Songs of innocence; songs of experience
A couple of people at St. Blogs have posted in the last day about pop culture sexualizing and/or desensitizing children. Rich Leonardi recounts girls who looked about 10 singing “Stacy’s Mom” on the karaoke. Barbara Nicolosi, in the course of a vigorous attack on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, protests particularly a scene involving a 7-year-old in a burlesque (skip to the graf starting “a seven year old” … the rest of her piece is certainly worth reading, but it’s not relevant to my point here).
I could certainly imagine the LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE scene being offensive if there were nudity or the girl’s movements were continually sexualized (Barbara says they were; she has seen the film, I have not). But I’m not sure how much damage it actually does to the girl. I think it’s much more a matter of adult repugnance at being made to see a child in a sexual light,¹ because adults know the meaning of certain things that kids don’t. I went to an NBA game in Atlanta when the Macarena was all the rage, and during one of the time-outs or quarter- or half-breaks, the Hawks had some girls who looked to be about 6 or 7 on the court to do the dance. Their costumes were all color-coded, like the women in the video, and when they got to the last move, which involves rolling your hips, it was all I could do to think “I wonder if they know what that gesture symbolizes.” But it’s very easy for an experienced adult to overestimate what an innocent child will understand.
But for the girl in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE herself, assuming there was no unsimulated nudity, it could very well be meaningless. Kids play “dress-up” and “let’s pretend” all the time. She was probably directed like the kid stars in BUGSY MALONE … although one of them grew up to be Scott Baio, so maybe this is horrendous, after all.
As for Rich’s anecdote … I’m not sure how much of lyrics like that kids absorb, depending on age. I can only speak personally and maybe I was just unusually innocent as a boy or grew up in a more-generally-innocent time. But I’m certain that nonchalant defusing is the best way to keep children innocent. Children are curious and pick up pretty infallibly on adult awkwardness.
I certainly remember loving LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” — it was a hit when I was 9 years old. No adult can look at the lyrics and not know what is happening in the song, even if he doesn’t know what is English for “voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir” (though the lyrics to this All Saints remix just turn my stomach). I loved Sweet, David Bowie and British glam-rock of the early-70s without ever catching onto anything “queer” going on, or figuring out what “Little Willy” or “Rebel, Rebel” were all about or what a groupie was (from “Fox on the Run”). After emigration, I could also recall being mystified at the coy ads on US daytime TV for feminine products like tampons and douches, which you couldn’t advertise on British TV at the time. And asking in 6th-grade health class, when we were on the nutrition unit, why women need more iron than men (something mentioned in some vitamin ads at the time — “and being women, we lose some of that” was the vague reference to what I later learned was menstruation).
When I was about 12 or 13, my mother took me to see THE SENTINEL. There was a scene in which the frame cuts off the heroine from the waist and forearm down. But from the direction of the arm and the sounds she is making, it is clear to an adult that she’s masturbating. At this scene, I turned to my mother and innocently asked “what is she doing?” She casually said “oh, she’s just got a tummyache.” A man sitting behind us overheard this and burst out laughing. My mother was so nonchalant in defusing my question that, I remember the movie but had no memory of this exchange or the man’s laughter when she recounted it to me years later. In principle, she could have been making it all up.
Looking back, the British humour I was raised on as a boy was pretty raunchy. There was huge amounts of the transvestite and sex-identity humor on Benny Hill, Monty Python and Music-Hall-type shows. There was the lowbrow “Blackpool postcard” type of humor and the higher-toned satire of the English public-school classes. In “Virtually Normal,” Andrew Sullivan provided the following anecdote:
I also remember making a joke in a debate competition at the age of 12, at the time of a homosexual scandal involving the leader of the British Liberal Party. I joked that life was better under the Conservatives — or behind the Liberals for that matter. It achieved a raucous response, but I had no idea what the analogy meant. Perhaps my schoolboy audience hadn’t, either.
I remember very precisely the scandal he’s referring to as Sullivan and I are only 3 years apart — Jeremy Thorpe. And during the Year of Monica, it often occurred to me that I could listen to the BBC’s and ITV’s coverage of Thorpe’s downfall, which centered on homosexual blackmail, without asking “dad, what’s fellatio?” (Now, Radio 4 on the other hand …) Whether this is because the word wasn’t used or it was but I had no way of even being mystified about it I cannot say (and for the purposes of my present point, it doesn’t matter). The American press somehow made the impact of the Year of Monica worse by compounding the graphic coverage with hand-wringing think pieces about “how to talk to the kids about it.” Answer: don’t and/or deflect. Frankness can be worse than silence.
As always, everything comes back to SOUTH PARK, in particular episodes called “Proper Condom Use” (about sex ed), or “Tom’s Rhinoplasty” (about the boys having a crush on Miss Ellen … I’ll always treasure Cartman’s mind-numbingly literal understanding of a locker-room term for lesbian sex), or “Stupid Spoiled Whore” (aka “Paris Hilton is not a good role model”). These shows are, in significant part, about G-rated kids (they’re really much more innocent than you might guess) in an R-rated world — a “Kids Say the Darndest Things” turned up to 11. The primary point of these and several other episodes is how adults damage children by putting in their heads thoughts and situations and language that they don’t understand. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but there also is such a thing as too much and not enough knowledge at the same time. Kids’ll do some things on their own, of course. The sex ed episode begins with Stan and Kyle, playing like Sam Peckinpah’s WILD BUNCH kids, destroying a Jennifer Lopez doll for making albums and movies. And it ends with the restoration of the status quo antebellum:
Stan: Well, I guess we got a while to wait before we have to worry about sex and diseases, huh, Wendy?
Wendy: Yeah. Thank God.
Cartman: Well, I guess now that that’s out of the way, we can get on with our lives.
(Then some more dirty jokes)
I thinks that’s a healthier attitude toward bawdy material and children — try to protect them from it, but don’t make a big deal out of the failures — it just magnifies them. In other words, “minimize it” in every sense of that word — as my mother did at THE SENTINEL. I don’t think I’m just engaged in nostalgia, but when I was a boy, the culture had a “sorta ask, kinda tell” attitude toward bawdy entertainment. It strikes me now as a decent compromise in popular culture between prudery and perversity about sex. It was there to be seen by those with eyes and disposition to see it; but not there (or at least not obviously or undeniably) for those who wanted or could not “get” it.
¹ Which is certainly reason enough to call it offensive, I hasten to add — using the child to corrupt others with ill thoughts.