The Parents Television Council is outraged again.
The watchdog group, famous for demanding boycotts of media that challenge traditional codes of morality, just released a study demonstrating the extent to which underage girls are “sexualized” on television.
The study—“Sexualized Teen Girls: Tinseltown’s New Target”—examined 14 scripted primetime TV shows that ranked highest among viewers ages 12 to 17, including Two and a Half Men, Glee, Desperate Housewives and The Vampire Diaries. The PTC also pointed to lower-rated shows like Gossip Girl and 90210 as offenders in a video montage titled “examples.”
Significant findings from the study said that the television shows featured more “physical and intimate behaviors, images, and references” involving underage female characters than adult female characters (48 percent vs. 29 percent), with 98 percent of the sexual scenes featuring underage characters outside of committed relationships. The PTC also took issue with their finding that only 5 percent of the underage girls voiced dislike or disapproval at being sexualized. The findings are based on 52 behaviors, images, and references for underage girls and 225 for adult women.
In an interview for the news arm of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Dan Isett, the Director of Public Policy for PTC, reflected on the organization’s fears about the psychological ramifications of the entertainment content. He said:
The academic research points toward children who are exposed to this type of material early tend to act out what they’ve seen at an earlier and earlier age. In other words, if a child is exposed to sexual content, they’ll tend to be more sexually active earlier in life, and, both from a moral and health perspective, that’s not a good thing.
Interestingly, the PTC didn’t conduct a study about the sexualization of underage males—and a Google search of the topic brings up little male-focused information from any group. But if we talk about how girls’ sex lives are portrayed, why don’t we pay at least a little bit of lip service to whether boys and young men are learning similar lessons from their primetime viewing?
Sure, the girls in these shows have a lot of sex. But they’re not having it alone. To be fair, we need to also be examining their (usually) male partners. A failure to ask the same questions about whether young guys are portrayed as too sexual simply furthers a double standard about men and women with regard to how much sex society says they’re “allowed” to have. If the PTC’s going to label Taylor Momsen’s character on Gossip Girl as a prime candidate for a “Stop Being a Slut” program, then they should also lambast Ed Westwick’s character for his role in their sexual fling, too (their sex scene was featured in the “examples” reel).
Why does the blame fall on the girl? Why does Hollywood’s predominant male-directed message of “real men get ass” seem to go unchallenged?
Some shows that the PTC criticized actually are doing their part to challenge that message. For instance, in an episode of Glee, three characters—two females, one male—are shown preparing to have sex for the first time while singing “Like a Virgin.” The females don’t go through with the nasty, but the guy does, and afterward, he looks upset and disappointed with himself, saying he doesn’t feel any different at all because the sex didn’t mean anything. How’s that for a moral media message?
Despite the study’s annoyances, not all of the PTC’s arguments are invalid. Comments from Nicole Clark, a PTC spokesperson, indicate a strong point:
I think the most important thing is that parents start having a dialogue with children about media and start developing media literacy and critical thinking with children so they understand that it’s not OK to take everything at face value with media.
This gets at the root issue behind the discussion: Talk to your kids—daughters and sons—and make sure they understand that not every situation seen on TV is realistic or appropriate or something they should emulate.