Lolita, lolly and lost girls

The young and vulnerable are powerless to resist the overt sexualisation used to sell us 'fun' brands like Virgin, writes Mary Evans

May 1, 2008

One of the many nightmares that neoliberalism has inflicted on the world is the idea that the more appropriate word for making a profit is "fun". Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of Sir Richard Branson, a world in which the double entendre and the vaguely smutty innuendo have been used to disguise an ancient relationship in which the privileged make tonnes of money out of the less privileged. This might matter less (or not at all) were it not for concerns about the sexualisation of our culture and the appearance of some of its more sinister manifestations in events surrounding the recent "disappearance" of Shannon Matthews.

Aside from blasts of class antagonism, there are various reasons to think that Branson's global capitalist entrepreneurship, disguised as a mission to bring highly sexualised "fun" to the world, might be more harmful than staid forms of enterprise.

Let us consider for a moment that known feature of the past 40 years, what is described as the "sexualisation" of Western culture. As it happens, the Virgin empire began in 1970, at just that point when mores about sexuality and freedom of expression were changing. Subsequent decades have seen arguments about the impact of sexual liberation, the need (or otherwise) for censorship and all the other questions that have been part of the rethinking of intimate relationships.

Different people have different opinions about these changes, but whatever our views we cannot avoid a culture - whether in the media or in consumption or in everyday life - that suggests that doing/having/thinking something called "sex" is not so much an important as an essential part of everyday life. Thus, we do not stop to wonder why a record label should be called Virgin or why an airline should see fit to paint on the sides of its planes, "Fly a Younger Fleet".

Other pens have written recently of what is described as the "prettification" of young girls, the tidal wave of pink that is sweeping a country once known for punk. In a moment of revelation, Karen Matthews wrote of welcoming home her daughter Shannon with "pink bed clothes which we know she'll love"; a chain store named a child's bed "the Lolita".

Both speak of a set of implicit assumptions about the various tastes and fantasies of children, perhaps harmless in the choice of a colour but perhaps rather less harmless when seen in a context of what we know about the production (and distribution) of pornography about children.

In the case of the Lolita bed, it became apparent that no one involved had heard of Nabokov's novel. But before we reach the usual conclusions about dumbing down, we might also think about the way in which the subject matter of that novel had become part of the culture, not as a problematic question about adults and children but as the assumption that little girls are already sexual agents. This is not dumbing down, it is the projection of conclusions rather than questions, a parodic return to the certainties about the innocence of children in which the post-Freudian knowledge of the sexuality of children is returned to them as a set of vulgarised assumptions.

In the Virgin web pages, much is made of the ethos of "fun" in company policy. "In a sense," the web pages say, "we are a community." This talk of organic ties in employment is reminiscent of Asda/Wal-Mart's "family". Barbara Ehrenreich is among those who have suggested that in the Wal-Mart family there are an awful lot of Cinderellas and not many Prince Charmings. Both firms speak of their wish to keep the numbers of "management" staff small, and Wal-Mart quotes its founder's view that "if we work together we'll lower the cost of living for everyone".

Pre-capitalist images of productive life may well have appeal to those neoliberals who would rather not be bothered by trade unions, equal opportunities officers and other constraints on profit, but to the people working in those companies, working to make lots of money for Wal-Mart or Virgin, the reality is rather different. Nevertheless, as the Virgin website, quite without guile, makes clear, "branding" is all-important in today's business world, and while Wal-Mart chose cheap, Richard Branson chose sex.

But in doing so what Branson's company has done is to contribute to that process of sexualisation in which the true perversion of sexuality becomes increasingly possible and in which the most vulnerable (of whatever age) are given little recourse to resistance to consumer-driven concepts of "fun".

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