Child’s Play

Hard CandyWhere’s the line between youth worship and bad taste? With films, fashion and culture in a race to the bottom of adulthood – could we be getting dangerously close? Drew Turney investigates.

About 15 years ago, shots of a fashion shoot with a young model were published to major scandal. She wasn’t the first model to pose for introspective and slightly sexy bikini shots, but she was only ten years old.

This year, a film was released that played on our darkest fears about sexual predators. They’re just two examples of the collision of values, aesthetic and commerce that prompts the question; how young is too young?

The birth of television and with it the media age bought about a new world of commerce and culture, and one of its products is an all-pervading cult of youth worship.

Youth has been an attractive quality since we first crawled out of the oceans 3 billion years ago – it means fertility, and we’re attracted to the freshness and vigour of youth because nature wants us to reproduce with the best possible mate for our offspring.

In the pre-media years however, youth was seen through a prism of reality – mostly regarded as callow, impetuous, chaotic and unfocused. As anthropological observation of almost every primitive culture shows, the aged were revered for their wisdom and experience.

With the advent of advertising that drove the early mass media, those wishing to sell an ever-expanding battery of products to people who didn’t need them hit upon the single most effective trick to do so; use our product, they promised, and stay young. That promise forms the basis of our entire media ecosystem – from fashion to gossip mags, from Hollywood to reality TV.

Another strong factor in the marketing of pop culture is that the blur of background noise in our lives becomes more blinding and deafening all the time. With far more information in the world than we could possibly consume, producers of that information have to constantly raise (or lower as the case may be – Big Brother, we’re looking at you) the bar to get our attention.

The music gets louder, the graphics flashier, the images sexier and the necessary attention span shorter. Your teeth will be even whiter, your car safer, your tan the envy of the whole beach, your dress sense the talk of all your friends and most of all, you’ll look ever younger.

The debate surrounding women’s and fashion magazines has raged for decades over how impossible it is for the average woman to achieve the figure of the average model a manufacturer or designer uses to flog clothes to them.

Even though most people know full well modelling is an industry where you’re considered ‘mature’ at 20, and where the yardstick by which we judge the female form often belongs to a teenager barely out of her first bra, humans operate by visceral and emotional responses. After all, the people who create culture have had 50 years of practice getting it in under our guard.

Now there’s a new consideration in the mix – the perceived fragility of our children. Despite the amount of opinion column fretting that we’ve bubble-wrapped Generation Y to an unhealthy degree, things have changed – if only in our own minds rather than any real dangers in society.

Many of us over 30 remembering growing up when riding a bike across three suburbs or playing in a dry creek bed in the bush was nothing unusual. Today, letting your pre-teen child out the front door by him or herself is tantamount to child abuse.

And it’s all because of that ‘p’ word. They used to be called ‘child molesters’, and there’s no evidence it takes place any more today than it ever did. The rise in reports and incidences of child sexual assault is often likened to the fact that – like domestic violence – nobody used to report it.

But the word ‘paedophile’ dehumanises the perpetrator and makes it easier for us to hate and visit punishment on him or her. It’s a monstrous word, sounding more like it refers to a killer virus than a person with a mental sickness, dangerous power and control issues and an antisocial lack of self-control.

Like the all-purpose slur ‘terrorist’, ‘paedophile’ gives us a handy label to apply to something we want to revile and reject rather than understand in an effort to stop.

And as expected, politicians have been eager to jump on the bandwagon and fan the flames of dread. Because their business is instilling fear of imaginary or greatly exaggerated threats to give us something they can protect us from, we’ve been bought into a paranoid and terrified new century, living in fear of Muslim extremists with bombs strapped to themselves or drooling child sex killers around every corner.

And just as the War on Terror has realised collateral damage to both our right to privacy and western relations with the Islamic world, our stifled kids are unwitting casualties under overprotection from paedophiles.

If nothing else, Hollywood filmmakers are good at taking the pulse of societal concerns and working them into movies where we can relate to such ideas and digest them easily. Hardly a film’s gone by during the past few months without someone assigning a real-world theme to it. Superman Returns was about the immigrant experience in the modern US. X Men 3 was a parable about tolerance for the gay community.

And July’s Hard Candy, from Canadian Studio Lion’s Gate, had endless financing trouble but arrived preordained to whip up fierce debate, holding a mirror up to our fears and expectations.

Two people meet online, get on well and decide to meet in person. They both seem sensible and free of hidden agendas and they genuinely like each other, striking up an easy friendship.

One invites the other to his house to see the home photographic studio where he makes his living, and we can’t deny a feeling of dread as the invitee agrees.

Why? Because the invite comes from Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a thirtysomething fashion photographer. It’s accepted by Hayley (Ellen Page), a 14-year-old schoolgirl.

To reveal what ensues would be to spoil the film if you haven’t seen it, but as if revealing to us how silly we are and how unfounded our fears, director David Slade and screenwriter Brian Nelson turn our expectations on their heads as the hunted becomes the hunter. Hayley’s had an ulterior motive all along, one she’s kept hidden from Jeff until she has him where she wants him and can exact her vengeance for what he’s done – his inappropriate invitation to her only the tip of the iceberg.

Although dealing with themes ranging from power to whether the end justifies the means, Page and Wilson effortlessly convey the dread we thought we’d face in ways we never expected as the tables are turned.

As Slade and Nelson seem to be telling us, we can’t let our fear of buzzwords blind us to the realities of those things we attach convenient labels to. There are victims and perpetrators on all sides, and we never know what anyone’s capable of. In Hard Candy we never see anything that Jeff’s done wrong, only what Hayley accuses him of (to his continued denials). You could interpret his final action in the film as an admission of guilt, but that might only be the desire to attribute the ‘p’ word to something you don’t want to understand.

Jeff has photos in his possession that we never see, but which Hayley describes as ‘sick’. Once again, we might find the fact that Hayley found them in a safe disturbing enough, but there’s more to the presumption they show inappropriately young girls. Jeff’s a fashion photographer, and when fashion models have been sexualised at ages as young as 10 in the past, just what is appropriate in film, fashion and reality?

A representative for Viviens Model Management defended the age of models when contacted by Curve, saying that it wasn’t until most girls had reached around 16 that overseas travel and the serious work that comes of it is on the cards (adding that some girls are identified earlier and go through a few years of ‘development’).

A cursory glance through the teenage girl press seems to bear this out; entries to the Girlfriend annual model search competition in the August 2006 issue feature girls ranging from 14 to 17.

And so to the topic of exploitation. Who decides when a girl can or should be presented in a way that invites observation and appreciation of her female beauty? And even if we appoint a regulator, at what time is that magic point reached?

In even her earliest music videos, Britney Spears dressed and acted in a highly sexualised manner, often adhering to any number of (male) fantasy stereotypes.

Contrast that with the furore in 1990 over the exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s notorious Rosie, which led to the serving of court orders closing the exhibition and court appearances by gallery representatives.

Rosie features a 3-year-old girl on a garden bench, her legs propped in front of her and her genitals clearly visible. It’s a perfectly harmless and natural pose for a little girl and in no way sexualised. Her parents maintained throughout the resulting media storm they’d given Mapplethorpe their full consent and Rosie herself is looking straight at the camera, as aware she was being photographed as a young child can be.

Whatever your opinions on Spears, Mapplethorpe, non-sexual nudity or extremely sexual near-nudity in girls, the difference between the above examples is one of consent. We can presume Spears knew exactly what she was doing because of an eye on her future and sales.

When do we attribute that ability to a child – the knowledge of what they’re doing and the likely consequences in a world where celebrity is the new currency and getting undressed is a viable career move?

At the influential Italian fashion event AltaModa, where a 15-year-old graced the catwalk in revealing evening gowns along with adult models, debate flared up to the point where the government considered implementing a ban on girls younger than 16 from working the catwalks of the fashion world.

AltaModa’s official position agreed, the chairman claiming modelling encourages girls to ‘grow up too quickly’. But designer Marella Ferrera, booker of the 15-year-old Marianna, defended the young prodigy by asserting that ‘Marianna is very intelligent, very elegant and very serious. She has been modelling with us for a year or so. She wanted to do this. Her mother accompanied her, so there were no problems.’

The waters are further muddied by the definition of consent in a buyer’s market like modelling. As the former communist Eastern European states struggle to recover from the economic collapse that resulted in the dissolution of the USSR, many young women were left with nothing to sell but their bodies.

What should we make of a girl with the opportunity to enter the cruel, unforgiving world of modelling when the alternatives may be forced prostitution or backbreaking factory work? The American dream of youth, riches and beauty is exported with staggering success to every corner of the globe – what girl wouldn’t be willing to pursue a career in modelling at all costs? Could the threat of prostitution trafficking or starvation entail consent?

But wait, because it’s still not that simple. Britney Spears, Cleo Magazine and MTV aside, there are biological forces at work.

You might be anything from amused to horrified a the sight of a 12-year-old girl in a T-shirt that says ‘Porn Star’, or girls as young as eight wearing hipster pants complete with G string visible. In their mother’s generation, the delivery of popular culture that facilitated such trends was much more limited in its reach and it wasn’t targeted at 14-year-olds. The 14-year-old of the 21st century will have already had about five years of instruction from the cult of cool.

But the simple fact is they don’t make kids like they used to. As reported by doctors globally (particularly the western world), girls as young as nine are showing signs of breast and pubic hair growth and the onset of menstruation.

Some say the increased prevalence of sexualised information girls are exposed to kick-starts sexual development. It could be the cocktail of chemicals that pervade modern life altering our genetic makeup. Maybe it’s the growth hormones used to produce food (which we end up eating). Possibly it’s our alarmingly high child obesity numbers – heavier kids produce more natural insulin, which in turn stimulates production of the sex hormones.

It might even be good news. Following the restrictions of two world wars and the great depression, post-war children had better access to a varied diet than at any other time in human history, and their descendants might be showing the genetic effects, using uninterrupted good health to kick puberty off earlier.

Whatever the cause, girls’ bodies are maturing earlier than they ever have. Together with the savvy that surely accompanies several years of exposure to an array of media, might that mean girls as young as 13 or 14 have the smarts to know what they’re doing and navigate it successfully after all – even if it’s using their budding charms to attract the opposite sex or manage a career on the catwalk?

It’s very hard to make an informed choice when faced with the question ‘how young is too young’? With so many of our own daughters making their way in a world in the grip of spin and fear (and doing so at an earlier age than we did), it’s easy to let our emotions rule us.

With no real idea what constitutes ‘maturity’, how to attribute it or in what form it should take, we’re flying blind trying to regulate or even categorise the difference between exploitation and consent. It depends on the context, the industry and the child. And as Hard Candy’s Hayley shows us to our shock, kids can be smart, manipulative and wily as well as fatuous, ditzy and shallow.

Try telling your daughter she’s not leaving the house dressed like that and see how successful you are – she’ll stuff the outfit in her bag and change when she gets there. Ask her why wants to dress like it and talk about her answer. Kids listen to us more than we think they do and we’d do well to remember that.