Wandering around the internet, I come across a newish hubbub over "sexualization of children!!!!!!" in the form of 10-year-old model Thylane Lena-Rose Blondeau, who has been cropping up in fashion editorials for awhile, but for some reason (which I haven't got time to figure out - quick google searches didn't reveal the why now) is drawing attention now.
The usual suspects are trotted out: Let a Child Be a Child! (whatever that even means, and frankly, why not turn that attention to the children who have to work to help feed their families).
Too Young To Be Sexy (or Sexualized)! (Because evidently there IS a right age to be sexualized and objectified)
You're A Bunch Of Stuffy, Pedestrian Squares Who Don't Get Edgy Hip Fashion! (self-explanatory).
I followed up on Thylane Blondeau at all because the very smart Debbie Reese tweeted briefly about the response from the photographer (Dani Brubaker) who shot most of the images of Blondeau. Brubaker, who clearly has never visited My Culture Is Not a Trend, states that she "grew up by the code of the Native American Indian" which "venerates children yet allows them freedom of expression."
Wow, unpacking that statement could take all night!
I'm working on being more concise, though, and I'm expecting a friend from college to arrive soon for the weekend, so - in short:
There is no single "Native American Indian" with one single "code" about anything. There are, and were, many indigenous tribes with a variety of cultures, languages, and ways of life, including attitudes toward children. Presumably also including attitudes toward freedom of expression, as well.
Staging white Thylane Blondeau (I mean, Blondeau? irony?) in hipsterish "Indian" garb is just not okay. It's just not. It doesn't matter if Blondeau is 10 or 20 or 50 - the appropriation and misuse of articles of Native cultures is not okay. Especially not when these are, essentially, fashion/modelling photos, as opposed to some kind of art photography that is attempting to make some kind of commentary or statement on, or with, the appropriation of aforementioned culture. Fashion and modelling photos exist to sell things: in this case, to sell us, I guess, a 10-year-old girl, and an aesthetic.
Which brings me to "freedom of expression" - Brubaker may honestly believe that she is living some kind of code of freedom of expression, but being staged and photographed by someone else is not freedom of expression for the model. It's Brubaker's expression, or the stylist's, or the fashion designer's. The object of the gaze is very rarely the one with all the power, or even most of it, and this is compromised doubly, trebly, by the status of the object: a kid, in the benighted "costume" of a minority/oppressed culture(s).
I don't object to the sexualization of children, per se, though to be very explicit I don't especially condone it, either. What I object to is the sexualization and objectification of people, specifically women and girls (because how often does this question even come up around little boys? How often do we see boys posed the same way adult models are?)
Laura Mulvey wrote her game-changing article ("Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema") on "the gaze" in the early 1970s (published around 1975). 36 years later, the gaze is still going strong: still held by men, still object-ifying women. The women keep getting younger (though even in the 1970s and earlier, young women and girls were made public objects - that's nothing new) and the media keep getting more and more diffuse and omnipresent, but the essentials haven't changed.
Gods know I don't believe in things like "childhood innocence" or some kind of inherent wordsworthian idyll of childhood - those trails of glory are all in the eye of the besotted beholder, usually the new parent(s) and/or grandparent(s). But I do believe that people, most often women, should be able to live their lives as subjects, not objects. They should have every choice available to them; they should be able to choose when, how, under what conditions, and why they might position themselves as objects in a public way. These are complicated choices to make, and the stakes can be quite substantial, and because children lack the experience that helps inform these choices, it's essential parents and other caretakers aid them in making those choices.
I have a possibly-unreasonable bias against "trick children." I hate child models, child actors, child performers - not the children, exactly, but the system, the process, of converting childhood humanity into a product. I especially mistrust and dislike the parent(s) who guide their children into that system. There are too many bad stories about children exploited for their money, being used, used up, cast aside (Michael Jackson is only the most spectacular example of this - the way he raised his own children should speak loud volumes about his own experience as a famous child). To be sure, there are positive examples - Jodie Foster seems to be doing all right.
When I see photos like those of Thylane Blondeau, I immediately think: there's all the evidence you need to take that child away from her parents. Not necessarily in a literal sense, because I am sure she loves her mom and dad, and they love her. But her parents have also foreclosed on her options, by turning her into a spectacle. They've made their daughter into a very successful, highly paid object.
She might love it. Who knows? She's 10. She doesn't have a whole lot to compare it to. And her life is forever altered by this fame as a model, as a "sexy child."
What good parent looks at their child and thinks: "I hope my kid grows up to be someone people masturbate to" or "I hope someday my kid will pose naked for a popular magazine"?
It has nothing to do with the child as The Child, nothing to do with Romantic ideals about childhood. It has everything to do with the continued, continual objectification and reduction of girls and women to nothing more than, literally, their component physical parts.