Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Desiring Justin Bieber, the Tween Frenzy

You know you're a gulf away from youth when you not only do not understand why the latest teen singing sensation in so sensational, but you never knew he existed until he caused a public commotion involving crying girls waving meticulously hand-made banners declaring their love. (It is also a worry when a sixteen-year-old, the latest teen sensation, Justin Bieber, actually looks about twelve to you.)

I too was one of these girls in my pre-teen years. I was obsessed with the original "boy band" New Kids on the Block. I had posters covering every wall in my room, and a collection of cassettes, videos, books and whatever paltry range of merchandise was available in Australia. One item that did make it here, sold at Woolworths, strangely enough, was the New Kids on the Block doll. I bought the "Joe" doll and thus could posess my desired boy in miniature. When the band finally toured Australia in 1992, I crafted my own sign with "I Heart Joe" on it to wave at the concert. It was a marathon effort that involved copious use of glitter.

The commotion generated in the lead-up to the latest teen sensation Justin Bieber's arrival in Australia resulted in several girls fainting and a panicked crush at 2am in the morning! This is not the first time he has had to cancel a performance because of over-zealous crowds of girls. The police reported that girls had camped the night waiting, many without any parental supervision, showing their supreme dedication to the cause of catching a glimpse of their idol. The crush that ensued was partially blamed on mothers failing to control their daughters, who were repeatedly instructed to move back. David Koch, the host of the show Sunrise for which Bieber was performing, called the mayhem "extraordinary scenes, quite dangerous scenes down there".

Pre-teen and teen girl desire being described as "dangerous" and "extraordinary" seems a bit of an overstatement. I'll bet there were more girls screaming when the Beatles touched down in Australia in 1964. It is interesting to see girls injecting all their developing sexual desire into fandom for teen stars while they are waiting for the boys of their own age to mature. Before you know it Bieber will no doubt have a drug habit and will have a few children who must be concealed from fans (like New Kids of the Block, two members of which had "secret" children that fans could never know about because it would destroy the fantasy that they were available). As Bieber's interview comment when he was asked if he had a girlfriend suggests, the whole basis of this kind of teen girl fandom is the illusion that each girl has a chance to live out her dream to be with the boy hearthrob: "So all you Australians - I’m single". Don't worry about me encroaching on your territory, girls. I think I'd be doing something illegal given that I'm soon to be thirty-one.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Girl Scouts Cake Mix Advertisement

I'm still buying silly amount of Girl Guide and Girl Scout paraphenalia on eBay for a potential book. Girl Guides originated in England, and the movement arose out of very British sentiments, just like the Boy Scouts. The adoption of Girl Guiding as Girl Scouting in the USA saw a few distinct differences evolve. Not only is the name and uniform different, but the Americans have unsurprisingly proven to be more effective merchandisers and promoters of their girls' movement. I have bought many UK books, badges, letters, scrapbooks etc. but it is from the US that I find annual Girl Scout calendars, most LPs of girls singing, clothing and equipment catalogues, dolls etc. Girl Scouts also regularly feature on popular magazine covers, such as the Saturday Evening Post, as symbols of American identity and innocence.

I've also found a number of American advertisements in which the wholesome connotations of Girl Scouts are used to market other products, including for Mutual Life insurance! This one for Dromedary Angel Food cake mix shows a level of commercialisation that just doesn't occur with Guiding and Scouting in the UK. I am partially annoyed at people who are tearing out advertisements from old magazines, destroying them as historical records and then charging large amounts for them on eBay. But then, without these opportunistic sellers, I'd never come across these images, so I'm not entirely innocent in the process.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Over the Shoulder Boulder Holders.. for seven year olds

Controversy over underwear that replicates brassieres for girls too young to have any amount of protrustion from their chests is not new. In Australia in recent years, retailer Target attracted controversy for underwear sets for under-10s that included a bra-like top. Amid discussion of Bratz, Britney Spears and paedophilia, the sets were swiftly withdrawn from the racks in all stores.

The most recent incident of this ilk, which has generated international media interest, concerns UK clothing chain Primark, who were selling padded bikinis, seemingly sized for girls as young as seven. The image above shows the degree of padding, designed to counteract the fact that a triangle bikini just will not sit right on a flat pre-pubescent chest. While girls are reaching sexual maturity at a younger age in the the West- I think I had my first training bra at about age 10- and there may be a need for bras for "early developers", the adding of the padding in this instance seems to reach a new level of disturbing.

Online comments seem to gravitate toward polar extremes. The majority suggesting that such products are lures for paedophiles, and a minority of Mums and women noting that sometimes a small amount of padding in a bra can "smooth" budding nipples, causing less embarassment for girls as they are developing breasts. My negative opinion of this product is not based on fear of men at beaches being delighted by young girls leaping about in padded bikini tops, but rather on how it affects the girls themselves.

Girls and women learn to become acutely conscious of any perceived inadequacy in their appearance as feminine. There is an awkward point in a girls' life when other girls are shaving their legs and those with a soft layer of fluff still in place are the subject of mockery. We learn there are things we must do so that other girls will not tease us (the pressure women learn to apply to one another to push conformity to norms of feminine appearance) and so that boys might think us attractive (the pressure to be desirable to men and the learned satisfaction in achieving this goal). We learn that if we don't meet particular standards of desirability then there are things we can do and products we can apply, so that we do meet them, at least for as long as the make-up stays in place or the spray tan remains visible.

We also learn that there are particular body norms that are deemed attractive. Overweight women are rarely admired in popular culture, and most often the subject of derision. With porn not just a stash of old magazine or a few hidden VHS tapes, but ever-present online professionally produced movies and amateur videos (including those performed live for the viewer), the impossible sexual ideal of skinny woman with gigantic, implant-enhanced breasts travels much more widely and more frequently than ever before. Women who don't meet these usually artificial norms can feel inadequate, or not as sexually attractive. Padded bras usually serve the purpose of filling out a flatter chest, of adding extra bulk to fit an ideal. This may make some women feel more comfortable or feminine. They may feel that they now fit the ideal a little better.

Do we really need to start introducing another anxiety that women experience into the realm of pre-pubescent girlhood? Should seven- or eight-year-old girls be contemplating their lack of chest and thinking that they need a little padding to gain a more womanly silhouette? To introduce the idea that girls are not living up to another feminine ideal so early only further encourages feelings of inadequacy and poor body image that many women suffer from.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Mark Ryden's 'Saint Barbie' and 'Big Doll'

I'm a fan of Mark Ryden's surreal artwork. I have a framed limited edition lithograph of one of his works, The Magic Circus, at home. I don't know why a tiny reproduction, little bigger than a photograph, cost as much as it did, but I do know that the full-size limited edition lithographs sell for over $1,000 and are always snapped up immediately upon release.

As a casual fan, I was surprised to see that there was a pertinent artwork for this blog that had escaped my attention. 'Saint Barbie' from 1994 puts the icon of manufactured femininity in the position of a deity, and the nostalgic innocent girl (with her puffy-sleeved dress and Alice headband) as pleading worshipper. I haven't reached a conclusion about the spotted butterfly with a man's head yet (initially I took it for Barack Obama!), but it is situated above the Barbie-goddess and the girl, at the top of the visual hierarchy. The other gaze in the image is coming from the flower in the foreground, which is a recurring motif in a later Ryden work, Big Doll.

Once you see the Barbie-esque doll at full-size, she becomes grotesque, with her receding hairline, oversized head and impossibly wide eyes. The real girl, who is miniaturised, almost becomes the doll by virtue of her size, but her realistic depiction, her plain, dark eyes, her short limbs and basic dress, make it difficult to recognise her as the giant Barbie's plaything.
I suppose the presence of the eyes in both paintings could be read as the way in which the development of girls plays out under the public gaze. The sense of always being looked at, and assessed, is an inescapable part of leaving girlhood behind.