February 14 2014
As the mother of two daughters I’m very aware of the over-sexualization of young girls: mid-drift-exposed shirts, music about bad break-ups, twerking. But in the lead up to Valentine’s Day this year, I became aware of the other side of that coin: the infantilization of grown women. Traditional romantic sentiments – flowers, chocolates, even lingerie – have been pushed aside by two childlike products that are changing the tenor of the holiday.
The Vermont Teddy Bear Company is advertising the 4-foot (or 6-foot) Giant Hunka Love Bear as the perfect gift for your girlfriend or wife. Teddy bears are soft and suggest love and comfort, which is why they’re generally an appropriate Valentine’s Day gift for a young child or maybe a friend. Yet in a strange twist, the company has managed to sexualize the “teddy bear.”
According to the commercial that is running frequently on cable news networks, “size really does matter.” (Of course, that’s why you’re going to buy a giant teddy bear), and the Hunka Love Bear “shows you were only thinking of her in a big way.” The ad reassures men that “when you’re not around the [Hunka Love] bear will be there to keep her company, and to keep her thinking about you.”
Bottom line: this giant teddy bear will help ensure you have sex: “It’s a great gift for her, and it’s sure to pay off for you.” Um, eww.
On it’s own the Hunka Love Bear is a little disturbing, but it’s part of a more serious trend that seems to create little girls out of women. If you catch the bear commercial, you’re almost also certain to hear a PajamaGram ad for the “Hoodie Footie,” which frequently runs in tandem. The Hoodie Footie is a one-piece, baby pink or baby blue pajama set similar to what a toddler might wear, but geared for the (adult) woman in your life.
Thankfully PajamaGram is less sexual than the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, but it still is oddly suggestive. The Hoodie Footie takes the comfiest things she owns – like her “coziest blanket” (with an image of a pink baby blanket) – and puts them altogether, stressing that it will make her nostalgic for “the pajamas she had when she was a kid.”
Again I get it: it’s February, snowing outside, you want to stay in and cuddle. But something seems strange about a grown man giving a grown woman something usually intended for a small child. At best these ads seem like they are part of a spoof on The Daily Show, but the larger message is more concerning: that the new sexy for women is being a little girl.
Others share my concern about this cultural development. The recent movie In a World, a story about the voice-over industry starring Lake Bell, tackles the issue of the high-pitched “little girl” voice. The movie is funny, but has a serious message. Sexy is not assertive, confident or mature sounding. It’s a child-like falsetto.
Similarly for years now Brazilian bikini waxes – also known as the “bald Barbie doll look” – have been all the rage, again transforming women back to their pre-pubescent selves and even naming the style after a child’s toy. While there seems to be some evidence of the pendulum shifting away from this trend, the little girl appearance is still valued by many.
In many ways these ads, and this growing trend, are the worst of gender stereotypes – that women are vapid, helpless, child-like. Yet this image of women has become pervasive in popular culture. Against the backdrop of leaders like Sheryl Sandberg urging women to Lean In, and at a time when women have achieved so much educationally, professionally, and financially, why would we want to reduce them into immature versions of themselves?
I’m the first to admit that men and women are different, but certainly that doesn’t mean women are any less. Treating women as children, however, suggests just they are.