This semester, I am in a course about constructing girlhood. The subject interested me, as studies about the construction of “girlhood” in are almost entirely contemporary. As a male, I had a completely different childhood construction. The pressures, media, expectations, and a whole host of elements were very different for me. In this course, we spent time analyzing a book of our choosing. I picked the 2008 title, The Lolita Effect, by M. Gigi Durham.
In the early 1990s, there was an increased interest in girls. Ultimately, two different paradigms were born. “Girl power” is the one that most people are familiar with, thanks to the Spice Girls. Originally, the message was more about female empowerment; however, the Spice Girls and others made it more mainstream and commercial. “Girl power” told girls that they could be strong and empowered, yet sexy and feminine at the same time.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the ideas that were derived from the bestselling book, Reviving Ophelia. This book essentially told parents that girls are in danger—they are pulled more directions than ever due to an increasingly complex society.
Together, these messages construct an idea of girlhood that is continually referenced. “Girl power” gives girls a watered-down feminism in which empowerment is linked to being feminine. Reviving Ophelia serves as a cautionary tale—what can happen to girls who fail. The problem is that together, these paradigms create an idea of girlhood in which the individual girl is responsible for her “success” or “failure.”
Enter The Lolita Effect. Durham fully acknowledges the issues faced by contemporary girls—media pressure and increasing sexualization at a young age are primary concerns. However, unlike Reviving Ophelia, which tells readers that girls need to be saved, Durham instead wants to empower them. The answer—increasing critical analysis ability at younger ages.
At its core, The Lolita Effect is a book to help parents. In turn, parents, guardians, and adults are a major part of the solution. Instead of simply accepting that kids are acting older at younger ages, Durham believes that parents should teach their children to question the media and choices they make. The idea is that if girls are better informed about the tricks of the media at young ages, they are able to make informed choices and reject damaging and negative portrayals of women.
I tended to like the approach that Durham outlines in the book. Critical analysis skills are something that everyone can benefit from—not just girls. However, it is no secret that the way that girls and women are portrayed in a constant media bombardment is largely negative. “Empowerment” for girls has been subverted and co-opted by corporations. The message is far too often that girls can be powerful only if they also meet western beauty norms.
In addition, The Lolita Effect investigates the global impact of the way girls are portrayed. Sex trafficking around the world and even in the US is a major problem. In addition, media portrayal of homogenized girls and women is particularly damaging to non-white girls. What is considered to be beautiful are women with “white” features. The message accompanying these images is often that women and girls can achieve this coveted look—only if they buy the right products. This issue also impacts girls and women who do not have the disposable income to continually buy the products that are “essential” to beauty and thus, empowerment.
Overall, I think that The Lolita Effect is a good read for anyone interested in a book that confronts the problems faced by contemporary girls. The solution of empowering girls is not necessarily novel. However, the way that Durham advocates empowerment is. Critical analysis skills are essential to navigating the media bombardment that the modern individual is exposed to. While there will always be pressures—many of which impossible to ignore—those armed with the ability to de-construct the messages of the media are better equipped to avoid falling prey to negative portrayals and messages.
Is girlhood too often ignored in favor of women’s rights? Do readers think that critical analysis skills are the answer for girls (and kids in general) hoping to navigate an increasingly tumultuous media landscape? Will the media ever change, or is up to adults to teach kids how to understand and make informed opinions about what they see?