Originally Published in farrago Edition Four (2022).
Content Warning: pedophilia, grooming, brief mentions of disordered eating and pornographic content, and sexism
This article primarily focuses on the adolescent experiences of cisgender girls. It also contains some American terms and statistics.
Nowadays, kids and young teens seem increasingly hard to understand. Their vernacular and entertainment are starkly different from what you and I may have grown up with. Online and on the playground, eleven-year-olds are calling one another "submissive and breedable", while thirteen-year-olds have "MILF" or "DILF" written in their Instagram bios. They no longer wear clothes from Justice or Aéropostale but instead are sporting Gucci belts and Supreme puffers. As a member of Gen Z myself, I cannot help but wonder what has caused such a disparity between this generation and their predecessors. Is it something as simple as "different folks, different strokes", or is there something more troubling behind it? How has social media affected how younger individuals interact with each other and the world at large? How has sexualisation killed off the tween demographic?
The sexualisation of young teens, especially young girls, on a massive scale is nothing new. Beginning with the "Classic Hollywood" era, famed child stars such as Judy Garland and Shirley Temple were the darling sweethearts of the silver screen but off-screen, their lives were full of tragedy and exploitation. From an early age, the pair worked gruelling hours, severely affecting their physical and mental health. They were encouraged to consume drugs and were abused by adults meant to look after their well-being. Later, underage actresses Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields both played exploited underage characters. Foster played a child prostitute in the film Taxi Driver and had to undergo a psychiatric assessment and be accompanied by a social worker on set while playing the role. Shields played a twelve-year-old whose virginity was up for auction in the film Pretty Baby.
Although laws protecting child performers have improved, exploitation has taken a new form online The disturbing "countdown" trend counts down to the date an underage, typically female celebrity reaches legal age. It has happened to the Olsen Twins, Britney Spears, Emma Watson and most recently, Billie Eilish and Millie Bobby Brown. Brown has expressed her disgust towards the scrutiny and sexualisation she experienced as a young actress, stating, "I'm definitely seeing a difference between the way people act and the way the press and social media react to me coming of age... It's gross."
In an advertisement for Calvin Klein, teen singer Billie Eilish primarily describes why she chooses to wear baggy and more masculine clothing. She narrates, "nobody can have an opinion because they haven't seen what's underneath. Nobody can be like, "she's slim-thick", "she's not slim-thick", "she's got a flat ass", "she's got a fat ass". No one can say any of that because they don't know." For the June 2021 cover of American Vogue, a legally aged Eilish donned a figure-hugging outfit and a pair of latex opera gloves a stark contrast from her typical street style. Many of her fans supported her change in style, while others shared their virulent opinion, using lewd, crass and
abusive language. Eilish's experience reflects the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" criticism and expectations young teens face.
Accompanying the Death of the Pre-teen is the death of "Tween" media and retail. Magazines targeted at young teens such as Twist, Tiger Beat, Pop Star! and J-14 are now irrelevant or have gone defunct. They cannot keep up with the growing pace and glamour of social media. Instagram, TikTok and YouTube are now encyclopedias for kids to learn how to be the "cool kid on the block". Currently, the "block" is not limited to one's school, neighbourhood, or local commercial centres; it has grown to encompass the digital sphere, where the young and impressionable can be perceived as "cool" by millions of people around the world. Previously kids and pre-teens had to rely on printed media or weekly airings of their favourite shows to learn about the newest trend and hot gossip. Now, with instant gratification and an array of interactive media platforms at their fingertips, the internet provides young kids navigating both the online and offline worlds with the tyranny of choice. With so much information available to them and various "authority figures" telling them what to do, it's hard to blame young kids and teens for being curious and partaking in the latest trend.
While young teens wanting to explore their identities and control their lives is nothing new, video essayist Shanspeare elucidates, "the desire to be grown is not
different, but the mediums to explore such desires are."
Today an increasing number of children are online and posting on social media. An estimated 63 per cent of Americans aged 12 to 17 are active users of TikTok, and 57 per cent are active on Instagram. With the state of social media platforms comparable to the wild west, a troubling trend has resulted in its wake. The sexualisation of young teens has been justified as a means of "reclaiming their sexuality". The problem is that these young kids do not understand the repercussions of their actions. A young person seeking acceptance or validation may misconstrue the praise and likes they get from posting racy content as positive, promoting them to post more, potentially endangering content. While the child may feel safe in their own personal profile, there is no telling what a stranger may do with their information once it is online. A child's need for acceptance, validation and general unawareness of the dangers of the wider world makes them incredibly susceptible to predators wishing to harm them.
Having been a preteen on Tumblr during its heyday in the early to mid-2010s, I witnessed the site's many problematic trends come and go. Such trends ranged from the promotion of eating disorders to the romanticisation of age-gap relationships and grooming. I will not deny that my friends and I were more interested in the pretty aesthetics and failed to see the darker messages which lay beyond. We reblogged posts about the 1997 film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial book Lolita. We understood Lana Del Rey's lyrics were the gospel truth because that is what we thought was cool. As a twenty-one-year-old, it is worrisome to see how these trends are back in full force on more popular media platforms, where an increased number of young kids can interact.
Nowadays, creators of these posts are quick to add a disclaimer in their descriptions, but the content of the posts begs to differ. Suppose you scroll through the hashtag Lolita on TikTok. In that case, most videos will have a short disclaimer stating that the post is not meant to romanticise Dolores and Humbert's relationship. Still, the video will be of Humbert's fantasies with a Lana Del Rey song playing in the background. A quick disclaimer that will be ignored or overlooked is not enough to stop a young person unfamiliar with Lolita's subject matter from being enamoured by the film's pretty aesthetics and prose.
The preteen demographic is continuously sexualised, even offline. The popular Halloween costume genre of the "sexy__girl", the romanticisation of the word nymphet and the popularity of pornographic videos featuring barely legal or teen in their titles are just some examples of how adolescence has become so sexually charged. Just google "schoolgirl" and let the Images speak for themselves.
The pre-teen and early teen years are already uncomfortable experiences in themselves. It is the period of time when most people are going through the initial stages of puberty, discovering new likes and dislikes and exploring their identities. Having to deal with big feelings and wanting to fit in makes their demographic especially vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation. It's no wonder the pre-teen demographic has ceased going through their "awkward years". Today's preteens are sexualised and ridiculed for their childishness but still expected to act and think as young adults.