Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2008 | People

Gigi Durham

By IAM Staff

Why was she in the news?

UI associate journalism professor Gigi Durham has seen Bratz dolls dressed in tube tops and fishnet stockings, padded pushup bras geared toward six-year-old girls, and a toy Peekaboo Pole-Dancing Kit that features play money and a pint-sized garter belt. She has also seen the devastating effects that such sexually suggestive marketing inflicts on young girls.

In her latest book, The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, Durham vocalizes parents' concerns about the exploitation of tweens' sexuality in pop culture and advertising. She argues that the push by marketers to target younger audiences such as those eight to 12 years old has led to unhealthy and harmful representations of girls' sexuality in the media.

What's the big deal?

The Lolita Effect hit store shelves this past spring—about the same time that Disney star Miley Cyrus's provocative Vanity Fair shoot caused a stir among parents of young fans of her Hannah Montana character. Reporters from national media outlets ranging from Ms. to People dialed up Durham to review her book and seek her expert opinion.

Anyone who turns on the TV or flips through the pages of a fashion magazine will see ideal female bodies used to sell products, but children often can't tell the image from reality. Durham says that girls' quests to emulate their media models have impacted self-esteem issues, eating disorders, and early sexual activity. The link that advertisers make between youth and sexuality has also compounded societal problems such as sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, pornography, prostitution, and sex trafficking. Durham says, "Clearly we're not giving children the kind of information they need to take care of themselves sexually and transition to adulthood in safe ways."

What's her expert advice?

Durham suggests parents should help children become critical media consumers and make wise decisions about sex. She says Americans need to find a middle ground between the taboos of talking to kids about sex in abstinence-only education and the "anything goes" approach of the media. "You wouldn't hand a three-year-old kid your car keys and let them drive," says Durham. "Like driving, there are risks and responsibilities [involved with sexuality], and you should coach kids through it so they make good decisions."