21 June 2010


Yesterday, the Ms. Magazine blog published a short article called "No Comment: Baby Gaga" about the parody of Lady Gaga's music video for the song "Telephone" featuring 3 (or 4?) year old Keira as Lady Gaga.  Ms. called the video "near-child pornography" & accused it of "sexualizing little girls."  & just in case we didn't know how feminists felt about the video, they even provided a link to another blog post by a woman named Melissa, who apparently used to work in criminal investigation (which means she has seen a lot of child porn?), & is "very, very white hot mad" about Baby Gaga.  Of this video that she says "blurs the lines of taboo" & "reeks" of child porn, this is what she saw: "A sexualized and disturbing forced performance done by a very small child wearing handcuffs, sexually provocative clothing and heavy make-up."  Here's what I saw:

I would preface my response to the video & the backlash against it by saying, loudly & proudly, that I very much consider myself a feminist.  I am queer, radical, third wave, pro-sex & education... & most definitely a  feminist. 

To be honest, I mostly thought the video was cute.  Both Keira & the little boys (who no one mentions) are adorable with their little toy phones.  & they are wearing more clothes than the Coppertone girl, & even most of the dance costumes I wore for recitals as a child.  If I were going to get into a feminist tizzy about anything, it would be the adult women dancing in the background. But then again, they are wearing more clothes than Lady Gaga herself usually wears, & feminists still seem to find her a mostly good mixed bag, if Ms. is to be believed.

While the media exploitation of children has been an issue for a long time (re: Gary ColemanMacaulay Culkin, or JonBenet Ramsey), I think the bigger issue illustrated by the reaction to this video is our culture of Pedophile Panic.  From extensive study, James Kincaid has traced this Pedophile Panic back to the middle of the 19th century: 
"Anglo-American culture conjured childhood innocence, defining it as a desireless subjectivity, at the same time as it constructed a new ideal of the sexually desirable object.  The two had identical attributes--softness, cuteness, docility, passivity--& this simultaneous cultural invention has presented us with a wicked psychosocial problem ever since.  We relish our erotic attraction to children... but we also find that attraction abhorrent... So we project that eroticized desire outward, creating a monster to hate, hunt down, & punish" (Levine 27).
Kincaid goes on to say that:
"We are instructed  by our cultural heritage to crave that which is forbidden, a crisis we face by not facing it, by writing self-righteous doublespeak that demands both lavish public spectacle and constant guilt-denying projections onto scapegoats" (Kincaid 20-21).
 The scapegoat & monster in this case is the creator of the video, who Melissa accuses of perpetuating child pornography, & Keira's mother, who is accused of prematurely sexualizing her daughter to the detriment of her self-confidence & psychological health.  But who is really hurt by this video?  Psychological studies have shown that "the trauma of youngersters' sex[uality]...often comes not from the sex itself but from adults going bananas over it" (Levine 60). & these adults are definitely going bananas.  B-A-N-A-N-A-S. Furthermore,
"projecting sexual menace onto a cardboard monster and pouring money & energy into vanquishing him distract adults from teaching children the subtle skills of loving with both trust & discrimination" (44).  
Accusing the creators of a viral internet video of somehow deviously sexualizing a little girl to the degree of child pornography certainly isn't helping Keira or the boys in the video learn how to be ethical, safe, & happily/healthfully sexual beings in a culture that does present a number of serious challenges to people of all genders and orientations.  No one even seems to think it necessary or desirable to ask Keira what she thinks of the video, or her young male co-stars.  Instead, like so many other times in our culture, her female body is marked as inappropriately sexual by the gaze of outsiders.

But Melissa does warn us that pedophiles & sexual predators are all over the internet, & apparently the child porn industry is at a booming $3 million worth these days.  What she doesn't tell us is that the "industry" she speaks of is a modern day witch hunt. To Catch a Predator isn't far from reality, it turns out.  The sad truth is that child "pornographers [are] almost exclusively cops" (Levine 37).  Attorney Lawrence Stanley found as much in the 1980s, & Judith Levine interviewed police officers who proudly told her as much in the early 2000s.  LAPD's R. P. Tyler said that:
"now law enforcement agencies [are] the sole reproducers & distributors of child pornography.  Virtually all advertising, distribution, & sales tot people considered potential lawbreakers were done by the federal government...in sting operations...These solicitations were usually numerous & did not cease until the recipient took the bait" (Levine 37).  
 Is this what Melissa did when she was in law enforcement?  Is that why she claims to have seen a lot of child porn?  Whether or not this is the case, it seems like a lot of fear-mongering for what essentially amounts to a federal sting-operation against people who look at digital images in which "the subject is niether naked, nor doing anything sexual, nor, under the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act, is even an actual child" (Levine 37).  Most of the people busted have no previous criminal record (39), & most probably wouldn't - the Federal government has found that the connection between looking at images & committing actual child abuse is "contingent & indirect" (38).

I think Melissa & Ms. magazine may have a tad bit of misdirected fear & anger in the case of the Baby Gaga video.  It's a little creepy, yeah, but it's not pornographic.  If Keira is being sexualized in this video, it lies in the view of the beholder, a lens born of our cultural fears about the sexuality of both women & children.

In the end, I think it really comes down to what we define as (child) pornography, & what we'll let "throw us into a tizzy."  Shirley Temple was the princess of panty-shots in her movies, not to mention the 1982 rendition of Annie, but is that pornography?  Only if you masturbate to it.

"No Comment: Baby Gaga."  Ms. Magazine Blog. Web.

Kincaid, James R. Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting.  
Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1998.  

outh Press, 2003.


  1. Hi Nichole -
    Interesting piece. I don't agree with the majority of it, but you did a succinct job making your case.

    There is a difference between sexuality (natural and healthy) and sexualization (a forced and unnatural occurrence that has harmful effects both physically and cognitively). My job as a media literacy advocate is to teach parents, not create panic, about the harms of early sexualization.

    Here's a great resource for you to distinguish the two: http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report.aspx

    If you're interested in knowing what I did as an investigator, you are more than welcome to ask. I find that more appropriate than the accusations you made.

    Melissa Wardy

  2. Melissa -

    Thank you for you reply, as well as the link to a resource. I'm always up for reading more.

    I'd love to hear more about what you did as an investigator, & I apologize if the questions I asked came across as accusatory. I certainly didn't mean them in that way, simply as a line of questioning that my research into this topic has brought up for me.

    While I agree that a distinction exist between sexuality & sexualization, I think it is dangerous (& oppressive, particularly in regards to female sexuality) to assume children are not sexual beings. Furthermore, all biological and psychological research I have read supports human beings are sexual to some degree from the moment of birth. While the media certainly presents hyper-sexualized images of everyone, I think it is important to question why we are so horrified by things WE are seeing.

    If you'd like to chat about this more, I would love to. My email is howodd.nichole@gmail.com, & I look forward to productive & thought-provoking discussions.

    Blessed Be,