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From Barbie to Bratz and Beyond: Sex Sells

Part 2 of a three-part series of excerpts from So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids by Diane E. Levin, Ph.D., and Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D. Ballantine Books.

Editor’s Note: We encourage you to purchase this book and learn how to protect your grandkids from the sexualized marketing and media manipulation of children.


Diane Levin

Bonus: Click here to view/download “11 Tips to Help Your Grandchildren Through the Minefields”

Marketing to kids these days is everywhere. From the minute they get up in the morning until they go to bed at night, children are assaulted by commercial images that get firmly implanted in their brains. The goal is to turn children into shoppers for life, and marketers know a huge amount about how to do it. They know how to get children to nag their parents and grandparents to buy them things.

Take for example, the hugely successful (by industry standards, not ours) product and media line for young girls today — Bratz. There is a full line of Bratz dolls dressed in sexually revealing clothing. Bratz makeup and accessories, real life Bratz clothing including bikini underpants for preschool girls.

In today’s cultural environment, products that channel children into narrowly focused content and activities threaten to consume every aspect of their lives. For young girls, this usually means focusing on buying fashion items, looking pretty, and acting sexy. From newfangled Barbies and sexy Bratz dolls to “old fashioned” princess fairy tales, young girls learn to value a certain aesthetic and a certain behavior — be pretty, be coy, and often even be saved in the end by a handsome prince.

And boys are definitely not off the hook. Marketers have put a great deal of money and talent into using violence to market products to boys. Just think about G.I. Joe, Transformers, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Batman, and Spiderman — with their action figures, toy weapons, video games, TV shows and movies, children’s fast-food meals, birthday party products, websites and much more

While this focus on violent themes for boys may seem far afield from this book, as you read on you’ll see how the use of entertainment violence to target boys is an essential part of the picture when we think about the development of healthy relationships. The onslaught of violence makes it harder for boys to develop into caring sexual beings capable of having fulfilling and connected relationships. Boys learn harmful messages about the role of violence within relationships and in the wider community. As girls see boys’ involvement with violence and boys see girls’ involvement with sexiness, they all learn damaging lessons about what to value in themselves and their own gender as well as about one another.

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE: Manhunt video game

The video game Manhunt by Rockstar Games is a “tense, nerve-wracking experience filled with beatings and gruesome deaths,” according to the IGN web review. It is “brutal, a little sadistic and perhaps even cruel,” according to the same review. Weapons range from shards of glass to baseball bats, shotguns, meat cleavers, and plastic bags for suffocating victims. The video game includes the filming of a virtual snuff film. (“It’s best to think of these flicks as home movies where your relatives do unsightly things to one another and one of them winds up dead,” notes the GameSpot review.)

Even though Manhunt is rated M for Mature by the video game industry, teenagers can easily purchase this game. According to the most recent Federal Trade Commission secret shopper survey, 69 percent of underage teenagers were able to buy M-rated games at retail stores.


Now, let’s look at the fashion industry and its marketing efforts to turn girls into sexy objects. Here are but a few examples of how manufacturers blue the boundaries between adults and children:

• MGA Entertainment, producer of the Bratz dolls, has licensed a line of Bratz clothing and accessories for little girls that includes a matching hip-hugger underpants and padded bra set.

• Mainstream national chains such as Target and J.C. Penney are selling padded bras and thong panties for young girls that feature cherries and slogans such as “Wink-Wink” and “Eye Candy,” slang terms referring to sexual appearance and sex.

• “So Many Boys, So Little Time” is the slogan on one fitted T-shirt sold in a size made for six-year-old girls.

• A T-shirt for four-year-old girls says, “Scratch and Sniff” across the chest.

• Gym shorts for ten-year-old girls have two handprints on the back—one on each cheek—zeroing in on the spot supposedly waiting to be grabbed, patted or pinched.

• T-shirts for toddler boys carry the slogan “Pimp Squad” and “Chick Magnet.”


According to the Executive Summary Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, virtually every media form studied provides ample evidence of the sexualization of women, including television, music, videos, music lyrics, movies, magazines, sports media, video games, the Internet and advertising.

Now that you understand the nature of the beast — namely, how the contemporary commercial culture contributes to the everyday experiences we are having with our children and grandchildren — the essential next step in the journey of preparing ourselves to meet our children’s needs is to learn how and why they are so deeply harmed by this sexualized culture.

Please join us in the September/October 2012 issue of GRAND Magazine for the conclusion of this three-part series and learn how to protect our grandchildren and help them to grow up to be caring and fulfilled adults. 

Diane E. Levin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Education at Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts. She teaches courses on endangered play, peace building with young children, and a summer institute on media literacy. Her work focuses on how various forces in society affect children, and what adults can do about them. She is the author or co-author of eight books, including So Sexy So Soon; The War Play Dilemma; Remote Control Childhood; and Teaching Young Children in Violent Times. She is a founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE).

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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