Sugar and Spice and all things not so nice

September 19, 1997

Little girls hold a unique place in the culture - both adored and the object of more sinister attentions - but little study has been made of the phenomenon, argues Valerie Walkerdine

The brutal murder of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey in the United States earlier this year and the banning of the remake of the film Lolita bring to public attention the difficult allure of little girls. Little girls stare at us from all corners of our culture. Recent television advertisements for Volkswagen cars, Kodak Gold film, Peugeot cars and most recently British Telecom, have all featured cute, innocent and alluring little girls. Indeed, the Peugeot advert asks the viewer to "search for the hero inside yourself" as a man rescues a small girl from the path of an articulated lorry.

It is easy to suggest that only paedophiles and abusers, the rotten apples of the sound social barrel, fracture the innocence of childhood. But these adverts point to something embedded in the culture and are certainly not the preserve of a few perverts. They are prime-time commercials for general consumption, not soft child pornography. Here, then, is a phenomenon everybody knows about but one that is rarely mentioned.

Little prepubescent girls sing and dance their way across our screens. Popular culture is full of little girls from Shirley Temple to Orphan Annie. Recently, hundreds of hopeful girls and their mothers queued for auditions for a Spice Girl look-a-like band. All over the country the same girls practise the moves in their bedrooms and school corridors and raid the makeup bag and dressing-up box to fantasise about being stars. Yet this topic, how we look at little girls and how little girls regard themselves, is not something that has been the object of feminist or other scholarship.

How can we understand a phenomenon that is so obviously a major part of our culture and yet is so little researched? How should we link the "hero" of the Peugeot ad and the little girl he saves? Orphan Annie had her Daddy Warbucks. The coupling of child-like women to (sugar) daddies, the younger woman with the older man, sits in our culture alongside the fetishisation of childlike bodies in women. This topic has much to say about how masculine sexuality is constituted and how feminine sexuality comes to be lived as its object.

It is easy to condemn the eroticisation of little girls as the exploitation of children for the gratification of adults, as the exposure of children who are too young to adult forms of sexuality. But the picture is complicated by class and ethnicity. In 1983 Channel 4 presented a show called Minipops. It consisted of quite young children, boys and girls, black and white, singing pop songs and dancing in a set which resembled a milk-bar. This programme caused a furore, but it is instructive to explore the difference between the coverage in the broadsheets and the tabloid press. While the broadsheets roundly condemned the programme for foisting premature sexuality on young children ("lashings of lipstick on mini mouths", "junior jailbait") and demanded its withdrawal on the grounds of protection of childhood innocence, the tabloids thought the programmes were a showcase for future talent, a rival to the "Kids from Fame". These huge differences in perspective point to something beyond a tabloid wish to exploit children and a higher broadsheet morality to protect them. The class issues cloud the easy certainty of argument about exploitation and protection.

When I was growing up in the postwar working class, like many little girls I loved to dress up and to enter and win fancy dress competitions and carnivals. Dressing up and glamour presented me with a dream of difference from the life that was accorded my mother and the one to which I was destined.

It was the painful transformation of Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle from flower girl to duchess in My Fair Lady that showed me just what education might do for me. While it would rob me of my past and of my accent, there was nothing very likeable apparently to be salvaged. But the glittering prize was the walk into the ball, the adoration, and, of course, the passage out of the working class. Such fantasies were presented in celluloid at just the time at which working-class girls like me were beginning to be academically educated. And what a prize for all that hard work and pain. If someone had suggested that I become a professor I would have probably been insulted because I thought they were old men with a tendency to absent-mindedness and anyway I had no idea what a university was. But the transformation of Eliza Doolittle was a transformation I could easily understand and with which I could identify. It is easy to condemn such girlish desires as a sad testimony of ideological indoctrination. This is a simplistic explanation that does not understand the complexity with which girls make sense of the choices presented to them.

The condemnation of exploitation is made too easily. Glamour, singing, dancing provide dubious ways out of their background to working-class girls who long for something else and who still see the route to other things blocked and impassible. In one research project I recorded little girls singing pop songs in the classroom, in the toilets in private, holding impromptu talent competitions, appearing on Saturday morning television, watching films starring little girls. These girls were all white and black working class. (This is not to say that middle-class girls do not fantasise but that these particular activities have a special place in the imagination and possibilities for working-class girls.) These girls wanted and want to be somebody, to use their talents, to be seen, heard, noticed. It is these routes society holds open for them, while often condemning their parents for letting their children take these routes or holding the children themselves to be "too mature" for their age. The protection of childhood innocence is something that has been particularly troubled in recent times, but the child protection lobby sometimes looks as though it is protecting adults not children from coming to terms with the complexities of the stark yet contradictory positioning of little girls. The mixture of psychic, social and cultural processes that conditions how we look at little girls and how little girls perceive themselves is something that surely deserves more attention than it has so far received.

Valerie Walkerdine is professor of the psychology of communication at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Daddy's Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture is published by Macmillan.

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