Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Why is Hollywood teaching children to be sexual objects?'
It seems the entertainment industry keeps trying to push back the boundaries when it comes to young children and sex, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
Anyone who's been to the cinema recently may have seen the trailer for a new comedy called Good Boys, which follows a group of male friends as they try to make their way home in time for a party, with much of the humour revolving around sex toys, porn and drugs.
The film's unique selling point is that the central characters are all children - sixth graders, to be precise, which in America generally means around 11 or 12. The trailer even makes a joke of the fact that the cast are too young to be allowed to see the film, which is rated R in the United States, and 16 by the Irish Film Classification Office, which deems the sex, nudity and bad language to be "strong".
What were these boys' parents thinking by allowing their children to take part in such a questionable movie? Are they really that desperate to crown vulnerable youngsters with premature stardom, which the miserable history of a lot of child actors suggests isn't that desirable anyway?
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More to the point, why did a major studio (the film is released by Universal) think this exercise in child crudity was in any way appropriate?
The humour here is meant to lie in watching what's now become something of a cliche in film comedy reinvigorated by having children take the parts usually played by adults.
So these 12-year-olds play with dildos and blow up dolls ("it's sticky" is apparently the pitiful line accompanying that gag), and explain what a tampon is by saying: "Girls shove it up their butthole to stop babies from coming out."
Children can be irreverent and coarse at times, and it's often funny when - spontaneously, unexpectedly - they are.
But there's a huge difference between pushing the boundaries and acting as if boundaries do not exist, or aren't there for good reason. The mass entertainment industry, from Hollywood to pop music to advertising, increasingly behaves as if basic decency is an oppressive tool of conservativism which it has a duty to challenge, and, without wanting to sound like a conspiracy theorist, it's becoming difficult not to detect a more sinister agenda at work to deliberately sexualise how children are seen, by themselves and others.
Teen movies and TV shows, such as the hugely popular Riverdale, or new Sky Atlantic show Euphoria, now appear to consist entirely of twentysomethings playing high school students having copious amounts of sex and living the sort of lives more suitable to people 10 years older than their characters.
Euphoria, one episode of which features no less than 30 shots of different penises, was criticised by the Parents Television Council in the States for "marketing extremely graphic adult content... to teens and preteens"; but it's tipped to win Emmy awards, so why should the producers care?
Meanwhile, eight-year-old drag queens are feted by the media because it's considered progressive, rather than obscene, for small boys to dress in women's clothes and dance for money in gay bars; and Dora the Explorer, tiny and still with babyish features in the original pre-school children's TV show, has been reincarnated in her first big screen adventure as a teenager with, the wags are saying, "bigger boobs than Lara Croft".
According to reviewers, the content of Dora And The Lost City Of Gold remains thankfully family friendly, but what was the thinking behind making the heroine so shapely? To whom in the audience is that appealing? On second thoughts, forget I asked.
In America right now, billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein is standing trial on multiple charges of trafficking and abusing dozens of underage girls, amid allegations of close contact with a host of household names from Hollywood, business, and politics.
The recent conviction of Carl Beech, the paedophile who fooled plenty of journalists and politicians in the UK into believing his lurid fantasies about a murderous paedophile ring in the upper echelons of British society, shows the need to be cautious when faced with sensational claims; but it's possible to withhold judgment on the Epstein case while acknowledging that there's something sick and disturbing at the heart of popular culture.
At a time when we're supposed to be sensitive to the dangers of child exploitation, it's not prudish to be alarmed that so much of what's presented as entertainment seems intent on knowingly reinforcing a creepy image of children as sexual objects.
When she was only 13 years old, Millie Bobby Brown, star of the hit Netflix show Stranger Things, was actually named one of the world's "sexiest" celebrities in a magazine article celebrating that TV has "never been hotter". Inch by inch the frontiers of what is acceptable have been eroded.
Young girls in particular are being taught that worth lies in being seductive and alluring, with all the damage that does to their self-esteem. Fashion plays its part too. A recent investigation found that a third of clothes for girls had "sexualising elements", in that they emphasised the chest or buttocks, or had suggestive messages on them.
Just as worryingly, these same outfits invariably had features that made them look more childlike as well, such as polka dots. Psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, in a landmark review of the sexualisation of young people, describes this trend as "a blurring of the lines between sexual maturity and immaturity" that "effectively legitimises the notion that children can be related to as sexual objects".
Children don't have the cognitive development to understand the tricks being played on their formative minds, making them uniquely vulnerable to this cultural manipulation. It's a way of normalising what should never be normalised, and the question is: Who benefits?
Since Harvey Weinstein's reported serial abuse of women was exposed, Hollywood has made great play of being alert to the threat from so-called "toxic masculinity", but still seems blissfully ignorant of what may be its next big #MeToo moment - the long overdue exposure of its deviant promotion of children as sex objects, often by middle-aged men.
Though what else can one expect from an industry which gave a standing ovation to director Roman Polanski - who admitted to "unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor" in the 1970s, then fleeing the US before he could be sentenced - when he won an Oscar for best director at the 2003 Academy Awards?
Last year, Polanski was finally thrown out of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after Hollywood decided that "there is no place in the Academy for people who... [behave] in a manner that violates recognised standards of decency". How does that fit with aggressively sexualising children? Here's hoping that it doesn't take a further 40 years to wise up about this as well.