I’m no prude, but Debbie… pastels?

It fascinates me how most of the times that someone starts a sentence with the phrase “I’m no prude, but….” they then go on to demonstrate that yes, indeed, they are a prude. (My two favourite responses in a party-game were “I’m no prude, but unfortunately my sheep is” and “I’m no prude, but I think that’s illegal in Texas” – make of those what you will).

Anyway. I am no prude. Obviously. No-one ever is. However, three things recently worried me.

The first was an advertisement for a lap-dancing and pole-dancing club which I saw on the back of a mini-bus contracted as a school bus. The juxtaposition made me uneasy, though the fact I only saw it once suggests that I was not the only one to raise a disturbed eyebrow.

The second was a joke and party shop which sold “naughty” maids outfits, pink fluffy handcuffs, “naughty” uniforms and other joke bondage gear and next to them there were little-girl fairy wings and children’s Halloween costumes. I found using infantile words like “naughty” disturbing when combined with blurred boundaries between fetish gear for adults and fancy dress for children.Playboy Stationery

The one that worries me most recently, however, is playboy stationery marketed at little girls. I’m obviously not the only person who finds this disturbing: Brand Republic reported protestors as saying:

Jennifer Drew, chair of Object, said: “We are challenging the normalisation of porn into mainstream media. We feel that … WH Smith … is giving out the message that it is acceptable to have girls as sex objects. Object is not against sexuality, but it is against exploitation.”

They also report WH Smith’s breathtakingly disingenuous reply:

WH Smith is claiming that the stationery is being sold as a popular fashion range and that the image is not inappropriate in any way. The group also argues that many youngsters do not know what the image stands for.

I don’t even know where to start with those remarks.

I’m trailing way behind the zeitgeist here, since all of the stories I found are so-o-o-o-o last year darling, but the fact that I came across the stuff about 10 days ago in WH Smith troubles me, as does their spokesperson’s comment, reported in the Guardian last year.

“Playboy is probably one of the most popular ranges we’ve ever sold,” says head of media relations for WH Smith, Louise Evans. “It outsells all the other big brands in stationery … by a staggering amount … We offer customers choice. We’re not here to act as a moral censor.”

playboy_punch.jpgWhat? I mean WHAT? “Not here to act as a moral censor”. Is Ms Evans disengaged and morally unimaginative? Is she naively innocent? Is she just stupid? There is a category error so large you can drive a horse and cart through the middle of it. The issue is not about censorship, it is about what is appropriate. It’s about what has become a very old fashioned word: it is about propriety. In an age where the Internet and mobile phones enable adults to obtain unsupervised access to young children in a way which they have never had before, is it wise to normalise erotica in the presence of children, or to infantalise sexuality in the presence of adults?

Mohair Fetish Gear
Perhaps it takes a deviant and dirty mind to think these deviant and dirty thoughts. Although we live in a very knowing age, it can still be a surprisingly innocent one. Certainly, I was astonished by the naivete of the conversation about this particular piece of what is obviously fetish-gear. (If the link from that image does not work, then try the knitter’s main page instead). It seems that the darker aspects of human sexuality are being re-wrapped in ways which are cute, fluffy and frequently pink. I am reminded of Anjelica Huston’s line in Addams Family Values:

“You have gone too far. You have married Fester, you have destroyed his spirit, you have taken him from us. All that I could forgive. But Debbie… pastels?”

I don’t think that the pastelisation of what used to be called perversion is a bad thing: it’s just a thing. BDSM gear spent a long time being black rubber, black leather and studs. A lot of it still is, though recent goth imagery is bringing purple and red into play too. Previously, in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was all mahogany furniture, and crimson satin and velvet-wrapped ropes and, from von Sasher-Masoch to Elinor Glyn, 19th and early 20th century kinkiness was frequently surrounded by fur. Fashions change. Now BDSM is made safe with fluffy handcuffs and angora home-knits. So what?

However, I do find myself asking what sort of society is it which will happily market pornographic brand icons to little girls, and appears to have no qualms about placing strongly sexual imagery and products in the same space as products marketed to young children?

What sort of society makes sex a pink and sparkly thing for little girls to appreciate?

7 responses to “I’m no prude, but Debbie… pastels?

  1. You’re right, it is disturbing. I probably am a prude, though, so that may not mean very much.

    It’s part of the increasing disappearance of childhood. Kids are made to grow up far too quickly, pushed into adulthood far too quickly. An increased emphasis on sexuality is one of the ways this manifests itself (including the clothes that some parents put their little angels into), but there’s also the insanely early emphasis on exams in the school system among other things. I believe in giving kids credit for their mental ability and insight (which is often surprisingly clear), but childhood is a precious thing which should not be eroded.


  2. I quite agree: it’s offensive and disturbing. I remember once hearing someone I know tell her six-year-old she looked “sexy” and feeling ill. I try hard to dress my children like children and to expose them to children’s books and films only. My goal is to preserve their innocence in the face of a world that’s doing the opposite. Obviously they aren’t having a Victorian upbringing, but there’s a time and place for acknowledging sexuality and at 6,4 and 1 they aren’t nearly there yet.

  3. Brilliant article! This really knocked my senses.

    I blame this largely on the authorities, who have failed to curb such developments, possibly to appease big businesses e.g. as you mentioned, Playboy. The big media corporations are also culpable, to the extent that I now consider TV to be generally unsafe for children.

    Though I haven’t any children myself, I can already feel how difficult it might be to raise children in the future, with the amount of kink so publicly prevalent today.

  4. Pingback: I’m no prude, but Debbie… pastels? « Mahal kita

  5. What a great take on this, Ms. Behn.

    One wonders why a parent would buy pink playboy bunny stationery for a child. We have the jobs and bank accounts and the ability to say that pink playboy bunny stationery is gross. (Or maybe something a little more effective, parental and/or elegant.)

    But WH Smith should grow a spine and not put that stuff out there. It’s a little like McDonald’s isn’t it — sure, some people will buy their child two Big Macs, but still, maybe McDonald’s should be making healthier alternatives look more enticing.

    Oh, what a load of stuff there is to deal with!

  6. WHS say “We’re not here to act as a moral censor.” and yet back when Princess Di snuffed it they removed the Private Eye edition that had the cover satirising the media coverage.

    The morons who could not see this and cold only see ‘the peeples princess’ death being laughed at threw their Daily Mails out the pram and wrote ‘disgusted of Dagenham’ letters hither and thither.

    WHS on the tide of indignation decided in their wisdom to act as a moral censor and removed that edition of The Eye from the shelves.

    Obviously, they get more revenue from Daily Mail readers than they do Private Eye readers.

  7. … and most revenue from the parents of little girls who like pink sparkly things.

    Do they actually sell Playboy Magazine, Alsfter? or are they willing to morally censor that? I must look next time I’m there.

    Singing Librarian, you are right about the erosion of childhood – do they get their won back by then prolonging adolescence into their 20s, do you think?

    Charlotte, that made me sick reading about it, let alone hearing it said. I cannot imagine the cognitive processes required to say that to a little girl.

    Hello Introspectif, and welcome. Yes, I too cannot imagine how one can gracefully raise children today, though I do see people such as Charlotte and Bloglily succeeding. And thank you very much for the link.

    Bloglily, you have put your stamen on a very interesting point – the reluctance of Big Business to take a moral stand. They fall over themselves to appear ethical, which is subtly different. They are certainly reluctant to actually take a moral stand. Interesting.

    Thanks all for reading and commenting.


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