From Prim to Poledance: Girls, Sex and Popular Culture

In this edited version of her Lunchbox Soapbox address, Michelle Smith looks at why girls’ bottoms are a major problem for the nation’s media and celebrity women, how today’s moral panics and prostitute-comparisons resemble those of the Victorian era — and what’s changed for girls living with today’s popular culture.

Girls’ bottoms are a major problem, according to several media stories this year. Specifically, girls are revealing too much of their behinds and their wanton disregard for modesty not only puts them at risk of catching a chill during winter, but of luring paedophiles, sex offenders and garden variety guys-who-are-only-after-one-thing out of hiding. The first example of such a story, called ‘Girls on Show’, appeared on A Current Affair at the end of July. The camerawork in this tirade against girls wearing skimpy clothing when nightclubbing, lingered fetishistically over the girls’ legs and bottoms, many of which were only barely covered by miniskirts or hotpants. Celebrity women Ita Buttrose and Charlotte Dawson offered comment on the girls' dress, making some telling observations that likened the girls to ‘hookers’, ‘tarts’ and prostitutes. Dawson, for instance, said ‘the girls actually selling themselves on the street are much more tastefully dressed than some of these young ladies.’ Buttrose explained that provocative dressing was not likely to attract a potential husband: ‘They might flirt with a tart. They might have sex with a tart. But it’s often not the tart that they take home to meet their mother.’

Tramps, lap dancers and girls’ clothing

This story is not unusual. The language of sex work is frequently applied to what girls and young women are wearing today. In the UK, Joanna Lumley also recently expressed dismay at young women ‘dressing like lap dancers’. The most notable recent Australian example was the online following that developed around a mother’s complaints about Target’s clothing range for girls. Ana Amini wrote on the retailer’s Facebook page:

Dear Target, Could you possibly make a range of clothing for girls 7-14 years that doesn’t make them look like tramps … You have lost me as a customer when buying apparel for my daughter as I don’t want her thinking shorts up her backside are the norm or fashionable.

These leopard print numbers, as well as a pair of denim cut-off shorts, were the most common images circulated as evidence of Target’s inappropriately sexual, or ‘trampy’ clothing range for girls.

An example of Target's 'trampy' clothing range for girls.

An example of Target's 'trampy' clothing range for girls.

The focus on how much flesh both pre-teen girls and young women are exposing is understandable in a culture where sexy images of women are visible on every magazine stand, on many billboards, buses and trams, and in popular TV and film. We are ultimately very uncomfortable when the ideal sexy woman crosses paths with the developing girl. Just where is the border between sexual innocence and knowing construction of a sexy appearance? This is a particularly thorny question in a culture where fashion models—the ideal representation of how women should look—as well as the young women who feature in pornography, are often teenagers. The use of 10-year-old model Thylane Blondeau in Paris Vogue posed and dressed as a woman threw some into despair at the crossing of this line, but also highlighted the systematic use of girls as young as 13 as fashion models for women’s clothing and cosmetics.

Ten-year-old Thylane Blondeau in *Paris Vogue*

Ten-year-old Thylane Blondeau in Paris Vogue

’Keep my baby off the pole!’

Defining the boundary between girl and sexual woman is also problematic when we attempt to divorce activities such as pole dancing from their adult connotations. In Canada, the Twisted Grip pole dance studio attracted international media attention in the past month for its ‘Little Spinners’ pole dance classes for girls. The classes were supposedly created in response to requests from mothers with their own poles at home who wanted their daughters to learn to perform on the pole safely. The studio operators emphasised that the classes were about ‘fitness’ and ‘athleticism’ and contained no ‘sexual moves’. But just as the studio’s logo on the poster shows a woman in a bikini or her underwear spreading her legs apart on the pole, for most people commenting online, it was impossible to divorce pole dancing from any kind of sexual association when it came to girls as young as five taking the classes.

An advertisement for 'Little Spinners' pole dance classes for girls.

An advertisement for 'Little Spinners' pole dance classes for girls.

The awkward tension between what is seen as desirable in women, and parental and social expectations of girlhood innocence, is aptly summarised by a routine from comedian Chris Rock. While his jokes occasionally mention his own visits to strip clubs, Rock had a new perspective on the adult industry when his baby girl was born. He comments about gazing down at his daughter in her pram: ‘My only job in life is to keep her off the pole. Keep my baby off the pole! I mean they don’t grade fathers, but if your daughter is a stripper, you fucked up.’ While, as a society, we seem to want women to be sexually ready and available, we don’t want our own daughters launching a career in porn films or taking up a slot at Spearmint Rhino.

No wonder the situation is confusing for girls. The contemporary media landscape condemns them for being too sexual, for wearing revealing clothing and intentionally seeking sexual attention from men. It also manifests worries about younger girls, such as tweens dressed in Target clothing, who might unintentionally convey sexual readiness (although I am careful to caution that what girls or indeed women wear provides no justification for sexual assault). While much of this debate seems new, born out of a hyper-sexualised internet-enabled culture, I want to show that similar anxieties about girls' sexuality were also prominent in the media in the Victorian period in Britain. What I would argue is these concerns about the transition from girl to woman in relation to sex are very consistent across the past century and a half. While the messages we give to girls directly are similar, the key difference today is that sexual images of women surround us, where they were once concealed from girls. The messages about sex that we provide to girls are more contradictory than ever, as they are branded ‘tarts’ and ‘hookers’ for dressing in a way that reveals their bodies, but are immersed in popular culture that presents being sexy and sexually available as the foremost qualities of the ideal woman.

Young ladies: ‘rouged, powdered and pencilled’

The Victorian period spans the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. It is a crucial era for thinking about how girlhood has been shaped because during this time it began to be considered as a distinct stage between childhood and womanhood. Being a girl meant being in a state of transition. Girls also began to be universally educated later in the century, so girls' books and magazines became publishing phenomena, with newly literate girls looking to read stories and articles aimed especially at their interests, and publishers and editors seeking to direct girls in the right ways to behave, read, exercise and fulfil their family duty.

*Girls Own Paper*

Girls Own Paper

The most popular magazine from 1880 was the Girl’s Own Paper, which more than 100,000 girls, aged from around 12 to 24, read each week. Its resident doctor, ‘Medicus’, a pseudonym for Gordon Stables, a former army doctor, regularly wrote on the topics of beauty and clothing, especially corsets, as they related to health. Like most commentators of the era, Medicus thought that being healthy was the route to being beautiful and that cosmetics had negative moral connotations for girls. In 1888, he wrote in a column on beauty:

Well, I declare to you that when I meet young ladies rouged, powdered and pencilled, I wonder if the world is getting worse. For deceit thus carried about openly can have no good effects on the moral character. Many girls moving in what is called good society … are little better than walking frauds, perambulating fibs.

‘The Girl of the Period’

This view in a girls' magazine mirrors a controversy provoked 20 years earlier, in March 1868. Journalist Eliza Lynn Linton published an anonymous article in the Saturday Review called ‘The Girl of the Period’ that caused a stir in other papers. Fascinatingly, ‘The Girl of the Period’ has major parallels with the A Current Affair ‘Girls on Show’ story I mentioned earlier. Amid a broader tirade against feminism, Linton expressed disgust in girls who were using clothing, such as tight skirts, as well as cosmetics to emphasise their sexual beauty to attract men. ‘The Girl of the Period’, she wrote:

is a creature who dyes who hair and paints her face … a creature whose sole idea of life is fun; … and whose dress is a chief object of such thought and intellect as she possesses. No matter if, in the time of crinolines, she sacrifices decency; in the time of trains, cleanliness; in the time of tied-back skirts, modesty; no matter either, if she makes herself a nuisance and an inconvenience to everyone she meets; – the Girl of the Period has done away with such moral muffishness as consideration for others or regard for counsel and rebuke. It was all very well in old-fashioned times, when fathers and mothers had some authority and were treated with respect, to be tutored and made to obey, but she is far too fast and flourishing to be stopped in mid-career by these slow old morals.

Where the modern girl was going wrong, according to Linton, was in her similar ‘aims and feelings’ to ‘women of the demi-monde’, effectively mistresses kept by wealthy lovers. Here is our precedent, 140 years ago, for comparing fashionable girls in the pursuit of fun and entertainment to prostitutes. ‘The Girl of the Period’ also connects with the idea Ita Buttrose presented about sexy girls not making good wives, but only being suited to one-night-stands. Linton proposed that ‘the Girl of the Period does not marry easily … [Men] may amuse themselves with her for an evening, but they do not readily take her for life.’ And let’s not forget the resonance of timeless complaints about girls no longer listening to the advice of their parents about modesty.

‘There was no actual crisis of prostitute-like girls’

The uproar Linton provoked about the ‘girl of the period’ spawned a short-lived magazine edited by men called The Girl of the Period Miscellany in 1869 that satirised the latest fashions for young women. This caricature of the fast-smoking girl describes her desire for a frivolous existence at dances and concerts, while wearing the latest clothes and doing ‘a mild weed on the quiet’ (as smoking is referred to). Crucially this new type of girl, who followed aesthetic pleasure, didn’t see herself as one day taking up a subordinate domestic role, but rather, in this poem wants to hook ‘a rich stupid old husband’ who will be the one who ‘shall obey’ her.

The Girl of the Period

The Girl of the Period

Linton’s views about girls were widely criticised – this cartoon from the paper The Tomahawk, for instance, ascribes a degree of jealousy and transgression to the author. Linton’s was by no means a consensus opinion. Indeed, when reflecting on the Victorian period, while girls were certainly eager to be modern compared with those who came before them by gaining new freedoms such as higher education and employment, there is no major apparent transformation in morality: most girls conformed to family and church expectations. In other words, there was no actual crisis of prostitute-like girls in Britain, but only a perception brought about by observation of a minority, or of speculation about morality based on changing fashions and transforming social norms.

The teenage girls condemned for wearing revealing clothing today reflect a long history of young women dressing fashionably and sometimes provocatively, to the alarm of adults. So if girls have been criticised for wearing make-up and ‘inappropriate’ clothing because of their sexual connotations for at least 150 years, why are we seeing such a particular anxiety about this topic in the present moment? And why are younger girls now coming under such sexual scrutiny? Why does a discussion of short shorts for girls even lead to questions of whether such clothing might lure paedophiles, for instance?

‘The culture around girls has changed’

My answer is that the culture around girls has changed. While today’s girl and the Victorian girl have both been exposed to encouragements to avoid too much make-up or wearing revealing clothing, the Victorian girl was almost entirely shielded from sexual images of women. Advertising would not even depict a line illustration of a woman wearing a corset, an item of underwear, until the 1880s and 1890s! While erotic images did circulate among men, they were too risqué and marginalised to significantly influence mainstream popular culture. The first erotic films were not produced until around 1896, and even then the gyrating hips of a belly dancer or a kiss were regarded as scandalous and worthy of censorship. In a still from the kinetoscope of ‘Fatima’s Hoochie Coochie’ dance from 1896, as shot by Thomas Edison, the fully clothed Fatima’s swivelling hips and chest are intentionally covered with a white picket fence.

Fatima's Hoochie Coochie

Fatima's Hoochie Coochie

In her book Promiscuities: A Secret History of Female Desire, Naomi Wolf suggests that girls become women through the work of two kinds of pressure: ‘the external – what their culture tells them it means to be an adult sexual female – and the internal – the development of sexual desire itself’. If we accept that not much has changed in girls' internal development in a century, apart from the earlier onset of sexual maturation, then we ought to focus on what has changed in the culture that surrounds them.

Being on constant sexual display

We continue to insist on girls remaining sexually innocent, through criticism of girls who wear revealing clothing and shaming of teen mothers and sexually active girls as ‘sluts’. But we conflictingly surround girls with messages that suggest being a sexual adult female means being on constant sexual display, being sexually available and compliant, and putting personal sexual fulfilment and comfort second to meeting a porn-influenced ideal.

'Even online criticism of our nation's first female leader often contains jokes about her sexual prowess and attractiveness.'

'Even online criticism of our nation's first female leader often contains jokes about her sexual prowess and attractiveness.'

These are the messages embedded in music video clips, where women are often gyrating in lingerie – without Fatima’s white picket fence to shield them. And in film and television, where fictional worlds are largely populated by women who are young and attractive (and who may have had surgical intervention to increase their bust size or plump their lips). In advertising, where women’s sex appeal is used to sell everything from clothing to ice cream, and in which topless pole dancing mothers who have money shoved into their G-strings by men, as in the infamous Nando’s chicken TV ad, are deemed by the Advertising Standards Board as ‘not incompatible with family values’ and by the company itself as ‘a forthright display of empowerment’. In magazines, where female perfection comes courtesy of Photoshop, and, most pervasively, on the internet where millions of pornographic images and videos of women are readily accessible to anyone, including children. Even online criticism of our nation’s first female leader often contains jokes about her sexual prowess and attractiveness. According to this logic, there is not a sphere of life where being sexy is not the ultimate achievement of a woman, nor a place where how she looks is not the most important thing about her.

Sexiness is both empowering and slutty

The past century has thankfully seen positive developments in how women’s sexuality is regarded and understood. We have learned to acknowledge and accept that women feel sexual desire too, in a way that has made for more enlightened attitudes to sex. Yet, when it comes to girls, the fallout from the sexual revolution has merely left them torn between competing ideals. Our thinking about girls and sex is not as progressive as we’d like to believe. As I have suggested, a number of the major criticisms levelled at today’s girls are reminiscent of those expressed about girls in the Victorian era. Though it is now usual for girls to form sexual relationships outside of marriage, our expectations of girlhood sexual innocence still share some of the same core ideas about sexual display being akin to prostitution and demure girls making good wives.

However, the culture surrounding girls could not be more different. Victorian girls received a consistent message that virtue was of supreme importance, and the stories and articles they read, as well as the advertisements they saw, reinforced this idea and used morally restrained women as exemplars. Today’s girls are expected to conform to ideals of sexual innocence while immersed in a culture of examples of adult women who are admired because they are sexy. While there is nothing wrong with girls developing healthy sexual lives and a sense of their own attractiveness, contemporary media and popular culture creates a fraught environment in which they might do so. Being sexy is sold as the path to ‘empowerment’, but also one that only ‘tramps’ and ‘hookers’ choose to take. For as long as we are showing girls that the most important thing about women is their sex appeal, we shouldn’t shame them if they try to emulate what our culture tells them is most valuable.

Portrait of Michelle Smith

Dr Michelle Smith is an ARC postdoctoral fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, where she researches nineteenth-century girls’ literature and culture. She is also a regular media commentator on gender in popular culture, especially in relation to childhood.