethical questions, which really go to the heart of American Society as it is today. From the roles of parents in society, to media content and their influences on juveniles, to morally offensive content and the struggle of freedom versus social responsibility versus economic pressures; it is evident that many of the pertinent ethical questions that haunt American society are strongly present in the matter of using teenage girls as sex objects for the benefit of generating profits (Day).
I still remember the night that Britney Spears appeared on the MTV awards and performed what was clearly a very sex filled set, one observer noted sarcastically as to how proud her parents were to see their daughter denigrating herself in such a manner. Unknowingly, that individual had touched on a sizable part of the issue that lies before us. It is one thing for a parent to support their children in their decision regardless of their own opinion, but it is quite another to embrace their choice and to even partake in this sham. I find it hard to conceive that Britney Spears would have gotten the same support from her mother had she performed in a strip club and had had dollar bills thrown at her by the audience. Yet in a way, that was exactly what we saw happen before our very eyes during prime time, on a program geared towards a teenage audience. What we were dealing with was only different in that she danced to her own music, and no money was directly thrown at her, yet anyone working in the music industry will tell you that a live performance during primetime on a major television program almost always increases record sales. Perhaps that is why it was acceptable for the parents of Britney Spears to see their daughter parade her body around a stage that totally overshadowing her music. It was all in the name of making a profit, selling a product, which in this case was supposed to be the music, but in actuality it was the image that was sold more than anything that night. Britney Spears was trying to shed her little girl image in support of her second album, where she proclaims herself as a full-fledged adult (Laby). Obviously this should ring familiar with any person who has gone through the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. What was being sold on that stage that night was the notion that to be considered an adult you must be sexual by nature, it equated sexuality with independence. It is precisely this that makes the whole Britney Spears package attractive to young girls; she represents everything that they seek at that age of rebellion. And just in case that was not enough, young boys are rung in by appealing to almost every adolescent sex dream known to mankind, thus stimulating a fascination with Britney Spears which reinforces her ability influence the behavior of young girls( Borsekowski). As anyone knows adolescence is the time in a person s life when their hormones are in full development along with their physical attributes, both contribute to giving the adolescent a sense of adulthood a that is far from being achieved. It is in trying to understand the changes that they are undergoing that adolescent start to show interest in the opposite sex. In doing so, they often turn to the signals provide to them by society to determine what is considered desirable. Perhaps the most evident clue as to this dilemma lies in what men find attractive, to a teenaged girl teenage boys are the men of their lives and therefore it is towards their notion of desirability that they gravitate (Offer). If you add to this the fact Britney Spears is already a model to emulate for simple rebellious reasons, you get what could be considered a double whammy in terms of capturing a target audience. It is therefore not surprising that teenaged girls will try to emulate everything they see about Britney Spears (Reynolds). The question that remains to be answered is: how do the parents of these teenaged girls fit into the picture?
When confronted with how they deal with their children s desire to emulate their idols, parents react in a variety of ways. There are those that condemn the behavior of those artists, citing them a poor role models for their kids, often not realizing that they are only fueling the attraction that their offspring have for this artist. Others often tend to resign themselves to the problem being simply a sign of the times and a reflection of the present culture and tend to encourage their little girls venture into emulating their idols often unaware of how deep these implication might go. It is also not uncommon for parents to try to relate the current situation to their experiences as teenagers and simply shrug it off as just another phase of adolescence similar and as innocent as the one they experienced growing up. Most parents do not realize the implications that go with such behavior in their kids, among them is the fact that in emulating the fashions of their idols they are in fact portraying their ideals of womanhood which can lead them to believe that they are indeed ready to live their lives as adult women (Laby). This, coupled with the existing pressures coming from adolescent boys who are in turn attempting to become what they believe to be the definition of becoming a man, can eventually lead to a premature foray into the world of an active sex life. Perhaps what is more disturbing is the fact that these little girls then tend to become living exemplifications of the Lolita fantasies that are known to be existent in some adult men. Adolescent girls not equipped with the tools to comprehend these types of situation might welcome the advances of older men as a sign of their maturity and womanhood (Durham). Of course therein lies the role of good parenting, which is what many people rely on, meaning that they believe that they have instilled enough moral fiber in their children so that they will behave accordingly (Derbyshire). Unfortunately, this belief fails to take into account two factors; first is the fact that adolescence is a time of intense peer pressure to which many succumb, and secondly that the mere fact that many of these girls are emulating their idols denotes the existence of a lack of individuality and an absence of identity on the part of the adolescent girl, which is often the feeding ground for peer pressure. It is also important to note that these issues do not simply end at the gates of adolescence, every young impressionable child from the moment it becomes aware of society around them and starts to grasp an inkling of their place in society outside of the realm of their family, seeks to attain maturity. In the case of a six or seven year old girl, maturity is represented by a girl in her teen aged years, and if they are looking for a definition of maturity, they often find the one that was impressed on the older girls as the sole explanation (Offer). It is these factors that contribute to what is known as the blurring of the lines between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood often well before the parents are ready to deal with these issues. This, in turn forces the child o look outside the family circle for not only an example to follow but for the answer to the question of how to become an adult, and reach that point of maturity where independence is the ultimate reward (Day). Ironically, they turn to the images that are given to them in society for these answers, they turn to the women portrayed in these images for models to follow, believing that what they see these women convey is the result of their quest for exactly what they are in search of. The irony exists in the fact that in most cases, such as in looking at Britney Spears and Christina Aguillera, they are actually looking at women as define through the eyes of men, who only convey images of women as they want them to be. It is these men, who control most of the mass media in society who decide on what norms of beauty are acceptable, who often control every aspect of a performers image (Binkowski). The problem is that pre-teens and teenagers are unable to distinguish the difference between a prefabricated product and an authentic one. It is also important to look at how this pursuit of the ideal women image affects teenage girls psychologically; the fact that anorexia, bulimia and a host of other physical disorders, that primarily affect young women, have gained major national coverage in the last two decades can easily be traced to its impact on younger and younger women. As society saw more and more teenagers affected with these disorders, they invariably had to look at what was the root of the problem, and that is truly when many people became aware of the power that the media had on young girls perception of their image in society. From the diet craze of the 1980 s to the Heroin-chic look of the 1990 s, women have been assaulted with a wide array of unrealistic images that result in very real problems for a society that is unwilling to examine the ethical factors that could contribute to solving the problem. Now as we enter a new century, we are faced with the latest evolution of this trend now known as the lollipop look, with major public figures such as Calista Flockhart, Lara Flynn Boyle and Christina Aguillera exuding a sexual image that is closely attached to their petite frames, young girls are constantly striving to keep up with what society has deemed as desirable often at the risk of their own physical health (Jambor).
In trying to find the root of this modern trend, one must look at some aspects of the women who are by far considered as the precursor to this trend: Madonna. When Madonna first came unto the scene, with her bustier and suggestive lyrics, America and the music industry in general scoffed at her. In many ways, the 1980 s were a time of redefining the music industry after the Disco era, many record companies were in search of the next big thing but had no clue as to how to find it, or even what it would look like and sound like. It is from this confusion that that Madonna s career and impact stems, had the machine that currently exist been present at the time, Madonna would have never been the icon she has become, simply because she would have been packaged into what the industry thought they could sell. Madonna enjoyed the liberty to shape her own image and career because she was not supposed to last as long as she did, the men that ran the business simply failed to realize what it was she had taped into (Gaar). She had redefined rebellion for a generation of girls who were seen at the time from a very subservient perspective. Madonna offered these adolescent girls the image of a woman who was in charge both artistically and sexually, and who perhaps most importantly made men uncomfortable thus placing the power and the control in the hands of women (McRobbie). Therefore, it is not surprising that young girls would flock to her image, and that young men although bewildered by what they were seeing were attracted to what they had never imagined was possible. Of course, looking back on it today, it is hard to imagine how some of Madonna s early antics could arise so much passion from both sexes (Wald). In my opinion, part of the answer to this quandary lies in the fact that no one saw it coming, not the industry, and especially not mainstream America. Madonna has made a career of taking subcultures out of their basement and turning them into a part of mainstream culture unlike anyone else in the music industry, and the reason is that she was a product of a subculture, one that gave her a unique identity, gave her an allure of independence, plus the seductiveness of the unknown. I believe that it was Jean Paul Gaultier who once said about Madonna that: Men did not know that they wanted Madonna until they saw Madonna. And therein lies the response to why her impact was so great and why her influence is still affecting how the industry is working today (Gaar). As I mentioned earlier, it is the way the men that control the music industry want to see their women that dictates how a female artist is presented to the public, but it is the way that Madonna presented herself to the world that was taken as the mold from which future generations of female singer have been molded (Wald). In her video for the song that has come to define her according to some, Madonna actually attached herself to who was perhaps the most pervasive sex symbol that society had ever known. In the video for her song Material Girl , Madonna immersed herself in the image of Marilyn Monroe from the movie Gentlemen prefer Blondes , it is this link that has cemented her as a sex symbol for a new generation, and she presented herself as the evolution of the Monroe image. A new feminine ideal, through an image that society had already embraced as that of ultimate femininity. It is therefore not surprising that despite the controversy that surrounded Madonna popularity, she often appeared unstoppable. The Madonna effect has been institutionalized to perfection by the men who head the music industry, and today we are seeing the products of this machine, from The Spice Girls, to Britney Spears, to Christina Aguillera, the industry has patented the Madonna formula (Wald). When asked about her opinion on these new artists, Madonna herself replied: I am the original Spice Girl, I was Britney Spears. In actuality, they are all part of a spectrum that can be traced as far back as Marilyn Monroe, and the only reason why it took Madonna to reestablish the continuum, is the fact that Marilyn Monroe s life is often presented as a tragedy. She was the living embodiment of sexuality and for that she was never content in her life, almost as if the puritanical powers that watch over American culture had descended upon her to exert their punishment. Madonna, on the other hand took the image that Marilyn Monroe had crafted and gave it a triumphant tone (Gaar). For those that still may doubt the effectiveness of this formula, I would point out to them two other present artist who are enjoy similar success today but who have failed to develop the adulation of Spears and Aguillera. Indeed, it is interesting to see how the industry tried to develop a variation on the same theme by showcasing the talents of artists such as Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson, who despite their wholesome image have failed to connect with teenagers at the same level as Spears and Aguillera (Binkowski). In my opinion this is due to the lack of appeal to the more rebellious side of teens, but also to the fact that these girls are more representative of what record company executives would like their daughters to act like. In fact by taking a look at this contrast, one could almost say the same about the lasting effect of Marilyn Monroe versus Doris Day; of course one would have to take into account the fact that Doris Day did not die at a young age. In other words, she ceased to represent the ideal beauty standard that men have concocted for themselves, and perhaps therein also lies the beginning of the explanation of this society s obsession with the youthful image (Wald).
Invariably, this issue keeps bumping its head on the larger question of what men desire? It is very apparent after researching the matter that the ideal image of women as defined by society is still very much of a male dominated system despite the phenomenal progress realized as a result of the feminist movement. It is precisely the male dominated structure s ability to incorporate non-mainstream trends into it essential being that has allowed it to thrive despite the numerous oppositional movements it has faced (Durham).
Ultimately society has to ask itself what is more important. Is the pursuit of fame, which is inherently linked to wealth worth all of the negative ramifications that have been established by numerous studies? Society must ask it self whether the media are challenging societal norms in a manner that fosters social justice or simply to establish new societal norms that they are better able to control and thus profit from. Should we, as members of society, simply throw our hands up in the air and accept these current developments as the results of the natural evolution of culture? Or, are we obligated to look deeper into these issues and question whether the rate of its evolution is actually the result mankind s influence and domination on culture.
Throughout this semester, in analyzing ethical dilemmas, the one constant factor was that of the participant s ability to determine which cause of action to follow based on their understanding of their social responsibility in regards to their professional responsibility. If as argued, juveniles are a fragile segment of our society, should we not strive to monitor what they are exposed to, and as parents should we not eliminate the existence of their worth as economical factors in our society (Day). In doing so, perhaps we can start to curb the ferocious rate at which they are targeted by billion dollar corporation who seem to solely focus on their profit margin and disregard whatever effects their actions have on society. In many societies, adolescents are not able to gain economical independence until they are well into their late teens, thus affording the parents more ability to monitor what their off springs choose to adopt as a part of their lifestyles. Ironically, it is this very pursuit for wealth that has made it possible for children to become targets. As parents vacate the domicile in pursuit of the American dream, they are obligated to relinquish their children to society moral compass which is more and more in the hands of the media. And so as they lament these effects on their children, parents should also realize how their own behavior often reflects their adherence to the very system they often chastise for having negative influences on society s younger participants. Also, within these choices arises the question of freedom, and how much of it should minors be allowed to have? Unfortunately, there are no clear cut answers to these issues, turning to precedents often bring back nightmarish images of how excessive restraint on one particular segment of a society ultimately affects the freedom of all of its members. So ultimately, the decision has to be surrendered to the individuals in society. Every person should take the time to assess how elements of society might impact their families and their lives and then decide how to conduct themselves within this society so as to reinforce what they believe should be the priorities of this society. It is in this self-inspection that I believe society can begin to address the issues that result from the media s influence on the mental development of adolescents and the moral compass that they choose for themselves.
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