Alpha Girls and Secret Agents

(Last Updated On: November 21, 2015)

It occurred to me after working on Pigtails in Paint for a short time that it was too easy for people to regard the appeal of little girls as a superficial exploration. I knew in my heart that there was some unspoken importance to this phenomenon, but that it would be hard for the general public to take it seriously. I decided to make a conscious effort to include more overtly socially-relevant posts, starting with ‘The “V” Word’. Naturally, Pigtails was not going to shy away from the more intimate, charming and controversial expressions of little girls, but I did not want it to be just another showcase of eye-candy.

Little did I realize that after the posting of ‘State-of-the-Art Exploitation’, there would be an almost unending series of serious issues involving little girls—and by extension, women. I have recently discovered a number of university lectures that can be viewed online by Professor Sut Jhally of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). Jhally’s work makes me think of where I might be in the years to come. Like me, he has been a prolific reader and viewer of documentaries. Because he watches and analyzes the media intensely, he has an amazing collection of images and videos—some of which he helped produce—that he uses to illustrate his talks. His expanding contribution to the analysis of the modern market economy and how it influences our culture is too great to cover here, so readers can expect me to make periodic ongoing references to Jhally’s scholarship.

One of the most shocking revelations has to do specifically with little girls—what marketers refer to as “tween girls”. I already mentioned in ‘State of the Art Exploitation’ that one of the most important markets is children, but until now, I had not realized that it was the most important market. Children influence the purchasing choices of adults amounting to over $300 billion per year. With the advent of television, marketers began to realize that they could have exclusive access to a malleable and influential demographic. Saturday morning and after school shows began to advertise toys and other products for children. Of particular concern was the ubiquitous presence of unhealthy sugary cereals in targeted programming. In response, Action for Children’s Television (ACT), established in 1968, began to petition the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take action about this distressing exploitation of the most naive members of our society. In 1977, the FTC proposed some seemingly reasonable guidelines, but the powerful food industry fought back hard and through its influence turned the FTC into the impotent agency it is today. What few concessions might have been made to ACT evaporated during the Reagan Administration’s mania for deregulation. A powerful illustration of the importance of little girls in market analysis is a program called the Girls Intelligence Agency. A special news report on this organization was aired on CBS—some of which can be seen in a film called Consuming Kids (2008).

Kim Kennedy - from CBS's Born to Buy? (c2005)

It is remarkable to think that billions in marketing dollars are spent on the decisions girls as young as 8 make. On the surface, this may seem empowering to girls, but when analyzed carefully, the fact is that companies are just using these girls as a relatively cheap source—cheap for the research companies, not their clients—of market research.  As shocking as this development may seem, there are companies that do something called ethnographic research where psychologists essentially stalk—with parental consent and compensation—children to observe how they interact with products, even following them into the bathroom to note their behavior during bathing or showering! An excellent book on the modern paradigm of children’s marketing is Born to Buy (2005) by Juliet B. Schor. Schor also adds that although the parents of the alpha girl sign a permission form and are aware of the nature of the event and are compensated, none of the guests are.  Any time your little girl is invited to a large slumber party, you may want to double-check what is really going on.

Also of great relevance is Jhally’s analysis of gender roles in society. Particularly, the escalating portrayals of masculinity offer some clues to the latest hysteria about child nudity and sexuality and readers can expect some of these points to appear in future posts as well.

Relevant Sut Jhally lectures here, here and here
Official Sut Jhally website
Media Education Foundation (MEF) videos website


4 thoughts on “Alpha Girls and Secret Agents

  1. I watched the 3 lectures by Sut Jhally. I liked the first two, showing how the market, when novelty does not bring enough profit, will repack old stuff like Prozac under a new name and with a new colour; also how the US Congress puts profit above public health. He pointed out a major scandal of the health market: drug companies invest in medication for fake psychiatric disorders in rich countries, such as ADHD, but refuse to let poor countries use generic versions of their patented AIDS treatments. He could have mentioned (but did not) the great shame of our times: the malaria pandemic and its millions of deaths, abetted by the misguided if not criminal policies of Western countries, the UN and some self-styled “ecologists”.
    However I became disappointed while watching the third lecture, as it agitates conservative themes like the “sexualization” of children, the compression of age differences and the break-up of family and parental authority. Then it goes into a series of narrow and catastrophic diagnoses about current problems, such as presenting the media as the main cause of childhood obesity and of the decline of life expectancy in the US. It ends with a grandiose amalgam between the advertising industry, pedophiles, child abuse and the monsters that suck the soul out of children in Harry Potter.
    Visiting the MEF site confirmed my disappointment, with many video clips stoking the current moral panic about the “dangers of porn” (hijacking sexuality and creating violence) or “hypersexualization” (mainly of girls). The “about MEF” page includes the following:
    “From films about the commercialization of childhood and the subtle, yet widespread, effects of pornography, pop-cultural misogyny and sexism, to titles that deal with the devastating effects of rapacious consumerism and the wars for oil that it drives”.
    Correcting so many errors requires a lot of science, I will try my best in this relatively short comment. First consumers and their desires are not responsible for rapacious wars: with more equality and a better use of natural resources and labour, all human beings on earth could accede to mass consumption. Next, to understand the decline of health in the US, you have to take into account traditional features of the “American way of life”, but also the constant impoverishment of the majority of the population since thirty years, and the concomitant slashing of public services and social welfare.
    The sexologist Milton Diamond has analysed the effect of the legalization of porn in several countries, and concluded that it did not lead to an increase in sexual violence; also porn users do not seem more sexist than non-users. Porn, extreme video games and the media do not create violence and sexism, rather they reflect the inequality, violence and prejudice already existing in society (and reinforced by the conservative agenda). Judith Levine, in her book “Harmful to minors”, explained also that youths in the US have their uncertainties enhanced by the lack of sex education and the stigmatization of their sexuality, so they may use traditional gender stereotypes as a kind of refuge.
    R. Danielle Egan and Gail L. Hawkes wrote several articles about the campaign against the “sexualization of children”, they argued that: (a) it is sexist, it targets girls only, nobody cares when a boy becomes a sex symbol; (b) it assumes that the proper child sexuality is necessarily dormant, thus any manifestation of it must result from “sexualization” by adults; (c) it considers children as passive consumers of advertisement and fashion. These authors consider that children can indeed creatively adapt fashion to their own personality and needs.
    Modern sexologists as well as explorators who visited pristine cultures before they felt the influence of Western civilization and Abramic religions, discovered that children are indeed highly sexual, all they need to become “sexualized” is to escape adult repression.
    Philippe Ariès in “Centuries of childhood” explained how the separation between childhood and adulthood is a modern social construction, and Robert Epstein in his book “Teen 2.0” showed how “adolescence” is a recent creation, an artificial extension of childhood. Our society infantilizes youth at ever greater ages, so an opposite movement should be welcome.
    Finally, the present-day nuclear family whose rise accompanied the romanticization of childhood (Ariès), is the narrowest model of intergenerational transmission in the whole human history. And its household economy follows a pre-industrial model, hardly compatible with women’s careers. Thus no wonder that it enters now into crisis, as do existing economical and social models.

    • As always, I thank you for your thorough comment. Those three links are part of a longer course and there are two others on Vimeo. If you were to view them all, you would see that he counterbalances some of the biases you seem to be noticing. I do not agree with all of Sut Jhally’s conclusions, but the unmistakable fact is that he is extremely well-read and is an undeniable expert on the media.
      That being said, the MEF materials have to be promoted using the usual sound bites. Remember, Jhally is aware of mainstream biases and has to promote his materials on that basis. Using such empty but emotionally-charged words like “sexualizating” is a conventionalization and I doubt it really reflects a superficial understanding. I have noticed in one lecture that he recognizes the inherent sexuality of children but had to broach the subject lightly as his key arguments are controversial enough given the mainstream propaganda that most people are familiar with.
      My objection to the MEF is that it seems to promote a capitalist approach to education. I found the materials to be too expensive, but I am negotiating right now to get some kind of bulk discount. However, I don’t know how else this could be done given that quality video production is quite expensive.
      The other thing is that Jhally himself admits to being something of a coward when taking a strong stand on something, so he occasionally equivocates on certain points (presumably not to offend people so they’ll listen) from time to time creating the impression of adhering to certain mainstream belief systems.
      He knows full well that many of these issues cannot be dealt with simply and his strength is pointing out to his students that there are a complex series of interactions between the many factors. However, he does not let his students forget the importance of “following the money” to discover the truth behind the propaganda and that moneyed interests are the dominant force right now.
      I do appreciate the many citations you have shared with us and it is certainly worth a follow-up for anyone interested in these subjects. Thank you again, -Ron

      • Indeed, the distribution policy of MEF targets schools, universities and libraries; this follows the model of academic publishing, and with such a narrow market, the prices must be high. We are far from popular agit-prop with mass-produced material available at a cheap price. Maybe these people should be trained to come down from their ivory tower.
        Academics, in particular sexologists and ethnologists, constitute the sector of population most critical of current moral panics. Hence religious conservatives routinely denounce some of them (including dead ones like Kinsey and Money) as “promoters of pedophilia”. Thus when adressing such an enlightened audience, Jhally does not need to assuage current fears. But MEF includes some real moral panickers, for example Gail Dines.
        I noticed in “About MEF” Jhally’s motto “Rectification of the system”. This underlies some of my disagreements.

        • “Rectification of the system” reminds me of Ghandi. One of the things he recognized about “his” movement is that there needed to be a journal to get information out to everyone. The problem today is the consolidation of the media. Although it is objectionable when powerful interests control the information/propaganda, grassroots organizations need to make an effort to do some kind of control so that there might be an effective change in public perceptions. I think Jhally rightly recognizes the importance and dominance of the mainstream media. On the other hand, I believe he also needs to take seriously the free information movement and although his message is far from perfect, I personally believe there is a lot of important information that is not generally available. At least the Vimeo lectures are free for now, but he does indeed need to reexamine the academic model of publishing. Thank you again Christian. -Ron

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