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It is the tradition of the young to push the boundaries of social acceptability set by the previous generation -- boundaries of style, manners, and taste, for example. In Girls Gone Skank, Patrice Oppliger details the overwhelming quantity of cultural phenomena contributing to the sexualization of girls and women in the U.S. This sexualization, she contends, is not simply a manifestation of the rebelliousness of youth, nor even solely a result of the autonomous decision-making of young women and girls. It is rather a consequence of the manipulation and combination of a variety of social forces, forces now common in popular culture, which threaten the mental health and physical safety of very young and even adult American females.
In defining sexualization, Oppliger follows the American Psychological Association Report of the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. According to the report, sexualization occurs when a person's sense of value or worth comes simply from her sexual appeal to others, often defined as physical attractiveness, or when a person is seen as nothing more than an object for another's sexual gratification. Harmful effects of such sexualization may include eating disorders, impaired cognitive performance, low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction and even physical health problems. Oppliger's goal, she says, "was to investigate the effects of mass marketed images of popular culture trends on the behaviors and attitudes of young girls." The chapters in her book, "cover the origins, causes, and consequences of current sexual representations of women and girls in American popular culture." Clearly from the title of her book, she believes the problematic trend is Girls Gone Skank.
There are several attempts in the book to help us understand 'skank,' although it is sometimes used simply as a disparaging term. In one sense, 'skank' is simply a kind of devolution of fashion, "from sexy to slutty to skanky." "Skank chic" is a kind of celebrity subversion of conventional notions of glamour and refers to a look combining stringy, matted hair, heavy dark make-up, thong-underwear combined with low-rise jeans so the thong is plainly visible, and faded and stained or well-worn clothes. But 'skank' is not just about fashion. Oppliger describes American Apparel's spring 2006 catalogue as featuring "skanky photographs on [sic] skanky models wearing skanky clothing." She discusses "skanky lyrics," a dance move that was "particularly skanky," the height of Aguilera's "skanky period," and the "skankiness creeping into fashion and behaviors."
So, "skank" can refer to a person, a behavior, clothes, fashion, lyrics, photos and more. But it is, perhaps, more than anything else for Oppliger, a strategy for getting attention.
One might question whether "skanky" behavior, however it is manifested, is the result of the exploitation by various powerful social influences, or instead, an expression of female empowerment - albeit one not particularly widely approved. Oppliger's answer is clearly on the side of exploitation. The book provides an impressive inventory of the various forms of exploitation; some of it quite graphic. However, Oppliger also wants to bring attention to the role that women and girls themselves play in creating and maintaining this inventory, and she speculates about their motives for participating in their own objectification.
The range of issues discussed in the book is extensive. Chapter topics include: fashion, pornography, strippers, plastic surgery, beauty pageants, music, radio, television, film, internet, sports, fantasy and a few others. Each topic is discussed in terms of its contribution to female social sexualization and objectification. Given the title of the book, it was odd at first to move readily from reading about young girls to considering material focused primarily on adult women. For example, the book includes material on children's beauty pageants, dolls, "prostitot" fashion, dance and cheerleading competitions. It also includes some discussion of working conditions for strippers, the change in pornographic films to more girl-on-girl content, and celebrity and plastic surgery reality television shows. The final effect, however, is an appreciation of the immense quantity of opportunities available in the culture for the sexualization of girls and women.
Most troubling of all, according to Oppliger, is that girls and young women are increasingly participating in their own exploitation. Girls lining up to expose themselves in the Girls Gone Wild videos, the "skanky", promiscuous fashion, amateur Internet sex videos, the willingness to risk death and injury for the sake of larger breasts, women are simply treating themselves as objects, and inviting men to do the same. According to Oppliger these behaviors are not the result of sexual exploration that might be considered normal. Before they can explore their own sexuality, cultural forces put pressure girls, telling them how to behave. The behavior is increasingly outrageous because it is the result of an "almost compulsive" need for attention and approval from men. Men are still setting the social rules. Today, instead of women's voices being ignored, says Oppliger, only voices of agreement are heard.
Oppliger blames parents for contributing to the problem. Although there is some attempt to acknowledge the difficulties of parenting, she is clearly frustrated by parents who overindulge, who live vicariously through their children, and who refuse to set boundaries, giving in to social pressures for their children to be "cool" and "popular." Some mothers, she says, are just poor role models. In the section on plastic surgery she suggests that "perhaps the government needs to step in and protect children from adults' stupidity." In discussing the risks of plastic surgery for teenagers, she states she would "question whether a parent who would permit their child to get plastic surgery has the sense to investigate the risks." And in the section on pageants she notes, "I lost some of my composure as a researcher and could not help but sit with my hand over my mouth. It was shocking that such young girls were parading around…with the blessing of their parents...."
The book is not a scholarly text, but rather an investigation of current popular trends. Oppliger states at the beginning of her book that she will offer conclusions drawn from "textual analysis, interviews, and field observations." Those looking for a more balanced or impartial approach will be startled by the personal commentary and methodology. There is only passing acknowledgement that rates of teenage pregnancy and drug use are down, for example. Some of her research consists in visiting clubs with students, anecdotes from relatives and friends, bloggers, etc. She often inserts her own viewpoints into the text, "I wonder about females over the age of 10 who still call their fathers, 'Daddy.'" However, for anyone curious about popular trends in American culture that support the sexual exploitation of women and girls, the book is an interesting read. For those looking for a more scholarly text, the APA Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls is recommended.
© 2010 Jonelle DePetro
Jonelle DePetro, Department of Philosophy, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, IL 61920