Published December 16, 2010
LOS ANGELES – Long gone are the days when Marcia Brady’s sweet smile and Winnie Cooper’s brains and beauty were how television represented teen-age girls.
According to a new study conducted by the Parents Television Council (PTC), Hollywood is shockingly obsessed with sexualizing teen girls, to the point where underage female characters are shown participating in an even higher percentage of sexual situations than their adult counterparts: 47 percent to 29 percent respectively.
PTC’s report, entitled “New Target: A Study of Teen Female Sexualization on Primetime TV” is based on a content analysis drawn from the 25 most popular shows in the 12-17 demographic throughout the 2009-2010 television season.
“The results from this report show Tinseltown’s eagerness to not only objectify and fetishize young girls, but to sexualize them in such a way that real teens are led to believe their sole value comes from their sexuality," said PTC President Tim Winter. "This report is less about the shocking numbers that detail the sickness of early sexualization in our entertainment culture and more about the generation of young girls who are being told how society expects them to behave."
“Storylines on the most popular shows among teens are sending the message to our daughters that being sexualized isn’t just acceptable, it should be sought after,” Winter said. “It is outrageous that TV executives have made it their business to profit off of programs that depict teen girls blissfully being sexualized by casual partners.”
Examples used by the PTC to illustrate their findings, all taken from prime time broadcast television, included Taylor Momsen’s character in bed with Ed Westwick on “Gossip Girl,” Annalynne McCord taking a swig of alcohol while donning a bra and panties on “90210,” and a lesbian kiss between cheerleaders on “Glee.”
The data, based on factors ranging from the genre of the program to the gender of the initiator and the participant’s attitude toward the sexualizing incident, also revealed that 98 percent of the sexual incidents involving underage female characters occurred outside of any form of committed relationship, and that 73 percent of the underage sexualized incidents were presented in a humorous manner or as a punch line to a joke.
Winter also claims that TV networks can’t be trusted as 75 percent of the time they leave off the “S” descriptor to warn audiences about sexual content. However, Adam Temple, the Coalitions Director at the TV Watch Organization, a broad-based coalition that opposes government control of TV programming, said that examining the age appropriate rating is the most important factor to take into consideration.
“You have to look at the whole story. First and foremost shows are rated based on age, so before you even get to the point of those content descriptors (such as ‘S’ for sex, ‘L’ for language and ‘V’ for violence) parents have to decide what is appropriate,” Temple said. “As with other PTC studies, it is very subjective, so 'reader beware.’ It is important to remember that parents are the ultimate authority, and that this seemingly ‘scary’ study based on vague methodology is subjective.”
Nonetheless, the PTC and its supporters don’t simply just want networks to slap more warnings on programs – they’re calling on parents, actors, and advertisers to take action and demand that the trend to air content based on teen sexualization be reversed. However, Temple argued that end of the day it is up to parents to take control over what their children can and cannot view.
“Parents understand that all programming is not for all children and, according to polling conducted solely among parents, take seriously their efforts to ensure their children view what is appropriate based on their age, taste and values,” he said. “What is increasingly difficult to take seriously, is a patchwork of studies characterized by vagaries and omissions, apparently intended to raise money because the group has the word 'Parents' in its name."
But another expert not associated with these studies or organizations firmly believes that Hollywood is indeed sexualizing underage characters on its shows for profit.
“Certain shows, advertisers, etc. sexualize underage people, which does double damage: it sends a message to youth that their self-worth depends on their sexuality, and provokes inappropriate sexual responses from adults. This is irresponsible programming and is disrespectful to youth,” Los Angeles-based psychologist Dr. Nancy Irwin said. “This (PTC) study is not being blown out of proportion.”