Welcome to our first SEED Workshops blog post! Our topic is inspired by the work and research we do with young people, and conversations we have with them around body-image, media literacy and sexualisation. While it's extremely important to recognise sexualisation and give young people the tools to reject the message that they have to be 'hot 24/7', we also have to be careful not to shame them. Catherine Manning looks at the latest issue around sexualisation and dance.
Just like beauty pageants, dance troupes have recently come under scrutiny for sexualising young girls, and things are hotting up again. US dancewear brand California Kisses (CK) has come under fire for their advertising campaign featuring girls posing in bra tops and hotpants with captions like ‘Pop That’ and ‘Made with love and sealed with a kiss.’ Of course, when sexualisation happens, it deserves our condemnation, but some claims that young girls are being harmed by sexualisation and ‘adult’ dance moves may have more to do with personal taste and conservative ideals around childhood ‘innocence’ than anything substantial.
It’s easy to jump to conclusions and be outraged if you know little to nothing about dance culture. In her article, Jemma Nicoll directly accuses CK of catering to paedophilic fantasies with the use of ‘Pop That’ as a caption, suggesting their ulterior motive was to reference sex related slang 'pop the cherry'. But what hasn't been recognised here is that ‘popping’ is a particular dance move closely associated with Hip Hop, a popular style much embraced by today’s youth. It would be of great concern if ‘Pop That’ was a deliberate attempt at sexualising the models in the advertisement, but it's a long bow to draw. Do we really believe that a company selling dancewear to parents for their little girls would be so deviant?! Still, there is nothing wrong with asking the question and discussing the issue. It is important to ascertain whether sexualisation truly exists, or if it is simply a cultural difference highlighted by overzealous campaigners in Australia - there has been no outcry in the U.S., where the brand (and popping) originated.
Clothing lines are only part of the issue. Ask any adult who has recently attended a dance competition or a school dance performance, and you’ll likely hear tales of woe about young girls delivering routines that mimic the music video clips of their much older idols. However, if you ask the girls themselves, they’ll no doubt tell you they loved being on stage performing like Beyoncé. The outcry is steeped in the same fear that whipped up a frenzy in the 1950’s when Elvis swivelled his hips. The burning question today (as it was then) is, is any of this causing actual harm to the girls involved?
To expand on my comments in Chris Johnston's article in The Age last week, while there are some genuine concerns about overt sexualisation, the problem with seeing everything through a paedophile lens is that any girl who wants to express any level of sexuality through creative expression, is painted as a victim. We have to be careful that the discussion around child sexualisation doesn’t ignore the fact that children do have a developing sexuality, and that we’re not stomping on and erasing their genuine desire to express that creatively. Too often and quickly the conversation turns to shaming, where girls’ and women’s clothing and bodies – how they present them and what they do with them - are policed. ‘Good girls’ are held up as trophies to a very conservative ideal that erases any expression of sexuality, and ignores certain parts of child and adolescent development that challenge that construct of childhood ‘innocence’.
It is telling that the same condemnation and concern about ‘adultification’ isn’t afforded to little ballerinas in skin tight leotards and tiny pink tutus doing leg lifts and splits to Swan Lake. Where is the outcry for these little girls exposed to this adult tale of love and tragic double suicide? There is none because it is only girls accused of being ‘too sexy’ who are painted as victims in need of rescue.
The assertion that paedophiles are more attracted to made-up ‘mini-adult’ dancing girls than any others is also a mistruth. It draws on the same rhetoric used by some against pageants, and is a disingenuous and dangerous perpetuation of a myth that minimises the true profile of a predator. Shutting down dance studios, banning dance moves, or covering children from head to toe is not a magic bullet that will rid (or even reduce) that scourge from society.
Of course, there’s no doubt there are some dubious operators whose practices are exploitative and potentially harmful. Regulators and parents have a responsibility to ensure that children are always safe and happy, and there should be a variety of avenues for them to express their talents, including the provision of diverse dance styles and spaces. Classes where make-up and ‘skimpy' outfits are replaced with clean faces and more fabric for those who feel more comfortable with that environment are necessary and welcome, but at the same time, let’s not shame girls who prefer to dress up, use makeup for performance, and perform more contemporary routines.
There are very real and sometimes devastating consequences of low self-esteem and body image anxiety that many of us are striving to help girls overcome through encouraging them to realise their full potential, and to reject the belief that they are purely bodies (as opposed to ‘somebodies’) to be objectified and critiqued. No mean feat with a hyper-sexualised culture saturated in messaging to the contrary, but when it comes to performing arts, the conversation needs to be nuanced to ensure we’re not lumping everyone in the same basket and causing more harm than good. Rhythmic little girls, happy in their skin, feeling the beat and moving their bodies accordingly aren’t expecting us to view them with an adult sexual gaze. Even in dress ups, they’re clearly still little girls! Let’s see them for what they are.