I recently read this article about a 15-year-old girl named Venus Palermo who makes YouTube videos in which she pretends to be a doll. She dresses in childlike clothing, does her hair and makeup in such a way that she looks, well, doll-like, and speaks in a high-pitched child’s voice. In her videos, she moves and behaves like a battery-powered doll.
To me, this is unsettling on many levels. Venus’s critics argue that she is promoting the stereotype of the sexy, naive girl that is often seen in anime and manga – which supposedly were among her influences. Of course, this seems true, but it is not beneficial to criticize Venus herself. Yes, she may contribute to negative stereotypes about girls and women – but she is a victim of those stereotypes, as well.
Throughout history, women have been objectified, and our contemporary media continues the practice. Women are portrayed as something to look at. I took an art history class in college that examined classical works from a feminist perspective (needless to say, it was fascinating). Many of the women portrayed in the paintings were sitting or lying in sensual positions, looking directly at the audience – keenly aware that they were being watched. Men, however, were routinely portrayed as being very active.
And of course, the same can be said of the portrayals of women and men in magazines and on television today. Women are supposed to be pleasing to watch and look at. And many women are affected by this way of thinking so deeply that their daily lives become performances. They alter their appearances, voices, and behavioral habits in order to play the role of the appealing woman. And what do we get when we treat women this way? Venus Palermo.
Venus’s videos are disturbing on another level, as well. Children and adolescents today live their lives as if they are constantly on stage. This is a new and troubling phenomenon. With Facebook, Twitter, texting, YouTube, and the like,. young people today are never unplugged. Unless they turn off their computers and cell phones – which I would gamble few of them do – they are always being watched, in a sense.
Young people, therefore, are being conditioned to put on a show for their friends – all the time. Everything they do is photographed and talked about online. And while this is true to an extent for adults, it is much more intense for young people, who are pressured socially to keep up with the latest technologies and who are perhaps more likely to take out their insecurities on their classmates. When I was in school, I could go home and escape the hurtful things classmates would sometimes say to me. But that is not the case with young people now. When they go home, they are still plugged in.
So the pressure to perform to win the approval of men, which girls and women have been subject to for a very long time, is now exacerbated by the fact that young people are, indeed, living their lives before a (virtual) audience. New technologies can be wonderful and may have many advantages. However, it is important that we teach our girls how to use those technologies in ways that do not make them feel as if they are always being judged. If they are to grow into empowered women, girls must be taught that it is safe to be who they are – even if the world is watching.