Diane Levin to Speak on the Sexualization of Childhood

Girls, set down your Bratz dolls.  Boys, turn off the Jimmy Neutron.  It’s time to discuss sexualization and gender norms.

Diane Levin, co-author of “So Sexy, So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids,” will speak to parents, teachers and community members at Memorial High School at 7 p.m. on Thursday night. Levin will offer recommendations on how adults can help children navigate a culture where TV shows like Toddlers and Tiaras have shifted from the extreme to the mainstream. 

Levin is a professor at Boston’s Wheelock College, and has been featured on National Public Radio, ABC, NBC, and Fox television. Members of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association recently invited Levin to Madison to discuss how sexualized media messages are manifested in the classroom and playground.

Jeanette Paulson, WECA director of workforce initiatives, said that Levin’s work offers important strategies for parents to help their children understand the disconnection between commercial values and the ones promoted by teachers and parents.

“It’s important to remember,” said Paulson, “that sexualization is different than sexuality.  We are sexual beings by nature.  Sexualization comes with the innuendos that are placed on those actions by society or those around them, and how children learn to respond.”

Paulson said that with the ubiquity of YouTube and internet browsing, children are receiving more messages at faster rates.  While action figures and video games may desensitize boys to violence, girls learn that self-worth is based on their appearance.

“I’m the parent of two girls who are 7 and 11,” Paulson said, “and I know that teachers and early childhood providers are asking the question, ‘how do we respond to this?  This is not OK.’  Doctors are spending a lot of time talking to parents about minimizing the use of television and the impact of commercials.  And I think that Levin will discuss some of those recommendations on Thursday.”

The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Madison Commons and Prof. Diane Levin:

MC: I’ve noticed that you include many specific examples of parent-child interactions for your argument in “So Sexy, So Soon.”  How did you do your research for this book?

DL: I did mostly qualitative research: interviewing people, getting their stories, finding out their experiences and what their struggles have been. I use of a lot of open-ended interviews to try to find out what’s going on for people.

MC: Let me play devil’s advocate.  I’m sure this conversation has taken place ever since TV first appeared.  Why revisit the argument that TV is a bad influence on children, and why do it now?

DL: This has been an issue that has expanded and expanded. And, yes, there were issues from the start.  But in fact, in the middle 80s, children’s television was deregulated. That was when it became possible to market whole lines of toys with TV shows for the first time.  The model for it was Star Wars.  Star Wars was very successful and the TV and toy industries wanted to get in on the action.  And they were successful in getting the Federal Communications Commission to deregulate children’s television.  Within one year of deregulation 9 of 10 best-selling toys had a TV show…

TV producers knew that little kids were subject to being lured into products for their gender because they were trying to figure out their gender—what it means to be a boy or a girl.  Marketers used that as a way of producing shows that could sell products...

What I argue is things are more gender-divided in terms of children’s play and appearance at younger and younger ages than at any other point in the last 100 years... Things are much more divided by violence for boys and appearance and sexiness for little girls than before the women’s movement.  Things are much worse now.

A lot of what I’ll be talking about in Madison is what we can do, how we can really connect with kids around what they’re seeing, how can we influence the messages that they’re getting, the lessons that they’re learning…in the midst of all this objectification and violence.

MC: So what are some of the things we can do to help the situation?

DL: I invite you to go online to the Sexy So Soon website to find out more...but [here are some] examples: One: Protect kids as long as possible. Two: Be involved in what they’re involved with as long as possible. Three: Stay connected and let them know that it’s OK to talk about it with you. Four: Help them become good players and not just imitators of what they saw on the screen. Five: Families and schools should be working together to deal with these issues and stop blaming each other, which so often happens. And six: We should work to change things in how the world is, so that we can make it better than it otherwise would be.

MC: If you had one distilled message that you would like children to understand, what would it be?

DL: Play, play, play!  Learn to engage in the real world, with real world play, with real world issues, with real world people.  Don’t let that second-hand experience you have through TV screens be the satisfying force in your life that it has become for so many children. 


Diane Levin will speak on Thursday, Sept. 22, from 7-9 p.m. at Memorial High School.  Entrance fee is 10 dollars and registration can be completed online.  Learn more about Levin’s efforts at So Sexy, So Soon, Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood