For Every Action
Are girls once wild going mild?
Which 13-year-old girl is more rebellious: the brunette in a miniskirt and 3-inch heels who lost her virginity in middle school, or the blonde wearing a long-sleeve shirt and an ankle-length dress who is freaked out by the condom demonstration in health class? Some might say the latter girl has more gall. After all, that 13-year-old keeps her arms and thighs covered in the era of kiddie thongs and Vanessa Hudgens's topless shots. She not only defies her generation's dress code - she spits in the face of societal norms.
But she might be on to something. Soon, retailers and companies peddling their wares to teens and tweens may feel the pressure from parents, educators and even young people whose attitudes are changing, and whose buying habits are, too. A market correction like this, when the pendulum swings heavily back in the other direction, can be tidal.
For example, Bratz, one of the most popular lines of dolls for young girls, is feeling the heat. In September, Scholastic announced it would stop producing Bratz books. Though the publisher said the books advocated literacy among "reluctant readers," parents and organizations like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood argued that Bratz are far too sexualized. The wide-eyed and ultra-skinny dolls come decked out in skimpy outfits and look like, as described by The New Yorker, "a party girl after too many mojitos."
During her keynote speech at Harvard University's "The Legacy and Future of Feminism" conference this past April, author Camille Paglia heralded a movement sparked by Wendy Shalit, a young woman from Wisconsin, as "true feminism." Shalit's is a far cry from the in-your-face Riot Grrrl mode of empowerment associated with much of contemporary feminism. In 1999, her book A Return to Modesty (Free Press), written when she was 23, called for women to embrace modest clothing and maintain an air of mystery in all aspects of their personal lives. Shalit's theory, in short: The more women cover up and keep to themselves, the more men will be forced to treat them with a higher level of respect and commitment. Though most modern feminists rolled their eyes - Paglia included, at the time - Shalit made no excuses for her self-proclaimed "Victorian" ideals.
Now an influencer in her early 30s who proudly waves her neoconservative flag in the faces of CosmoGIRL and MTV, Shalit is partly responsible for the ongoing cultural shift from Girls Gone Wild to Girls Gone Mild (the title of her second book, published by Random House in 2007). Gone Mild opens with a treatise titled "My Bratz Problem - And Ours." Her third book, The Good Girl Revolution (Ballantine), which came out this summer, tackles the subject of modesty and more rigorous moral standards among tweens and teenage girls. While Return was a philosophical treatise, Gone Mild and Revolution tell the real-life stories and experiences of young women and girls, weaving a narrative about their lives today. The word "revolution" may seem like overkill, but Shalit does seem to have started something. Her Web site, Modesty Zone, has begun serving as a hub for young women who want to explore the possibilities of a more modest lifestyle.
Clothing and lifestyle choices aside, Shalit's philosophy says media representations of women as sex objects perpetuate the cycle of negative female imagery. A 2007 report from the American Psychological Association stated that the cognitive behavior and health of teens and young women can suffer when they try to make themselves into sex kittens by wearing revealing clothing, modeling their fashion choices after celebrities known more for panty-free up-skirt shots than for their acting abilities.
With public opinion shifting and researchers encouraging the trend, Mad Ave might have to rethink its use of sexualized images to appeal to teen and tween girls. Does the fan base of Vanessa Hudgens really want to see her cleavage? How much longer will they want their dolls dressed in vinyl and spike heels?
And if Shalit and her fans are any indication, this brand of modest feminism may force marketers to change their messaging not just to girls and young women, but across demographics. Online advertising and marketing games like the one IdeaWork Studios designed to promote Hard Rock Hotel and Casino's Rehab LV - women in bikinis chicken-fighting in a hotel pool - may seem like just a humorous take on a silly game, but if you buy into Shalit's argument, they're part of a larger social trend that harms girls and women.
Our society's collective celebrity mania, our fixation on ultra-thin runway models, our devotion to crazy diets: These are the traditional scapegoats for the problems afflicting American teens and tweens. But now online marketers and advertisers will have to take some of the responsibility, and adjust their campaigns to buyers' new standards.
Shalit and her philosophy aside, there may be other reasons for the push against the formula of skin + body oil + barely-there clothing. Blame Wall Street. The old adage holds that when the market's down, hemlines follow. Blame exhibitionism fatigue. Maybe people are just burned out on images of starlets flashing paparazzi, or on the overt sexuality of broadcast, cable and magazines. Or perhaps the country is that "party girl after too many mojitos," waking up the morning after with the horrible realization that she lifted her shirt for Joe Francis. No matter the reason, if this trend continues, marketers are going to have to develop smarter tactics than just flashing tanned female skin. But they'll probably relish the challenge. In the second season of Mad Men, Don Draper, the head of creative at a fictional agency, hears a coworker insist that "sex sells." "Says who?" he demands. "Just so you know, the people who talk that way think monkeys can do this."