A Pop Culture Shift
What’s on your Christmas list? Apparently, Santa has something special for himself under the tree. A Fiat TV commercial features Chris Cringle shopping for a car with two female elves whose scant clothing suggests they were provided by the Vixen’s Little Deers escort service. This is just one part of pop culture’s shifting terrain that may be sending the wrong messages to adolescent girls.
On the front lines are psychotherapists working in private practice, at psychiatric hospitals, and drug treatment centers. Adolescents present with their own set of unique psychological reactions which place great demands on a therapist’s skill set. While research shows that most therapists find their roles rewarding, the numbers also show that high levels of burnout can impair their emotional and physical health, as they collide with messages sent being sent by pop culture.
I faced one of those collisions during group therapy with adolescent girls in drug treatment. As I gazed at one girl, one eye stared back at me from her stomach. This was the 14-year-old girl’s navel and its exposure was not accidental. This was an overt attempt at garnering attention by a teenager who openly shared her aspirations to become a stripper. While I urged the group to ponder the unveiling of her anatomy and her career choice, I reflected on the message being proffered to our girls by the women they lionize.
Since the mid-1990s, an escalating number of starlets have set the tone that sexuality on steroids is the drug of fame. In 1995 when actress Elizabeth Berkley stepped on stage as a stripper in “Showgirls,” the former “Saved by the Bell” cast member quickly discovered her waning career would not be saved by a pole. From Berkley to Jennifer Aniston’s 2013 “We’re the Millers,” I count at least 14 movie stars playing strippers. From Jessica Beal to Halle Berry, to Demi Moore in “Striptease”, there are more, more and more.
Therapists and pop culture have gone to war before. As I look back, Mick Jagger’s tongue did push the limits. Madonna wasn’t exactly a saint. Actress Rashida Jones ignited a Twitter inferno with Tweets and an essay in Glamour Magazine discussing how “Me So Horny” by 2 Live Crew did test the limits. But Jones implied that Rihanna’s “Pouring it Up” a pole and Lady Gaga’s open invite to “Do What You Want with My Body” signaled that “a new era had arrived.”
Richard Cohen, from the PostPartisan blog, wrote, “What is being celebrated is not sexuality but sexual exploitation, a mean casualness that deprives intimacy of all intimacy.” We have moved from tweeting to twerking and beyond. Our girls are being urged to assume that objectifying women, then debasing them, is a treasured aspect of pop culture. The pontification of all that is female featuring skin, tongues and bending over are the calling card of the new normal.
Reality TV is also giving us a dose of our new reality when it addresses pregnancy. Shows like WAGS sometimes send a message to young girls that the way to land a man is to land in the maternity ward. During an episode of The Wendy Williams Show, she encouraged a married woman to trick her husband into pregnancy by not taking her birth control. In addition, Fakeababy.com offers an instant baby bump by selling fake pregnancy tests, DNA tests, phony sonograms, and ultrasounds while proclaiming with a wink and a nudge, that the goal is to pull a prank. For the moment, teen pregnancy rates remain low, meaning that good parenting and good counseling are winning over Wendy, WAGS, and worrisome websites.
Recreational use of THC is now allowed in at least seven states and Washington D.C. Twenty-four states passed laws allowing medical marijuana use. These measures send mixed messages to teens, some of whom believe that marijuana can cure cancer. Some parents I have worked with take a “reduced harm” stance saying, “At least my teen isn’t doing heroin.” What is clear is that science shows marijuana can be deleterious to the development of a teen’s brain. Counselors find themselves boxed in by changing laws, some misguided parents and teens whose personalities call for experimentation.
The dangerous combination of suggestive female icons and possible experimentation with marijuana and alcohol can help strip a young girl of boundaries, sometimes sending the message that she should never have had boundaries in the first place. Therapists and parents have an opportunity to model what is healthy behavior for a woman and what are realistic expectations of women. There are moments when our job is to teach and encourage adolescent girls to express themselves without sexual objectification and drugs.
This year as we wait for Santa to come down the chimney, we can hope that Vixen has a tail and horns, that the pole is found North of here, and that the only thing hot about the elves is their cocoa. Perhaps the greatest gift a therapist and a parent can give to an adolescent girl is to model healthy behavior in a world where even Santa is portrayed as being more naughty than nice.