I’ve been wanting to read Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls since it came out but have had to wait until it was more affordable so this review comes later than I had hoped. Wendy has ably reviewed it here and here so I thought I’d focus more on the cultural and literary trends it exposes. So far I’ve only read the first essay by Melinda Tankard Reist entitled, ‘The Pornification of Girlhood: We haven’t come a long way baby’. Reading it reminded me of the work I did on postcolonial literature in my undergrad Arts.
Postcolonial literature is the term for texts that try to make sense of the experience of having been colonised – after the event. In a nutshell, it deals with:
- attitude to one’s original culture: is it romanticised or seen as primitive?
- attitude to the colonisers: are they invaders? oppressors? dictators? or deliverers? benefactors? trade partners?
- the impossibility of ‘returning’ to the original culture: Even if you like that original culture and want to return to it, exposure to new ideas, technologies, opportunities, etc often leads to a corruption of the original anyway – that’s if you still have the knowledge and skills to implement the original.
- the otherness of the imposed culture: often cultures don’t have the structures to cope with the imposed culture. Because it is foreign, they either can’t appropriate it; misuse it; or implement it on the surface, though deep inconsistencies remain. The classic text on this is Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’.
- the gap left in the absence of the colonisers: what to do you do once the regime is gone? Your original culture is gone and you have changed yet the imposed culture is not workable.
I think that much of the discussion of sexualisation of girls is a reaction to the feminism of last century. Whether or not society was functional / fulfilling before feminism, with the advent of the second wave (see here for a short history of feminism) that society was disrupted and, for those in subsequent generations, a new order imposed. As the women of the second wave hit retirement, their influence wanes and so we find ourselves ‘post-feminism’. So:
- How do we think about the original 1950s culture? Was it primitive or practical; abusive or tranquil?
- How do we think about feminists and feminist ideals? Did they liberate women or tell them what to think? Did they give them more choices so they could do anything or disempower them so they had to be good at everything?
- Can we return to the 1950s original model (assuming such a thing ever existed – I’m not convinced!): Most women today aren’t interested in returning to a 1950s style nuclear family. It’s seen as oppressive to women and repressing to their identities.
- Is feminism still other? Many of the writers of this book are feminists themselves, horrified by the misuse of feminist ideals such as sexual liberation being used to taunt and blackmail women into promiscuous behaviour. Reist quotes Ariel Levy: “Why is this the ‘new feminism’ and not what it looks like: the old objectification?” (p.23)
- The Essence of Feminism criticises feminism but has few suggestions for an alternative. This is the essence of the third wave – we’re not sure about either feminism or the 1950s thing and the confusion results in the worst of both worlds.
Though the book is about the sexualisation of girls, Tankard Reist is clear that this is one battleground in a much larger issue. It’s about how women are depicted; how men are trained to respond to them; what messages we feed ourselves about sex and gender; where power lies and how we approach human dignity (p.32, 34). Reist says, “We all need a world that makes true human development possible” (p.33). She sees hope in the current movement against sexualisation of girls, the book being part of that (p.33-34). I agree that naming the crimes of our culture brings them to light, hopefully so that they can be dealt with.
However, the question of transformation remains. Post-colonialism by its very nature is a reaction to something; even a new movement is formed in some way by what has gone before. So as we look at feminism, we must ask: Will any new movement or ideal will be able to succeed when what contributes to it has failed so utterly? Have we been so distorted that we are unable to implement it?
If there is to be a world where human development is possible, the solution needs to be truly external to the society. That might come from another society, but that would merely repeat the process of colonisation. But what if the solution from ‘outside’ was able to be internalised, appropriated, implemented, etc.? What if the change wasn’t a change in the world but a change in its people? Far greater than faith in ‘human decency’ which has failed before is the Christian faith – in One who is external and who makes people new and transforms this world to make it new too.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.