Friday, September 30, 2011

Peddling Sex Symbols: But Bunnies Are Cute!

At Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams reports that a tween-marketed jewelry store in Australia (Diva) has started carrying Playboy products. 

Of course, the sexualization of young girls is nothing new. And don't be fooled; even though Diva is selling earrings and necklaces--not push-up bras and garter belts--that bunny represents sex. As Williams bluntly explains, Playboy "sells young women sassy accoutrements -- and sells men those young women's asses."

And, yes, I am outraged that bigwigs at multiple companies okay'd the marketing of sexual products to our children. Of course I wouldn't want my daughter wearing a rhinestone-encrusted bunny around her neck (or sporting it on her school notebook, or her socks--you get the idea). 

Digging a little deeper, I think there's another source for outrage. The companies (Diva and Playboy) want to make money. It's what they're designed to do. 

While it obviously has a less sexual bent, I'm reminded of a section in Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter. 

Here, Orenstein comments on the marketers of Disney discovering the popularity of homemade princess costumes. In response, they created a line of princess gear that now adorns everything from Band-Aids to bedspreads. This Rutgers article (which notes the princesses are a $4 billion industry) explains that slapping a character on unrelated products means the "emphasis no longer rested on a story, but a product to be merchandised." The result: no little girl who doesn't want to be teased shows up in a homemade costume; she shows up in a trademarked, expensive, and creativity-killing store-bought one. She no longer gets to highlight qualities of herself through her own imagined princess; she has to cover her own individuality with a pre-formed identity of "princess." She might get to choose if she's Ariel or Jasmine, but the range of expression is seriously hindered.

Sound familiar? 

Disney was able to put a brand on "princess," and Playboy is able to put a brand on "sexy." When we let a company decide what "sexy" looks like, we lose the ability to write our own scripts. Sexuality should be empowering, fun, and diverse, not assembly-line produced packages.

Disney, Diva, and Playboy--and every other company trying to sell a certain representative image--needs their brand to take over self-created representations of the identities they aim to simplify and package. If women are allowed to experiment with sexiness, they might not choose to put on cheap bunny ears and a cotton-ball tail. If little girls are allowed to experiment with costumes, they might not choose the polyester pastels of Cinderella or Belle.

By branching out to the tween market, I don't think that Playboy is trying to set up these adolescents for a life in pornography. I think they realize that these girls are on the cusp of becoming young women and  discovering what it means to be sexy. This experimentation is happening at younger and younger ages. They are already experimenting with clothing, hair styles, and make-up that are outward expressions of that burgeoning identity. Playboy isn't trying to be associated with porn (it's already got that (un)covered); it's trying to be associated with sexiness in general.

In other words, I don't think Playboy is trying to hasten sexualization; Playboy is afraid these girls will find definitions of "sexy" that don't include a simplistic rabbit's head as a symbol. Complex definitions of "sexy" threaten not only Playboy's ability to peddle necklaces and robes, but ultimately their ability to corner the market on the image of sex they sell to those who view their pornography. Those little girls could grow up into women with strong senses of identity and their own sexuality. And that's bad for business.

Collective Shout has the contact details for Diva if you'd like to tell them what you think.


  1. Not that I endorse Playboy crappola but I wouldn't have classed Diva as a 'tween' oriented store. I thought it was just a women oriented fashion accessory outlet. (I am in Australia and have a Diva store in my town).

  2. Good to know. The Salon article cited some of the tween-specific merchandise as evidence, but it would be different to have a youth section in a more mature market rather than Playboy in a child-oriented store. I have seen Playboy logos on things like notebooks and socks in the U.S. that weren't specifically marketed to kids but were placed next to things that were.