The Frightening Manipulation of Young Girls by the Media


I have realised Natasha Walter is completely right about the strange doll-like emphasis of femininity in the media, but to the extent it is targeted at girls aged 2-16, has absolutely horrified me.

These t-shirts are seemingly harmless; they are not non-existent tightly cut crop tops but they show an ideal image of beauty usually accompanied by hearts, text or bright colours to enhance this message of the ideal. They usually focus on one or two subjects; the attractive girl and/or expensive material possessions and each one shows a girl with big hair, exaggerated lips, non-existent waists and anorexic legs. The reason this is allowed is because they are cartoons, a lot like the ‘Bratz’ dolls or Barbie which although have been very heavily criticised, still prosper in the children’s toy market. Of course these images are supposed to be cartoonised and therefore unreal, but when a young child is repeatedly flooded with these ideals that are then reinforced by a media of surgically enhanced sexualised women, how are girls and boys supposed to understand what is real and what is ideal?

I decided to research how widely spread this strange abstracted false femininity has spread among the high street and the sheer amount of clothes showing this strange sexualised image of womanhood, not to mentioned the boob tubes for nine year olds currently on sale, is really quite astonishing.

There was however, one particular t-shirt that I found in an obscure independent shop, one of the shops that always pretend they are closing down, that seemed to sum up the message given to young girls. The t-shirt had a list in bold letters printed in this order:

Things I want: A Sweet boyfriend, money, super cute clothes, hugs and kisses, candy, shopping, sunshine, pretty shoes, yummy food, a cute puppy, peace, a nice car and a day of happiness

Here we have a clearly defined list of values presented to young women. Each part of the list presents a shocking prototype of a tainted form of ‘femininity’ as presented to the media. Yet I imagine that the writers of this t-shirt intended this list to be light-hearted and ironic but are young girls really expected to understand this irony, if this is the major form of femininity given to them by the media? For example, let’s imagine that an alien came to earth and had learned about women in the UK through magazines and television. They would imagine every woman is searching for their perfect man, has a dangerous shoe obsession, adores children and aspires to be a ‘yummy mummy’ and has a great desire for money and all material things. Ask any woman in this country and she will tell you that not all women are the same, just as not all men are the same beer drinking ‘blokes’ who like ‘a night out with the lads’.

So who is to blame for this strange phenomenon? Many people would say it was a lack of alternative role models to celebrities such as Cheryl Cole, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears and so on. This is simply untrue because alternative female role models do exist, from female MPs to successful businesswomen.  The fact is, that these ‘successful’ women are just shunned by the media because they are not willing to conform to an ideal of a young beautiful woman that accepts the notion that they are only worth their bra size and that they ought to be wearing what the media decides is the right way to dress. Heaven help the woman who refuses to wear make-up or dress in the way that they truly feel comfortable! These are the women who end up on the ‘worst dressed’ lists.

Something that must be stressed is that it is not only the male majority that controls the media, who allow this to happen. It is also the women who sit back and accept what they hear, without really thinking about why they feel this need to conform to this false beauty ideal based on plastic surgery and airbrushing, which magazines try to tell us are based on healthy diets and ‘superfoods’.

However, the same argument about choice resurfaces as it is a prominent part of the third wave feminist movement. Women choose to wear make-up, women choose to have a life ambition of marrying a footballer or being a model. We cannot insult all women by implying they have no idea what they are doing because that is one of the reasons why feminists sometimes shoot themselves in the foot, which then alienates them from the very women they are trying to present their message to. The problem is, where are the alternatives? Are young girls in this country presented with any other role models apart from Cheryl Cole and co? Of course they are, but why are these women invisible in the media!?

Still not convinced? Let’s examine exactly what this t-shirt and the general media are saying:

A Sweet boyfriend; very interesting that this is ranked at the top of the list. I think the majority of heterosexual or bisexual women may rank having a ‘sweet’ partner as something important (although this obviously varies between individuals) but it is interesting how heterosexuality is immediately identified as the ideal and the most superior ‘things’ to want.

*       Already about 10% of women are alienated by this statement (*based on average statistics) and this does not count the amount of women for religious or personal reasons do not want to have a boyfriend yet or at all.

Money – Capitalist values? Most people don’t like capitalism but those who do usually have money or are deluded that they do and live a lifestyle they cannot afford. Now I’m not a Marxist, but I found the placement of money on this list as the second priority apart from a man, quite shocking.

So we have the two main ideals presented: a man and money. A male significant other and money. Strange that these are two are listed one after the other, surely they cannot have any relation to each other?

Super cute clothes – Seems light-hearted enough, ‘cute’ is an ambiguous term and I confess to sometimes describing anything from a beautiful dress to a puppy as ‘cute’. It isn’t the clothes that bother me, I really like fashion just like lots of people, but why do we have clothes, money and a boyfriend all in succession of each other? Does the boyfriend imply money and then imply ‘super cute clothes’? As they follow each other on the list, is it suggesting that somehow they follow each other in life? And finally, why are they always the SAME types of clothes? Heels, dresses, necklaces are all presented as ideal as shown by two tops on the top of the page from a popular high street children’s clothes shop. Is there no other kind of ‘femininity’ shown to young girls?

Hugs and kisses – Something that would be high on my list too, especially from my friends and family or my partner. But is there a slight pattern developing here? Do the hugs and kisses and the emotional fulfilment stem from the boyfriend too?

Candy – Now this one I simply cannot argue with!

Shopping – Another ‘activity’ I confess to really enjoying but should I ought to enjoy shopping? If I were to believe the media it would seem that every woman in this country dreams of having millions to spend and live their entire lives shopping. However, I know that this is NOT true. I know plenty of women who would prefer to go camping with their friends, read a novel or go to the library. So why are a proportion of women reading this right now thinking that these women are mad? Of course they aren’t mad, they are just exercising their right to do what they enjoy without needing society’s’ approval.

Sunshine– Self-explanatory really, although I’m still waiting for something a little more essential. Having sunny weather is nice, don’t get me wrong, but no mention of family or friends yet?

Pretty shoes – I have a TERRIBLE sin to confess. I’m a 20 year old woman and I don’t actually care much about shoes. I live in trainers or boots and only succumb to the terrors of a stiletto when I really feel brave enough. Every single time I walk home with my feet screaming in pain. But what about flat ‘pretty shoes’? Well this might come as a shock but these shoes aren’t the most comfortable things either!

Yummy food – Thank god this t-shirt has some sensible things to say.

A cute puppy – Another stereotype of the feminine nurturer. Some of my friends hate dogs and are scared of them all together. I happen to like them, but do we have to call them ‘cute’ again? Whoever wrote this t-shirt needs a thesaurus!

Peace – Well…lovely. Of course all women want peace and flowery fields and no badness in the world. Unfortunately most of us realise that ‘peace’ or world peace is not going to happen soon. But what kind of peace is this referring to? Again, we see the stereotype that women want to avoid conflict. Well actually some women even enjoy fighting sports like kickboxing, karate, jujitsu… But you wouldn’t know it if you believed the drivel that this t-shirt is saying? I’m too busy shopping for my sweet boyfriend and getting money and hugs and kisses in return.

A nice car – I think this is quite self-explanatory, although I think most people like ‘nice cars’ and at least this isn’t directly beneath the boyfriend. However, had it not been for what follows I would not have taken any issue with this statement.

A day of happiness– Just ONE day? Is that all we are entitled to? Do you mean to say that the result of all of these things on the list result in happiness and only a day of happiness at that? A man to depend on who is a ‘sweet’ boyfriend (as opposed to a nasty boyfriend), money, clothes, shopping, peace, hugs and kisses, puppies, cars which all result all happiness? So in short, a woman desires to be in a heterosexual relationship, have lots of money and material possessions, and play the role of nurturer and an avoider of conflict. Did feminism even happen or have we all just carefully boxed it away in our minds as irrelevant, just as society moves once again to attempt to dictate one ideal of femininity?

So why take issue with one t-shirt in a random cheap high street shop? Surely this is supposed to be light-hearted and ironic? I would love that to be true but unfortunately every woman knows that many of the factors on this list of ‘things I want’ sold to a mass market of young girls and women is actually just a reflection of what the media and society believes that the majority of women want. And this is not just one t-shirt, every high street shop will show these strange phrases regarding what a woman should aspire to be or have, from images to words, these clothes repeat the same message. Beauty, men and material possessions are what a woman should value but the worst thing of all is how this message is presented to young girls not only through magazines, cartoons, children’s books but even in the clothes they wear. If very young children are brought up in this culture, how can they possibly be expected to have the maturity to question it when it is all that they know?

The man and the woman have both become lost in a tainted culture of casual sexism because women are ‘so equal’ now to men (after all, lots of people say there is no longer any need for feminism) that these phrases are seen as light-hearted and funny. Children are now being dragged into this twisted manipulation of the media only to sell t-shirts with unrealistic ideals of beauty and femininity. The media in this country now plays a major role in the socialisation of children, these sexualised cartoon women are still appearing on clothes. The connotations of big red lips, wide eyes and long hair has long been a sexual symbol in art, I come across this everyday as a History of Art student, but why is it now acceptable for 2 year old girls to be wearing these images as something to admire and aspire to? People will try to argue these are simply cartoons and are supposed to be a joke but it is undeniable that children admire cartoon characters such as ‘Disney princesses’, ‘Bratz’ dolls and Barbie!  Just as racism and homophobia can be seen as ‘just a joke’, this is simply another tool to masquerade the rooted prejudices of a society which still happily portrays women as sex objects, materialistic and dependent on men. If you think there is no need for feminism you need to stop and look again at what is around you and the message that is being presented to the next generation of women. I for one will not sit back and accept it.


  1. clare mohan

    This is a really good article – I enjoyed it very much. And it also taps into something I’ve been noticing, and angry about, for a very long time.


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