Sexualizing Tweens for Profit: A Q&A with Gigi Durham

With the recent fall of pop sex symbol Britney Spears and the emergence of the newly sexualized
teen idol Miley Cyrus, aka Hannah Montana, University of Iowa journalism professor Gigi
Durham couldn’t have timed the publication of her new book any better.

Durham’s book, "The Lolita Effect,"
examines the motives behind the media’s sexualization of tween girls
and how they are exploiting young girls for profit. For example, at
Abercrombie & Fitch, little girls were sold thong underwear tagged
with the phrases "eye candy" and "wink wink." In Britain, preschoolers
could learn to strip with their very own Peekaboo Pole-Dancing Kits —
complete with kiddie garter belts and play money.

Durham advocates healthy and progressive concepts of girls’ sexuality,
but criticizes the media for its sexual representations. Studies by the
Kaiser Family Foundation and other research organizations show that
sexual content aimed at children has increased steadily since the
1990s, Durham said. Times were prosperous, Britney Spears emerged as
the sexy schoolgirl on MTV, and tweens had plenty of disposable income
— a perfect alignment for marketers trying to expand into a new
demographic. By 2007, 8- to 12-year-olds’ consumer spending was $170
billion worldwide, according to the market research firm Euromonitor.

Interview with Gigi Durham, author of "The Lolita Effect":

Iowa Independent: I assume the book’s title is
alluding to Nabokov’s "Lolita." Given the predatory relationship that
evolves between the protagonist and the nymphet, Lolita, in the book,
why did you title your book, "The Lolita Effect"?

Durham: Yes, the book is an allusion to Nabokov’s
"Lolita," which is written from the predator’s point of view, and he
sees Lolita as the one who is bringing it on. All predators do that, so
all of the abusiveness in the novel and the empathy for Lolita is lost
in the way we now talk about girls. In that sense, Lolita is a tragic
figure. That’s why I’m using that title, because we all think we know
what it means. To me Lolita represents an effect of our culture and our
media that positions girls in that way. Of course girls are
transitioning into adulthood and are interested in sex, but what
12-year-old girl would initiate or knowingly enter into those kind of
relationships? You can’t pin it on the kid.

Iowa Independent: So does your book look at the other end of the sexualization and marketing of tween girls and examine the role of men?

Durham: It looks at all aspects regarding the
marketing of this type of sexuality and the narrow, restrictive form of
sexuality that’s commercially driven to young girls. But it also looks
at the impacts, such as the rise in child-sex trafficking and child
pornography and how this is being legitimated by the mainstream media
and the impact on girls who are not learning about sex in healthy,
progressive natural, normal ways. They are not being given this safe
transition into adulthood, where they have good information about
sexuality and they can make good choices themselves.

They are not getting good information from the media, and they are not
getting this information from anywhere else either, because we are so
skittish about dealing with these issues. As a result, we have really
high rates of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world, twice that of
the U.K. and eight times that of Japan. Moreover, one in four girls in
this country has had a sexually transmitted disease (STD). We are not
doing it right; we are not giving these girls what they need.

Iowa Independent: On the flip side, do you think marketers are targeting adult males and their desires or fantasies about the Lolita persona?

Durham: I totally do think so. Because not only are
they marketing to children, but at the same time there is this other
effect where adults are exposed to these same kinds of images, in
particular adult men, subsequently giving these men the implicit idea
that these young girls are sexual objects — which I think is really
problematic. The effect is an implicit or tacit support of those ideas.

Iowa Independent: Putting this in a recent context,
what are your thoughts about the explicit photographs of 15-year-old
Miley Cyrus in the latest issue of "Vanity Fair"?

Durham: For me, the very fact that this generated so
much public controversy shows that this is a really important issue. In
a way I was glad. This points to how we tend to polarize girls’
sexuality in our society. There’s no middle ground, we either repress
girls’ sexuality or we exploit it for profit. The big outrage that this
girl is a pure, innocent and chaste girl is a bit ridiculous. At the
same time she is very young, so I don’t think it is OK that her body is
on display for this voyeuristic gaze for commercial profit. The issue
is more complex than the way it has been presented; it’s not an
either-or issue.

Iowa Independent: Do you think marketers are
consciously branding female innocence and purity with the intent of
eventually using this branding to exploit the sexualization aspect of
their marketing strategy?

Durham: It almost does seem that way, doesn’t it?
Britney Spears took this same route. She started out a Mouseketeer on
the "New Mickey Mouse Club" and then she became a sex symbol. They
start out innocent, then overnight they become sex symbols and there is
no transition, which is not good for girls, who need an extended time
to understand and cope with their own sexuality as it develops. In a
way, it’s a social trauma.

Iowa Independent: What role do these girls’ parents
play in this process, especially those who allow their daughters to be
exploited by the media, especially when it turns out they have no
control over how they are exploited, whether it be a parent, producer
or media conglomerate?

Durham: I thought it was really clear in the Miley
Cyrus case that there was a group of adults that were using her body
for their own purposes. There were adults there including her father,
Billy Ray Cyrus, photographer Annie Leibovitz and her handlers, who were
making her decision for her. It came out later that Miley was ashamed
and embarrassed about it, and if this is true, then it indicates that
she didn’t perceive she had any control in the situation. We want girls
to make intentional, good decisions about themselves and their sexual

So I do think parents are important, and this is one of the reasons I
wrote the book. I want parents to have a tool for coping with this, for
their kids are being assaulted by media images from such an early age.
The book provides some good strategies for kids and parents on how to
talk about sexuality without it feeling like such a difficult thing to
talk about.

Iowa Independent: We can keep criticizing the media
for helping perpetuate this problem through mass marketing and
consumerism, but how do we get them to change their behaviors? How can
we address the demand-side –the boy’s/men’s role in — of the equation?

Durham: Boys are getting the same messages from the
media, especially what defines masculinity and femininity, so we need
to have more co-ed discussions that involve teachers, parents and
counselors helping facilitate a healthy discussion about sexuality.

A lot of boys are very thoughtful and see girls as more than eye candy,
so it’s important to bring them into the discussion as well.

And then there is the push back against the marketers. Parents need to
continue to put pressure on marketers and hold them responsible for
what they are selling. There have been a number of products that have
been removed from the shelves because of these efforts.

Iowa Independent: What about recent video games like
"Grand Theft Auto" that are not only violent but that treat women as
sex objects while simultaneously degrading them, or as is the case in
"Grand Theft Auto," you can kill them after having sex with them?

Durham: Not only are these games incredibly violent,
but all the women in these games are sex workers. They are all
strippers or prostitutes. The games are rated "M" and are intended for
adult audiences but of course that never matters, because 13- and
14-year-old boys are the ones that tend to play these kinds of games.
Again, I think boys need more media literacy and education and need to
hear adults they respect being critical of these issues, then they will
begin to understand why our value system doesn’t appreciate those

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • invalid-0

    I was blown away (in a good way,) by this article; right up until the very last Q&A. I find it appalling that such an insightful dialogue would end with both interviewer and subject opining on something that, clearly, neither had any good information about. I can understand that perhaps neither writer has played GTAIV, and so is ignorant of the depth of storytelling and the breadth of humanistic character development (of characters of both genders,) displayed in this groundbreaking game.

    Maybe both missed the extensively positive reviews garnered by GTAIV, both in the gaming press, and in mainstream media, including this absolutely fawning piece in the New York Times:

    I am not surprised by Mr. Lindsey’s and Ms. Dunham’s ignorance of GTAIV. I am, however, quite disappointed that two professional journalists would make declarative statements, in print, that are so plainly, demonstrably false. Some of the women in GTA are hookers, some are lawyers, and the female lead is saving herself for marriage. Shame on both of you for speaking out of ignorance.

  • invalid-0

    I went to Hollister — one of my 15 y.o. daughter’s favorite clothing stores — last week to buy a gift certificate for a bat mitzvah gift for a friend’s 13 year old. Hollister has three different gift cards — each depicting older teens in sexual situations (a half-naked man, a couple in their underwear embracing and a young woman in a bra and slip.) When I asked whether there were cards that just had the name of the store on them since this was for a 13 y.o., the young clerk looked appalled. She insisted the gift cards were appropriate for any age. Hollister is a favorite of the 12-16 year old set. It is clear that, along with clothes, the company is marketing sex. What a shame! And all the more reason to read The Lolita Effect.

  • harry834

    I’m glad you opened up about GTA. Thank you for the link.

    I am scrutinizing the examples you gave. They might have confirmed one of the author’s fears:

    "Some of the women in GTA are hookers, some are lawyers, and the female lead is saving herself for marriage."

    I gave these examples as well-rounded diversity, but all I see are types – seeming stereotypes. There are only two expressions of female sexual choices, the hookers and the pre-marital virgin. And the only expression of brains – the lawyers – do they show sexual interest? Or are they just a category? I haven’t seen the game myself.

    Back to the hookers and virgin. The author said that the media depicters of women can’t show a complex middle ground of women as sexual beings. We are stuck with two opposite types: the hypersexual woman who does it for the male gaze and the "innocent" women/girl who is shielded from evil danger through virginity. Was the lead woman a damsel in distress? If so, it might support my point.

    So we (might) have: hookers that are part of the gang scene, female lawyers with no sign of sexual interest (brains vs sex, never a middle ground), and the damsel in distress whose only option to avoid corruption was holding her hymen – rather than her conscience – intact.

    A woman’s moral compass depends on the integrity of her heart and mind, not the intactness of her hymen.

    Am I right? Or is there more to your story? Maybe you have more facts that could enlighten me, or weaken my above hypotheses.

    Please weaken my arguments if you can. I want to hear the full story and give you a chance to add more examples and info if possible

  • invalid-0

    The sad truth is that the marketing is geared towards children as young as three and four years old. I wrote about this last year when bringing my then four-year-old daughter to Target to shop for a birthday present and finding Bratz dolls for little girls, in fishnet stockings & tight black t-shirts exclaiming "bad girl", staring back at us. The writer of the interview as well as the author of the book are so right when they say that we must address both girls and boys and that there is nothing wrong with sex and sexuality but there is something very wrong about foisting a sexual role upon girls, tweens and teens for profit.

    Tamar, I’m so sorry about your experience at the department store and yet I’m not surprised.

    Harry, thank you for always being a voice of reason! Your questions are spot on. Your comments about one-dimensional women being the norm in video games like GTA are so true. And, to be honest, even my nine-year-old son can see that. When he plays video games (not GTA of course) he’s forever wondering aloud why the women "all look the same and act the same – not like anyone we know!"

    I have hope that with a new generation of girls and boys we will see them throw out these superficial and harmful stereotypes – there is nothing wrong with fantasy and role-playing, certainly, except when it’s degrading and harmful.


    Amie Newman

    Managing Editor, RH Reality Check

  • invalid-0

    Harry, GTAIV is a fully realized work of interactive art. That’s right, I used the A word. It sits in a media space bounded by the genres of action/adventure, gangster drama, and biting socio-political satire. There are hundreds of hours of dialogue, dozens of sub-plots, a score of fully fleshed out supporting characters (some are characterized somewhat satirically, but never stereotypically,) including several women, from various walks of life, who one can date, and, if lucky enough, sleep with. The “virgin” is the only daughter in a large Irish Catholic gangster family; her chastity is avowed by her gangster brother, and supported by her insistence on keeping her relationship with the main character platonic despite the obvious chemistry between them. She never states that she is either chaste or virginal herself (at least not yet, I’m only halfway through.)

    GTA also contains hundreds of “extras,” people who walk the streets of Liberty City, bringing it to life with little bits of dialogue in several languages. The hookers are part of this level of game play.

    I feel somewhat silly defending GTAIV; the point I was making is that none of the opinions expressed by the authors, reflect the reality of the content of the game. And don’t get me started on the whole “these games are mostly played by kids,” meme. What ignorant flapdoodle. Go look at some sale demographics. The concept that video games are for kids is totally Second Millennium.

    Even your response presumes that GTAIV is something it isn’t: a piece of low-brow shlock, chock full of shallow stereotypes and violence for it’s own sake. Would you presume this about a film? What about a TV show? A novel? A comic book? Are some media inherently non-artistic, safe to assume about? It seems to me that the authors think so.

  • harry834

    I’m in-between different tasks, but what I’ve read so far sounds good NW. I’ll probably need extra looks to digest the whole thing, but I’m happy to have gotten such a well-written response to my concerns.

    I am actually an adult fan of comics and video games. I’m sure I’ll find some connection in your words. 

  • invalid-0


    You make my point again here:

    y”our comments about one-dimensional women being the norm in video games like GTA are so true. And, to be honest, even my nine-year-old son can see that. When he plays video games (not GTA of course)”

    Can I assume that as you do not allow your nine-year-old to play GTA (wise,) you have not yourself seen the game? Then how can you speak of “games like GTA?”

    I have not read “East of Eden,” but I know that it is a novel, and it is considered racy. I know that the vast bulk of racy novels (and most novels in fact,) are of low quality, with shallow characters and wooden dialogue. Should I speak of “racy novels like ‘East of Eden'”

    I submit to you that the bulk of cultural output of any given medium -film, television, fiction, painting, dance, etc- is of low quality overall, and, as often as not, quite offensive. This being the case, one cannot be justified in speaking about a given work in a given medium, that one has not one’s self experienced. To do otherwise is to commit an argument out of ignorance fallacy, which brings shame to one’s Critical Thinking instructor.

  • harry834

    I had a look at NW’s response to my concerns, and am willing to let the dialogue flow before making final judgments. I’m open to believing that a media creation can seem "degrading" on the surface, but more substantial upon deeper look. On the other hand, your 9-year old son’s statement gives me pause before I completely adopt NW’s view.

    The point is that my judgment is evolving and as more talk comes in – plus whatever time I have for research (I’m unemployed and hunting, help!) – will add more to the complex picture of what these games and media dipictions offer us.

  • harry834

    For Amie:

    "Can I assume that as you do not allow your nine-year-old to play GTA…"

    I do assume you didn’t allow your 9-year old to play GTA – am I correct?

    If so, you yourself have not seen the game, as NW has said.

    However, NW…

    even if we have not seen the game in depth, the surface-level advertising images are out and about. The images of sexual roles and violence might not be the whole story of the game, but they are the part of the story that is broadcast, every which way, and that aspect of the story – incomplete as it is – is the message and image we are getting whether we want it or not…with all the consequences of receiving this message

    In fact, it is this aspect of the message that is intentionally broadcast to attract us.

    Any counter-thoughts, NW? This is a good discussion.

  • harry834

    that Grand Theft Auto can qualify as a work of art. And a free nation will allow its existence for others to enjoy.

    However, a responsible nation will acknowledge the effects that this art has on young minds whether its from the messages in-depth or on the surface.

    But more than acknowledgment, action must be taken to deal with the negative social effects of the art. What the action should be, besides parental control, I’m still deciding.

  • invalid-0

    I must say that I am ignorant of the tenor and content of the pre-release marketing for GTAIV, as I never watch TV commercials, and I don’t listen to commercial radio. I do know that GTA is a game by and for adults. Beyond the basic mechanic of driving cars and shooting guns, most of the content of the game (story, detail, and immense humor,) would be lost on nearly all adolescents.

    Much of the negative image surrounding this game comes from reactionary responces such as the one demonstrated in this article. Working from the presumption that video games are a medium inherently meant for children, it is assumed that any game containing “adult themes,” such as complex sexuality, violence, crime, etc. must be puerile and childish, a pixilated pied piper leading the youth out of innocence and in to debauchery. If the sexuality portrayed on the public face of GTA seems lurid, remember that this is a game about crime. Would you expect a story where the main character is a killer out for revenge to be populated by well-adjusted, independent, sex-positive, college graduates making their own way in this world? Or would the female characters be just like the males: making moral compromises every day just to survive.

    Let me return now to what I consider my main point; why are two journalists, in an article discussing the sexualization of adolescent female marketing culture, making patently false statements about a cultural product, of which both are clearly ignorant, meant for the men 18-35 demographic?

  • invalid-0

    Harry, I don’t think anyone has any good information on how art effects minds. The best we have in this respect is the recent Harvard study showing no connections between video games and violence.
    There is only one cultural product that truely and deeply effects the minds of those exposed to it. It is the one scientifically designed to do so: marketing.

  • invalid-0

    the above is by me

  • invalid-0

    I, too, am taking in what you wrote NW. Thank you. I’ll look into it more deeply – I am nothing if not open-minded and I think you make some fascinating points – especially the point about the game being about crime and for adults. I certainly loved The Wire (well, obsessed is more like it) and would never let my children view it. There were many times, however, where I felt almost ashamed watching it – as if I was getting pleasure from watching people’s misery.

    I think what I struggle with, in terms of video games, is the level of “participation” in the medium. If it’s a game about crime and the women are all one-dimensional (as are, I suppose, the men) and you are actively participating by making decisions in that framework that will allow you to commit more crimes, behave violently, etc. doesn’t that do something to a person (ie won’t that have a negative effect long term)? Thanks for your thorough comments.

    Amie Newman

    Managing Editor, RH Reality Check

  • invalid-0

    Amie, thank you for taking time to engage with me in this discussion. As to your concerns regarding participation in video games, let me present this illustration: I am very fond of the fine programming on HBO (I share your love of the Wire, and would draw a parallel in the way that show and GTAIV strive to create a living, breathing city as a central character,) and I particularly enjoyed “Rome.” Several times during the mini-series I found myself reacting with physical disgust at the graphic violence it depicted. I am a jaded 30-year-old American male, and I’ve seen countless deaths, almost all of which have been simulacra. The reason “Rome” churned my guts, even though these were obviously actors with blood bags, and not 2000-year-old Italians, was the realism of the portrayal. This was not the over-the-top gore of a slasher movie, or the bloodless bullet wounds of a police procedural, this was what it would look like to watch a gladiator cram his sword down someone’s chest cavity, burying the hilt in his clavicle. Lesson: in cinema and television realism equals emotional impact.

    Video games suffer from two restrictions that make this rule inapplicable across media:
    1. Video games must be fun. Realism is often the enemy of fun. How fun would Super Mario Brothers be if Mario could only jump as high or as far as a real human? The designers of GTAIV encountered this when it came to how the cops behaved. They found that if cops started chasing players if they saw them speeding or running a red light, the game just wasn’t fum, so the cops only give chase if the player hits them or runs down a pedestrian in front of them.
    2. Video games, like robots face the dillema of the “Uncanny Valley,” a phenomenon where as a simulacrum becomes more human like, people find it increasingly disconcerting.
    These two factors limit the degree to which a player actually identifies with, and becomes immersed in the game. Gamers are always sharply aware of the unreality of the game. Video Games don’t, generally, provide that sense, best found in great literature, of “losing yourself” in another world, weeping when a character dies, as though we’ve lost a good friend. For the most part the immersive experience in video games is one of visceral stimulation, excitement, frustration, and the satisfaction of goal achievement. An analogy can be drawn to sports or even sport spectatorism. Only the very best games work on an emotional and humanistic level, and these only get there by telling stories that are emotionally true in a form effective enough to overcome the two-fold boundary to realism.
    I point you to the Harvard study I linked to above. Video games are no more likely to engender bad behavior than comic books were when congress saw fit to have hearings on the “ten cent plague.” Parents should monitor and mediate the media their children consume (I favor minimal sheltering, maximum explanation, but that’s another kettle of fish,) and adults should be psychically sound enough to engage any work in any medium with out fear of mental detriment. If something fictional distresses us, it is up to us to turn away. There is nothing, NOTHING, about video games that make them more or less pernicious than any other kind of play. Your nine-year-old knows he isn’t Mario just as I knew I wasn’t a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, no matter how hard I pretended.