On 6th June 2011 the UK government published ‘Letting Children be Children‘, an ‘independent review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood’ put together by Reg Bailey, the Chief Executive of the Christian charity, the Mother’s Union. The review aimed to bring together previous reports on this topic (notably: Buckingham et al., 2009; Papadopolous, 2010 and Byron, 2008 and 2010) to come up with a set of recommendations. These recommendations include, for example, making sure that magazine covers with sexualised images are not easily seen by children, bringing in an age rating for music videos, and making it easier for parents to block internet material.
The review definitely falls down on the ‘anti’ side of sexualisation debates (see my previous blog here for more about the different positions on this subject). It is not possible in such a brief post to point to all that is problematic about the Bailey review. For example, it does not define what it means by sexualisation (despite acknowledging that it is highly subjective), it prioritises ‘common sense’ over long-term research findings, and it is quite misleading in its use of statistics (if 40% of parents have seen something ‘inappropriate’ that means that the majority have not, and why recommend changes in relation to the watershed if 72% of parents feel that the current regulation of television is about right?)
Here I want to focus on something which jumped out at me from the review: namely the different treatment of parental concerns about the sexualisation of clothes aimed at children, and about the gender stereotyping in such products.
The review states that ‘sexualised and gender-stereotyped clothing, products and services for children are the biggest areas of concern for parents’. Parents were concerned about sexualisation, particularly in relation to clothes sold to children which were felt to be inappropriate for their age (like ‘bras (padded or not), bikinis, short skirts, high-heeled shoes, garments with suggestive slogans, or the use of fabrics and designs that have connotations of adult sexuality’ such as lace and animal prints). Parents were also concerned about gender-stereotyped clothes (division into pink or blue clothing, ultra-feminine clothes for girls and army or sports clothes for boys, and make-up and accessories just aimed at girls).
What is very telling is the response which the review makes to these two issues. The concern about the sexualisation of clothes results in on of the key recommendations of the review: that retailers should come up with a code of good practice regarding retailing to children which they all adhere to, which – Bailey suggests – should involve avoiding selling ‘scaled down’ sexualised adult clothing and clothing with sexual slogans. One of the main themes at the start of the review argues that retail needs to be ‘explicitly and systematically family friendly, from design and buying through to display and marketing.’
However, in relation to gender stereotyping, the review concludes that there is ‘no strong evidence that gender stereotyping in marketing or products influences children’s behaviour’. It argues ‘that the relationship between gender and consumer culture is more complex’ and that the marketing of pink products for girls could have a positive impact (e.g. getting them interested in science if it was marketed in pink packaging and related to beauty/pampering). The review states that gender preferences are strongly biologically driven and part of ‘normal, healthy development of gender identity’. There are no recommendations made regarding gender stereotyping of products, rather it is accepted that this will continue as long as there is consumer demand.
I think that this example reveals serious problems which run through this review. First, given that the review claims to prioritise the ‘common sense’ of parents over research, why does it take parent’s ‘common sense’ about sexualisation seriously, whilst dismissing their ‘common sense’ about gender stereotyping?
Secondly, when I look at the research in these areas, I would conclude that there is – if anything – clearer evidence for the negative impact of gender stereotyping than there is for the negative impact of sexualisation. Cordelia Fine’s recent book, Delusions of Gender, for example, summarises a wealth of evidence that gender stereotyping (suggesting that one gender is less good a particularly activity, for example, or that they are more likely to be interested in a certain field) impacts on our cognitive abilities, confidence and many other aspects, and that neurological differences between the genders often result from exposure to such stereotypes. Beyond that, there can be little question that the narrow definitions of femininity and masculinity expressed in stereotyped clothes and other products make life a misery for the many children who do not neatly fit in these boxes, who often suffer from bullying and alienation. On the other hand, much of the research on sexualisation of children has failed to find many of the kind of products which Bailey’s review refers to, and there is no clear evidence yet that such products have a negative impact. In fact recent studies of suggest responsible and thoughtful sexual behaviour amongst young people. Particularly there is a dearth of evidence so far on how young people themselves make sense of these products.
This suggests, to me, that the Bailey review is more concerned with bolstering current cultural norms than it is with either what the evidence has to say, or even what parents and young people think themselves. The current norms are that sexual behaviour amongst young people is inherently problematic (hence the desire to clamp down on anything that might encourage it), and that people should adhere to rigid gender roles (hence the lack of any problem with gender stereotyped products). I think that we need to think critically about both of these conclusions.
Find out more:
You can find my academic article on these ideas here.
There’s more about all aspects of sexualization in The Sexualization Report.
The Bailey review itself can be found here
The Radio 4 report on the topic is towards the end of this news segment
A very helpful overview here
For more on these topics in general see the Onscenity Network website which includes a collection of blog posts on sexualisation