From sex toys adjacent to kids’ toothbrushes at Target (a big box blunder could be just a merchandising mistake, but shrugging it off in “you do you” mode is a larger corporate gaffe, given cultural context and repeat offender patterns) to middle school word search puzzles creating a flap with 50 Shades of embarrassment parents are pummeled with leakage of the film and the product marketing is pervasive. (Fortune)
Let’s face it, not many parents relish explaining why a teddy bear toy is sporting handcuffs in a suit, much less BDSM warnings from media and mental health professionals concerned about the profoundly twisted psychological abuse damaging young viewers.
Thankfully, Dina Alexander, MS of Educate & Empower Kids.org has put together one of the most comprehensive media literacy icebreakers to jumpstart conversations with kids I’ve seen to date…I’m proud to be able to share it here on Shaping Youth today as we team up to change the channel of influence to a healthier worldview for kids through open, honest parenting dialogue.
Related Reading on Shaping Youth? Part 1: Fifty Shades of Disempowerment: Teach Your Children Well (Must read media AND must USE talking tips for both health literacy and media literacy). Absolutely excellent. Welcome, Dina!
Fifty Discussions to Combat Fifty Shades
by Dina Alexander, MS
Recently, talk about a certain movie has become unavoidable in the mass media: Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s being marketed as a love story, but it’s so much more like a tragedy. It’s not enough to boycott or roll your eyes in silence at the trailers and “sneak peeks” into this pitiful “love” story. The premise of the movie is this: older man seduces younger inexperienced virgin and exposes her to violent and coercive sexual behaviors. If you want to see a change, you need to open your mouth and speak to the damage that this movie and other hypersexualized, pornified media are doing to you, your children and our culture.
There is no need to fear what your children may hear about this film or other sexually pathetic media, if you have prepared them. You know and love your children better than anyone. This is why YOU are the best source to talk about and exemplify true intimacy and healthy relationships (healthy, not perfect!).
Teach your kids how to love. Show your kids what true intimacy is.
You’re the parent and you know your kids.
YOU CAN DECIDE WHICH OF THESE DISCUSSIONS YOU CAN DECIDE WHICH OF THESE DISCUSSIONS IS APPROPRIATE FOR SOMEONE OF THEIR AGE AND WHICH TOPICS YOU MAY WANT TO SAVE FOR A LATER DATE. But you can bet on this: If you don’t talk to them about these subjects someone else will.
Important Discussions to Have with Your Children
- How can a critically ridiculed book, with a weak plot and ridiculously pathetic characters make so much money? (If it is salacious and/or controversial and/or marketed accurately, anything can make money.)
- Why does violence become invisible when it is mixed with sex? Why do people assume a woman “wants it” or is somehow to blame in these sexualized plots?
- Why do so many people turn the other way or embrace abusive, manipulative, coercive behavior when the perpetrator is wealthy and/or good looking? Why do many people allow money/good looks to whitewash poor behavior?
- How might a person’s life be impacted by Fifty Shades or other hypersexualized/pornified media even if they never see it? How might a young man be affected as he dates and builds relationships with women who have viewed this type of media and have expectations of abusive, domineering men? How might he feel, being compared to fictitious movie characters who are always good-looking or wealthy? How might a young woman be affected as she builds relationships with men who have viewed this movie or pornography and now expect her to be submissive, or who think that ‘no’ really means ‘yes’?
- Is it the job of television, movie and online executives to police what they create and distribute to the public? Should there be more stringent standards? Whose ultimate responsibility is it to govern what is shown on various media outlets (the federal government, local government, media executives, parents)?
- Why do some women sell out other women in books, media, and advertising? (The author, E.L. James is a woman.) Why would women try to normalize violence against women? Why do men and women create advertising in magazines, television, and other outlets that create ridiculous “standards” that are impossible or inadvisable?
- Why do we continue to allow more and more sexual content and violence into our media? Are we just more open-minded and accepting now? Or are the creators/distributors of this type of media merely concerned with increasing profits (and understand that sex and violence sell)?
- What is abuse? Abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual or neglectful. What are some examples of each of these? When we suspect a friend is suffering from abuse, what should we do?
- How does an abuser behave? An abuser may: keep track of what his partner is doing at all times, criticize her for little things, constantly accuse him of being unfaithful, prevent or discourage her from seeing friends or family, stop him from attending work or school, control all the money her partner spends, humiliate him in front of others, destroy property or things that she cares about, threaten to hurt him, force her to have sex against her will, blame his partner for his/her violent outbursts.
- What is a predator? What is grooming?
- Does this movie normalize abuse? Is the movie just a ‘fun fantasy’ that many viewers will use to escape their ordinary lives? What happens when people see emotionally abusive, controlling behavior and physical torture being played out by attractive, successful characters?
- If you don’t like Fifty Shades does this mean you are a prude? Does it mean you are close-minded or sexually unfulfilled? Does it mean you understand the meaning of true empowerment- and that it generally doesn’t happen with a ball gag shoved in your mouth (as is common in BDSM scenario)?
- If something is popular does that mean it is ‘okay’? What are some things in our history that have been popular that have later been found to be detrimental? (How about bleeding people for medical benefits or advertisements that told people that smoking was beneficial?)
- Why do you think the book/movie, Fifty Shades, is popular? Is it because of hard, targeted marketing online, in movie theaters, and on television? What other movies or television shows have been popular because of great marketing and big Hollywood names or directors but really turned out to not be very good?
- What is pornography? Is this movie pornographic? Pornography is anything that is created with the intent to arouse or titillate its consumers and which commodifies the body—usually the female body. (To commodify is to turn something into a product to be sold to consumers.)
- What is objectification? Objectification is seeing a person as an object, usually devoid of feelings, thoughts and intellect. What are some examples where we see women being objectified? Where do we see men being objectified? Are there advertisements or other media that objectify children?
- Do you know how to deconstruct an image, particularly in advertising and other media? When you look at an advertisement, can you tell who the audience is, what is being sold and what emotions the creator is trying to draw from you? How can music, lighting, camera angles, and photoshopping affect these images?
- What is empowerment? Can a relationship be empowering? Can it be devaluing? Or are these feelings that are 100% internal?
- What is BDSM? (Remember, your child/teen can learn from you what it means, or learn from another, possibly unreliable source.)
- What is bondage and discipline?
- What is domination and submission?
- What is sadism and masochism? I won’t explain these terms here. Anyone can go to Wikipedia and read about it. Take notice there is no mention of the words love, respect or intimacy. You can talk about the wonders of sexual intimacy and model respectful, kind, affectionate behavior that will give your child the building blocks to understand what a healthy relationship looks like. The way you treat your partner and your child teaches him how he should expect to be treated (and how he ought to treat others). Relationship discussions:
- What is respect? How does one show respect for themselves? How does one show respect for others?
- What is trust and why is it important to any relationship (friendship, romantic relationship)?
- If someone gives you gifts, does this mean he/she loves you? Do you owe him or her something in return?
- What does a healthy relationship look like (romantic or platonic)? What kind of behavior should you expect in any relationship?
- How do you create a healthy relationship? What would you like to see in your future relationships?
- What are boundaries? Why do all of us need boundaries? Boundaries are personal limits or guidelines a person forms in order to clearly identify reasonable and safe behaviors for others to engage in with or around him or her.
- What are instincts? What is that “icky” feeling we sometimes have? How can we use instincts help us know when someone isn’t treating us well or if we need to get away from someone?
- How do we say ‘no’ to someone who isn’t treating us well? Can you say ‘no’ to an adult? What are some situations in which we can say ‘no’? Let’s practice saying “NO!”
- What is love? How do you know if you are loved? What is the difference between being infatuated and real love?
- Why is curiosity awesome? It is totally normal and expected to be curious about one’s body and about sex. This is natural and helpful to one’s survival.
- Why are our bodies amazing? What should we protect them from?
- What is sex? What are its purposes?
- Why is sex amazing? It feels awesome, it’s fun and best of all; it builds emotional closeness in an already strong relationship.
- What are the physical aspects of sex? What is arousal? What is an orgasm?
- What are the emotional aspects of sex? It can foster emotional closeness and unity.
- What is intimacy? Why does intimacy make a sexual relationship better? Intimacy can be the best part of a relationship. It is dependent upon trust and can be expressed verbally and non-verbally. It is feeling closer to someone than normally experienced in common, casual relationships. It can exist between two friends, but is usually used to reference a wonderful, romantic, committed relationship.
- What is virginity? Does it make a person vulnerable? (In Fifty Shades, the protagonist is characterized as a virgin, and that this somehow makes her more vulnerable or easier prey.)
- Is sex different in a committed relationship versus hook-up sex?
- What is bodily integrity? How does it relate to sex? Bodily integrity is the personal belief that our bodies, while crucial to our understanding of who we are, do not in themselves solely define our worth; the knowledge that our bodies are the storehouse of our humanity; and the sense that we esteem our bodies and we treat them accordingly.
- Does one’s body image affect how he/she forms relationships? Does one’s body image affect his/her sex life? If you think you are unattractive or ugly, how might you behave?
- How does one’s self-confidence affect their decisions in dating and forming relationships? If you don’t see your inherit worth or think yourself unlikeable, might you be more vulnerable to the flattery of insincere or abusive people?
- How might sex affect self-esteem? (Can it raise or lower your self-esteem?) How might a person who feels good about himself approach sex differently from a person who does not?
- What is sexual consent? How do you know someone really means ‘yes’? What is rape culture? (see below-Kacmarek, J., 2013) Is sex different when one or both parties are under the influence of alcohol or drugs? Can a person give consent or receive consent when he has drugs or alcohol in his body?
- What are some rules you have in your home, relating to dating and sex? And why do those rules exist? When should dating begin? How does a person know he or she is ready to have sex?
- What is shame? What is guilt? Why do people have these feelings when sexual topics come up? Why do some people thinks sex is ‘dirty’ or ‘bad’?
- What would you think of a contract someone might want you to sign in order to have a relationship with him/her? (Examples: BDSM contracts, “love contracts”, pre-nuptial agreements.)
- Some people think that they can change a person and that if he or she just stays with them long enough, their major problems will go away. Do you agree with this? Is love enough to change someone? (This is one major premise in Fifty Shades.)
- Some people think that women want to be dominated and told what to do. Do you agree with this? Why or Why not?
Although this movie exemplifies so many negative ideas of sexuality in our culture, you don’t need to hide these subjects from your children.
Talk to them openly and honestly. Set an example and discuss with them the amazing benefits of being truly close and intimate with another person.
Not sure how to begin these conversations?
Check out 30 Days of Sex Talks, Empowering Your Child with Knowledge of Sexual Intimacy. Available for ages 3-7, 8-11 and 12+.
Sources: Kacmarek, J. (2013, June 13). Rape Culture Is: Know It When You See It. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/julia-kacmarek/rape-culture-is_b_3368577.html
Rape Culture Definition: a culture in which dominant cultural ideologies, media images, social practices, and societal institutions support and condone sexual abuse by normalizing, trivializing and eroticizing male violence against women and blaming victims for their own abuse.
About the Author: Dina Alexander is the founder and president of Educate and Empower Kids. She received her master’s degree in recreation therapy from the University of Utah. She has taught in various capacities for the past 17 years, including marriage enhancement, art for small children and group fitness. She has also worked with teenage girls in a residential treatment setting, adults with drug addictions and autistic children. She was raised in the Los Angeles area and currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with her husband and three children.
Amy’s note: Also, don’t miss this remix campaign featured on Fast Company using direct film quotes and visuals for media literacy insight in a show-n-tell send-up exhibiting “there’s nothing gray about 50 Shades, it’s all black.” And this remix of the absurd $90 grey teddy bear toy, given a copywriting makeover by Jenny Trout with wonderfully sardonic wit and wisdom.