I have often been asked why, as a man, I create films that empower and focus on women. Frankly, I wasn’t always aware of the myriad societal forces women had to wrestle with from a young age. To paraphrase feminist activist Gail Dines, women are aware from adolescence that they have two options: either be sexually desirable or be invisible.
The first two films from the America the Beautiful documentary series touch on the ideas of beauty politics, eating disorders, media influence, and gender dynamics. But America the Beautiful III: The Sexualization of Our Youth is by far the most personal of my documentary films.
The third installment of America the Beautiful explores the sexualization of our youth and its harrowing consequences as adolescents grow into adulthood. When you look at the current hysteria surrounding the photograph of Kim Kardashian’s behind, it’s obvious that there’s a dark underbelly leading us to question our cultural landscape.
Who is at fault for perpetuating these harmful standards? Is it corporate greed in advertising? Is it pop culture? Could parents be to blame? A variety of statistics I came across underscore how these aspects of our culture are creating a mental and emotional health crisis: 90 percent of boys under the age of 18 have seen pornography; about 820,000 teens become pregnant in the U.S. each year; 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted. In 2007, the American Psychological Association released a report that links oversexualization to the increase in eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression leading to the current mental health crisis in our youth.
What propelled me to make this film is the jarring realization of how deeply the dynamics of our culture are affecting young children. It’s on me—and all of us in our own ways—to combat these entrenched, toxic dynamics of oversexualization personally and politically if I expect anything to get better. One thing I realized through my interviews with industry experts, young adults, and a variety of research was that an important factor in making sure children are able to think critically about what the media presents to them starts at home.
In a 2007 study, parents and non-parents alike were asked what they consider the biggest challenge in raising children today. “Nearly four-in-ten Americans (38 percent) list societal factors when asked in an open-ended format to name the biggest challenge for parents today. Among the top specific concerns mentioned are drugs and alcohol, peer pressure, and the impact of television and other media.”
But how can parents be approachable and wise so their children feel comfortable speaking to them? How can parents teach their children critical thinking skills that they can use when bombarded by media representations that may be harmful? There are organizations like the Parents Television Council that seek to help parents track and shape their children’s media consumption. But the answers to these questions go beyond merely controlling what children watch. Instead adults need to teach children the critical thinking skills necessary to decide for themselves what they desire rather than letting cultural factors decide that for them.
During the course of the film I had a lot of eye-opening moments and became aware of so much I didn’t realize was happening to women and children. I delved into the world of child beauty pageants witnessing mothers living vicariously through their impossibly glammed up children. I spoke with young men and women about how porn consumption amongst their generation affected the ways they related to one another. I looked at how the way advertisements and hit shows marketed to adolescence shaped, or warped, their perceptions.
But one of the most enlightening experiences was realizing how close all of this hits to home. When I became aware that an intern of mine had been sexually harassed by a producer while making the film, I was blown away. How didn’t I notice the signs? I dived harder into finishing the film to perhaps personally learn how I can make sure that a situation like that doesn’t happen again. At least not on my watch.
Ultimately, I created America the Beautiful III to start a conversation, personally and culturally, about the true definition of healthy sexuality. It’s natural for teens to be sexually curious because their hormones are raging. But how nice would it be if parents and adults could step in at this crucial time to explain what it means to have a healthy sexuality? What if healthy sexuality was the framework that young adults used to process every sexual message that they encounter?
At recent screenings I have witnessed parents bringing their teenaged children as a way to starting a dialogue to combat the harm that’s born from a culture that values youth, beauty, and a particular form of sexuality above all else. I believe America the Beautiful III is a rallying cry for men and women, young and old, to get involved personally and politically in creating a healthier culture for ourselves and generations to come.