Society has made an historical flip-flop in two paired values we hold about teenaged girls, especially aged 12-16.
In the old days, there was little wrong with a 32 year old man courting a 14 or 16 year old girl. As a citizen of the 21st century, I personally find it both distasteful and weird, a signal of an immature male adult. But in the old patriarchal days, the age difference didn’t matter that much. As recently as the late 1940’s, my Syrian grandfather—born and weaned in Aleppo—married off my 16 year old aunt to a man in his late twenties.
In those days, however, the sexuality of young girls was deemphasized, especially in middle and upper class families. Their dress was more modest. In some cultures, girls were educated separately or isolated from males of all ages. In some cultures, dates were chaperoned. For the most part, only bad girls manifested their sexuality.
Our attitudes about the normalization of adult-child marriage and the sexualization of young girls have both done a complete 180 over the course of the past century, not a sharp turn, but a slowly accelerating curve. Nowadays, we rightfully frown on sexual and romantic relationships between children and adults. From at least the 1970’s onward, there might exist some relationships between girls under 16 and boys between 18-24, but no gap as wide as 32 and 14, or 32 and 17 for that matter.
Yet American mass media sexualizes young women on a daily basis. No, change that to on a nanosecond-by-nanosecond basis. By the time a girl attains 14, she has been introduced to a wide array of clothes, cosmetics, toys, books, electronic games, advertisements and movies that reduce her and other young girls to sexual objects. Sexualization begins as early as four and five for girls participating in youth beauty pageants. Fulfilling or enhancing your sexual being unleashes a literal cornucopia of needs that products and services can provide, so it is a powerful tool for marketers and advertisers. As our consumer society has advanced, so has the sexualization of women—and men to a lesser extent—of all ages.
Through much of human history, the distinction between childhood and adulthood was not as stark as it has been in the 20th and the 21st century industrialized societies. Many children worked in prior centuries and there were few if any organized groups of or for children. Society in general was much less child-centered than today, for two reasons (if my memory of reading books on the subject has not failed me): Firstly, many children died in childbirth, which hardened people to death and caused them to invest less emotional energy in their children’s lives. Just as important, however, were the more constrained economic circumstances before the industrial revolution and then the great redistribution of wealth downward in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. As people have had more disposable income, they have gradually focused more of their expenditures on their children. A contemporary Thorsten Veblen would say that we are engaging in conspicuous consumption to demonstrate how much we love our children and how well-off we are. Children have joined—and perhaps started to replace—women on the fetishized pedestal of consumerism.
Today’s society has it three-quarters right. There should be a separation between childhood and adulthood. Societies in which children are protected and adults are expected to be responsible and independent corresponds to our developmental needs as primates with a long maturation process for our progeny.
In addition, open attitudes about sex, sexuality and sexual identity lead to healthier individuals and a healthier society. But while our advances towards a society accepting of everyone’s sexuality is positive, the market-driven sexualization of young girls is not. It forces young girls to be overly concerned with their bodies at a time of life when the body is rapidly changing and before their brains have developed enough to address the multiple sophistications of sexual relations in our complex society.
Additionally, we are seeing the lines between childhood and adulthood blurring over the past twenty years. Instead of adulthood being thrust prematurely on adolescence as in pre-industrial times, youth and adolescence have been extended into the twenties and the thirties, as more and more adults retain their entertainments and predilections of childhood. I’ve recited the litany of adult infantilization many times over the past few years, most recently a few weeks back. Every year, more adults read Harry Potter and other adult fiction, watch movies about super heroes and fantasy worlds or about adult men—and now women—remaining adolescents, wear Halloween costumes to work, collect My Little Ponies and Legos, enjoy cosplay and participate in sleepovers in museums. Every year, more children remain at home or move back to live with their parents, often for economic reasons, but often also a sign of immaturity. All of these and many other cultural phenomena suggest that adults are thinking and acting more like children and that childhood is expanding to engulf part if not all an individual’s adult life.
The most telling sign that American society is becoming infantilized is that enough Americans voted for a 70-year-old infant with a child’s emotions, emotional needs, thought processes and level of education that a majority of Electoral College members could feel free to vote for him. Again, the dictates of consumer capitalism are to blame: it’s easier to convince a child to buy some shiny new, but useless, bauble than it is to convince an adult.
To be sure, our society has advanced to the point that victims feel they can come forward and identify their abusers. Coming forward of course discourages these creeps because they know in their hearts what they are doing is wrong and that, if made public, their actions will ruin their careers. Coming forward also prevents predators from becoming repeat offenders. The fall of Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey and all the other recently-outed prominent dirtbags gives us hope that we will soon have a society that is both non-sexist and non-sexually exploitive. That it came so soon after the election of an avowed sexual harasser and abuser only shows how much Americans were shaken by the results of the 2016 presidential election. All good.
But at the end of the day, the advances we have made in our mores through creating certain barriers between childhood and adulthood, having a more open society in sexual matters and now openly confronting sexual predators are corrupted and partial offset by our consumer-driven economy of conspicuous consumption that reduces all human experience to the buying of goods and services.
I can’t imagine that the New York Timeseditorial staff and news department ever talk to each other. They might not even read each other’s work. If they did, theTimes might have to split into two publications or engage in a civil war as fiercely fought as the one between the rapidly-industrializing northern states and the traitorous slave-owning south 150 some odd years ago.
The Times editorial staff is reliably left-leaning, taking the Democrat’s side on environmental, immigration, healthcare, foreign policy, taxation, infrastructure, consumer protection, global warming and other key issues. It typically endorses Democratic candidates. The people writing the Times editorials tend to recognize and put a good deal of credence into legitimate research, which drives them further into the arms of left-leaners, since on virtually all issues, the facts speak loudly against rightwing positions.
The news department, however, displays a Republican bias that goes back at least to the 2010 midyear election, if not years earlier. In 2010, remember, the Times covered many Republican primaries but very few Democratic ones; printed exaggerated totals for the Tea Party March on Washington and underplayed the two left-leaning marches that drew about as many people each as the Tea Party did; and totally botched the job of explaining how those currently with health insurance would benefit from the Affordable Care Act.
The Times news staff usually doesn’t lie—that would be against journalistic ethics. Well maybe Judith Miller did stretch the truth in 2003 beyond recognition when she published as facts Bush II propaganda about Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction.
But, really, outside of wartime, the Times reporters don’t lie. They don’t have to. There are so many insidiously hidden ways to support Republicans and their untenable rightwing positions. Some examples:
Give much more coverage to Republican candidates and primaries than to Democratic ones. It’s happened every election cycle since I started counting in 2010.
View all issues through the prism of the right’s ideology, like focusing on deficits instead of job creation or the amelioration of suffering during the recent Great Recession. Until quite recently the Times accepted the GOP argument that tax cuts would create jobs; only when it became obvious to everyone that the purpose of the current cuts is to reward wealthy donors has the Times switch gears and focused news coverage on the great inequities that the Trump GOP plan would create or exacerbate.
Doing positive and sympathetic features on people representing miniscule populations but with rightwing views, like the recent feature on mothers who believe their boys were incorrectly accused of sexual harassment on college campuses or the feature on people who believe that the Affordable Care Act hurt them.
Focus heavily on rightwing protests, whiles ignoring leftwing protests or trying to normalize or perverting them through isolation. For example, the Times normalized the fact that so many women participated in protests after a serial harasser/molester was awarded a majority of the votes in the Electoral College in 2016 by focusing not on the issues, but on the large number of women mobilized. We can see perversion in the Times joining the rest of the mainstream news media in focusing on the very small number of weird, homeless and incendiary individuals participating in the Occupy occupations, trying to isolate the Occupy movement from the mainstream.
Keeping in the news controversies that have been decided in favor of the left-center view years, and sometimes decades earlier, as the Times news department did with climate change and the vaccine controversy, and still does with the economic benefit of lowering taxes on the wealthy.
Cherry-picking the research it publicizes to over-represent studies supporting positions on the right, which often entails misinterpretation of results or publication of bogus research. For example, the Times put a Koch-sponsored George Mason survey of the attitudes of weather personalities regarding global warming on the front page, while completely ignoring a Stanford University study that demonstrated that we could use wind power to supply all the world’s electrical needs with minimal impact on the environment. The Times report on a study of women’s lives a few years ago buried the fact that 62% of all American women now cohabitate without the benefit of marriage sometime in their lives and instead led and featured the meaningless trivia that women who cohabitate may be slightly more likely to get divorced if they later marry. One Times business writer recently explicated Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart’s elaborate theory that a nation’s economic growth stalls when it has too much debt but forgot to mention that Professors R & R made some basic math mistakes which, when corrected, produce numbers disproving their theory.
Presenting an equal number of experts for both sides of an issue, e.g., quoting two scientists on each side of the global warming issue, when in fact, 95+% of all scientists concur that global warming is occurring and is caused primarily by human activity; or presenting the opinion of a woman who hasn’t vaccinated her children against that of an public health expert.
This weekend, the Times used one its favorite techniques: floating trial balloons for right wing nonsense. These article are always heavy on conjecture and light on facts. They quote unknown sources, accept speculation as the basis for further speculation and make hypothetical conclusions. These articles are often mystery-shrouded incantation of experts, elected officials and organizations considering, debating, analyzing, researching or developing, in other words, a chopped liver of supposition and conjecture.
Over the past few years, the Times has run front-page stories floating the following rightwing ideas: states filing for bankruptcy so they can renegotiate retiree pensions; spending billions updating and expanding our nuclear arsenal; cutting Social Security benefits as part of a plan to reduce the deficit; both Bush II and Obama proposals to increase troops in Iraq on a temporary basis. In some but not all of these examples, the Times is performing its function as “newspaper of record” by floating controversial Administration proposals so that, if met with opposition, the Administration can deny considering them. But in every case, the ideas about which the Times are decidedly rightwing.
This week’s trial balloon is not so much in favor of a rightwing idea and more in support of a discredited rightwing foreign policy apparatus, to wit, Donald Trump’s. The article claims that a team led by soon-to-be-indicted Jared Kushner is putting together a proposal to bring peace to Israel and then Palestinians, one that the Administration thinks has a high degree of success because, as one expert puts it, “the stars are in alignment.” The article details what may or may not be in the proposal, what concessions the Israelis, Palestinians and others may or may not be asked to make, while discussing reasons why all sides may or may not want to or be in a position to accept this as yet undefined “ultimate deal.”
Yes, the Times really uses—and in fact builds the article—the expression “Ultimate deal,” which sounds like standard Donald Trump puffery. It’s the largest, the oldest, the most expensive. The most luxurious, the most powerful, the most intelligent. The best. The ultimate deal.
Oh, and where are we in the process of forming and then getting all parties to accept this ultimate deal? “Mr. Trump’s team has collected “non-papers” exploring various issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and officials said they expected to address…”
In other words, a great big nothing burger.
The purpose of the article, thus is not to propose an obnoxious rightwing policy but to shore up an obnoxious rightwing regime. Even as the Times editorial excoriated Trump for trampling on the Constitution, the front page of the Times news section is puffing up a peace proposal before one even exists to make it look as if the Trump Administration is miraculously solving a problem that has plagued U.S. foreign policy for about 50 years.
Talk about a split personality. That’s Jekyll and Hyde.