On Character, Cleavage, and Being Cool by Dana Udall-Weiner

I am not a cool mom. I can’t get into the whole good-for-you-flaunt-it-if-you’ve-got-it-mentality. I don’t think it’s such a great thing when women parade around without much clothing, particularly when the intended audience is young children. As a result of these uncool beliefs, I sometimes find myself in bed (ideologically) with religious, right-wing conservatives. The same people I warn my children about. I wake up thinking, “How the hell did I get here?”
I am reminded of my uncool ways all the time. Like when I heard about Katy Perry’s near cameo on Sesame Street a couple months back.
Good ol’ Sesame Street. For the conscientious parent, it has always been the feel good choice for children’s entertainment: the program we turn to during those long, post-school, pre-dinner hours when behavior unravels and distractions are welcome. We feel comforted knowing that our kids will get exposure to a diverse group of people (Gordon, Maria, and more recently LL Cool J ) as well as some basic lessons about the alphabet and counting. The content almost negates the guilt many of us experience for having the TV on in the first place.
How I wish I were a fly on the wall during the meeting in which Katy Perry’s cameo was discussed. Surely there were those on staff who objected—who found her self-objectification and overtly sexual style to be inappropriate for children. There must have been those who rallied for a different star, one whose career was based less on cleavage and more on chxaracter, less on titillating audiences and more on talent.
To be fair, I don’t actually know much about Katy’s character; character is not something that sells much music, so its relevance pales in comparison to appearance. But I do know that she is not famous because of her character. Rather, she is recognized for her physical attributes and for her provocative dress and lyrics. In case you missed it, she is responsible for the cerebral, soon-to-be classic, “I kissed a girl.” And in case you missed it, that was a joke.
To be clear, my objection has nothing to do with her girl-on-girl make-out session. Well, it might have a little to do with it, but not in the way you might think. I am all for girls kissing girls and boys kissing boys. I am less thrilled when this behavior is co-opted to excite the masses, because doing so trivializes and fetishizes same-sex attraction. It contributes to the idea that being lesbian is just a phase, an identity that we can try on for a night. If the song contained a feminist message about homosexuality or treated girl-on-girl physicality with respect, I might see it differently. But because Katy refers to the unnamed girl (woman, really) as an “experimental game,” I think we’re safe in assuming that the primary motivation for this song was to make money and shock people. I don’t know about you, but I find lyrics like these more predictable than shocking.
I have conflicting views about stars like Katy Perry. Part of me supports her for embracing her sexuality and for bucking a system that maligns and vilifies women who make this bold choice. But in truth, we don’t know anything about her sexuality, about how she feels about her body, or what she does in the bedroom (with or without Russel Brand, her freshly-minted husband). It would be archaic and inappropriate to make inferences about her sexual behavior--including whether she is promiscuous or voracious--based upon her clothing. For all we know, Katy might be exposing her body to make millions and sleeping alone every night. Or having miserable sex.
Growing up, I cringed when my mom would turn the channel in the presence of overt sexuality, particularly of the misogynistic nature. How lame, how old-fashioned, I thought. Now I find myself repeating her behavior and feeling discomfited at doing so. Part of me wishes that I could get into the spirit of Katy Perry, that I could embrace her behavior as fun and harmless. Given that I am a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders and body image, I find this hard to do.
When teenage girls come into my office, I frequently see the results of such media exposure writ large. Young girls—who identify with powerful figures like Katy—have learned that their value comes from how they look, from the number on the scale, the shade of their skin, and the bra size they wear. Girls learn to dislike their ordinary bodies and to believe that their natural form is insufficient: too fat, too skinny, too flat, too round. They come to believe that the shape of their body is more important than the content of their thoughts. Although I don’t know a lot about the real Katy, I know that her public profile sends girls a message I don’t like.
Katy Perry is not solely responsible for this problem, of course, nor is any other star. In a sense, celebrities are participants in a system which requires that they look a certain way to achieve the kind of main-stream, high-profile fame they seek. Yet their participation—through adherence to strict beauty standards and objectification of their own bodies—perpetuates this system and bolsters the idea that success is granted only to the beautiful. Because Katy’s commercial value derives mostly from how she looks, her story sends a potent message to young kids, and the message—unlike her—is not pretty.
We non-celebrities can take an active role in shaping our daughters’ self-image. In particular, we can treat our own bodies with respect, encourage our daughters to do the same, and help them make real-life connections with strong and powerful women. We can also limit exposure to the media, given that such objectification of women is likely here to stay.
But limiting their exposure is not enough; our daughters cannot live their lives entirely in the backyard, free from exposure to television, movies, and the assault of cartoon characters printed on packaging for every product imaginable, from cereal to juice drinks, potty seats to pajamas. As our kids grow older, we need to talk with them about the media and its effect on body image. Our job is to teach them to critically evaluate and question what they see, so that they can feel comfortable in their own imperfectly perfect bodies.
Katy’s episode was ultimately pulled due to viewer outcry, particularly over the dress that she wore (which was low-cut but still modest by her standards). But it’s not merely her on-air outfit that is bothersome to me—it is the idea that she was chosen in the first place. This is Sesame Street we’re discussing, after all, not the Jersey Shore or the Bachelor, where showing skin is expected and encouraged, and being on-air requires only certain physical dimensions (and apparently some kookiness to make it interesting, as well).
I naively thought that Sesame was different from Disney and Nickelodeon. The numerous monsters who defy categorization by sex, ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation led me to believe that the show relied less on stereotypes than other children’s programming. Alas, maybe this is not the case. Or maybe I’m still living in the 1970s, before we wondered whether Cooke Monster’s diet ought to include fruits and vegetables, and when Burt and Ernie’s co-habitation was the raciest element on the show. Come to think of it, I don’t remember ever hearing them refer to each other as an “experimental game,” but maybe I was in the backyard during that episode.
Dana Udall-Weiner, Ph.D., is a psychologist and sleep-deprived mother of two. She writes about food, family and culture on her blog, The Body and the Brood (www.bodyandbrood.com).