M. G. Durham's The Lolita Effect is an investigation into the present condition of the media's portrayal of young girls. Durham's thesis is substantiated in reference to analyzing the various texts which typify the mainstream media attitude as well as studies ranging from public health to media studies. The titular thesis of The Lolita Effect is that there are a set of myths propagated by the mainstream media to promote and enforce a distinct kind of female sexuality that is ultimately detrimental to society. I shall address certain key themes of significance in this book that include: the 'Humbert Humbert' Fantasy; the nature of myth in the social sciences; the social harm of the Lolita Effect, and finally, the practical dimension of this book.
The title of this book comes from the Lolita novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Durham addresses how our putative attitude to the 'Lolita' is based on the sexualized fantasy of a young girl (Dolores Haze) imposed by the adult character Humbert Humbert. For Durham, a conscientious reading of Nabokov's Lolita should consider the girl's point of view; how sexuality is being forced on her against her will and Haze is ultimately the victim of an adult's fantasy. This metaphor works very well to characterize the social condition of how the media impacts on our attitudes about female sexuality and how the warped sexualized reading of young Haze overshadows her plight.
The nature of myth is a key theme in Durham's analysis. Normally our ideas about myths are as stories which are false, akin to the status of Grecian deities. The concept of the myths in social science is different. Myths are entities that work through influence, which can be very real. For Durham, the myths that are propagated by the media include notions such as 'youth is sexy', which can be seen played out by our focus on entertainment stories such as Miley Cyrus' revealing photoshoot for Vanity Fair.
Following the notion of myth, Durham deems the ideology of mainstream media, coupled with the social situation in the United States contribute to putting teenagers in an uncomfortable situation where there where their curiosity about sex is not met with informed and frank discussions about contraception or explanations of puberty and pregnancy, but magazines and television shows that sensationalize sex and a very specific kind of sexuality. Prudish attitudes towards sexuality lead to budget cuts or cancellations in sex education in public schools and the proliferation of abstinence-only campaigns. The Lolita Effect does social harm says Durham and she makes a convincing case for it too. Appealing to US national and international statistics showing increases in teenage pregnancies and STI's, Durham claims that the mainstream media's increasing global presence makes the Lolita Effect contribute to wider international social problems such as child sex trafficking and violent reactions to girls adopting 'western' sexuality. This is a very bold claim, and Durham admits that the media is only part of a wider gamut of patriarchal influences internationally.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of this book is that unlike regular works of social science; instead of merely identifying a social condition, Durham considers ways in which we, as consumers, parents, adults or teenagers and children can challenge the mythology of the Lolita Effect and its social impact. Durham suggests links to various websites and media initiatives that try to raise awareness about advertising and television programs and the attitudes that they portray.
Durham also suggests establishing discussion groups between girls of similar and varying ages; as well as mixed-sex discussions about media messages, and how to encourage children to be more critical about the mass media. While Durham admits that the media, and its ally in marketing/advertising industries are financially and politically powerful; we can still make our effort to challenge and raise awareness about sex education and sexuality beyond the dominant text of the media.
The Lolita Effect is written for a general audience. The accessibility of the writing style makes it an comfortable read for any adult concerned about the media's depiction of young girls. Teenagers would benefit from reading this book as well. Most of the studies referenced in the book are predominantly based on North American audiences and populations. As such the intended readership is explicitly relevant to North Americans, although non-US readers can see the relevance of some of studies and messages of this book in the context of the global media.
Durham does acknowledge the significance of wider issues that relate to the Lolita Effect, such as the representation of disabled, multiethnic or LGBT groups, but downplays their significance as the Lolita ideology (at least at present) trumps their social significance in the media. Durham also seems to take it for granted that most teenage media consumers are critical and media-savvy. An underlying and moot assumption in media studies concerns whether consumers of media are actively critical or passively receiving of the messages in the media. Without acknowledging this debate very much, Durham takes the side that most older children and teenaged consumers of media are active and critical.
This book is particularly strong regarding the diversity of studies that are referenced. Durham cites public health reports, international statistics as well as an analysis of newspapers, magazines, television and advertising. Durham also addresses her own research with middle-school, high school students as well as her own students taking Durham's college courses, which reveals much about the prevailing youth attitude regarding sexuality.
In summary, Durham's The Lolita Effect is written like a social polemic. She points out that the mass media's message regarding the sexuality of girls is causing social harm on an international level. Durham's book really succeeds in going beyond this and addressing the practical issues that educators, parents and older children face in trying to critically engage with these media messages and Durham suggests methods of challenging the media's influence.
© 2010 Michael Pereira
Michael Pereira has an MA in Philosophy and a BSc in Sociology and Philosophy. He has been invited to give talks on Kant's philosophy, social science and the philosophical underpinnings of ecology. His area of interest is Kant's theoretical philosophy and Kant's (supposed) relevance to contemporary philosophy of science.