In the winter of 1986 when I was just sixteen years old, I viewed Nine 1/2 Weeks (Directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke) at a local movie theater.  I was on a date with a boy I only liked platonically, which I’d have to explain later in the car, and was fascinated by the power dynamics and BDSM in the movie. The film, based on Elizabeth McNeill’s non-fiction book, Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair, explores the brief sexual relationship between characters Elizabeth and John. I still vividly recall images from the movie: Kim’s bowler hat, the refrigerator and milk scene, the watch scene, and Kim Basinger crawling across the floor for money.

Were these healthy images for a sixteen year old girl to see? Perhaps not. At the time, I thought the relationship was romantic and cried when the couple (spoiler alert) split up at the end. Crafting a “romantic” story at the time may have even been the author’s, Elizabeth McNeill,  original intent. It was the 80s after all.

After seeing the film, I will admit that I rushed out and bought the soundtrack cassette. It was filled with some pretty sexy music by The Eurythmics, John Taylor, and Joe Cocker. As I type this, Bryan Ferry’s “Slave to Love” is still playing in my head. But that’s where the filmmaker’s marketing and my spending ended. Beyond the soundtrack, the book and perhaps a movie poster, there were no marketing tie-ins to the film. I couldn’t rush out and buy my own version of Elizabeth’s watch or hat. There was no blindfold with a Nine 1/2 Weeks logo embroidered on it. Fuzzy handcuffs? No dice.

Skip ahead to 2015 and the recently released Fifty Shades of Grey (Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan.) The new film shares many similarities with Nine 1/2 Weeks. Both movies are based on books, both explore the power dynamics in relationships involving BDSM, both were controversial in their times. One thing that’s changed, however, is the marketing.

A year and a half ago, I wrote a post about EL James’ books and how I was disturbed to have seen merchandise connected to the books’ BDSM themes sold in ICING, a store that caters to teen girls. With the film’s release, unfortunately, things have gotten worse on the marketing front. I’ve seen items related to the film in Target. My English 11 students discussed accidentally finding Fifty Shades’ merchandise while shopping online. Conducting online research while writing this blog, I found that at present you can purchase everything from Fifty Shades themed wine, jewelry, t-shirts and, of course, their own “official pleasure line.” Vermont Teddy Bear created the $90 “50 Shades of Bear” and Sephora is selling the “Give in to Me” line of make-up for $79. Hot Topic is selling t-shirts and there are even onesies and baby changing pads linked to the film.

We as a society might choose to dismiss this as trivial, all in good fun and not important enough to “infringe upon the rights” of marketers. But we are living in a toxic environment where it is impossible to escape the 3,000 to 5,000 advertising images each of us face each day. Many of these images sexualize and objectify women and girls. And the age at which the sexualization of girls is happening keeps getting younger and younger. Just take a look at Halloween costumes marketed to girls or at Bratz dolls. In the marketing world, their invented developmental stage “tween” now begins at six.

This trend is leading to a real public health crisis. Many young women are suffering from eating disorders, depression,  and at the worst, abusive relationships, rape and femicide. These media images affect the way girls see themselves and influence the ways in which boys see girls as well.

As parents and teachers we’ve traditionally had some control over to what our children are exposed or what they are allowed to do. We can monitor their screen time and keep the computer in a public space. We can prevent them from shopping in Thorne’s or the porn shops of Portsmouth; these places tend to have an age requirement of 18 anyway. But when the messages we know they’re not ready for are in places like Hot Topic or Target, what are we to do? Never let them leave the house?

Media makers and marketers are the primary storytellers of our modern culture. Storytellers have been the ones to define our world, construct our myths, sense of self and our place in the world. They define what is “normal” in a culture. Is the message now delivered through the merchandising associated with Fifty Shades of Grey and its exploration of BDSM the story we want to share with our teenagers?

EL James’ tale might not be that different from Nine 1/2 Weeks or The Story of O. I would never suggest censoring such work and the point of this essay is not to criticize the writing or filmmaking of the stories involved. Erotica is a genre that has existed for a long time. Part of the fun of it, however, has always been the secrecy of it. It was a private, adult experience. Of course teens need to be talked to about sex. It is irresponsible of adults not to do so. It’s also irresponsible of adults, however, to present fringe fetishes to our children as normal and, perhaps, healthy, without having a conversation about that, too.

I plan to talk to my daughter about this. I bet she can’t wait. (I’d like to emphasize the sarcastic tone of that last sentence.) In a world where marketers are not regulated by law in the strategies they use to market to our youth and in which they refuse to act responsibly or to take responsibility or shame for their methods, what choice does a mother have?

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