men, masculinities and gender politics


The age of exploitation. (So just when is it okay to objectify women?)

There was a little bit of a stink when the February issue of Cosmopolitan magazine hit the stands with the not-quite-18-year-old actress Dakota Fanning on the cover. Fanning – like the rest of us – is getting older. But for people who best know her as a child actor who starred in films like The Cat in the Hat and Charlotte’s Web, seeing her on the cover of Cosmo was a little bit jarring.

But Fanning has also played a number of serious roles, like Sean Penn’s daughter in I am Sam, Tom Cruise’s daughter in The War of the Worlds, and the main character in 2007’s Hounddog, in which the then 12 year-old actress played a 12 year-old girl who is viciously raped by an older boy – a rape that was chillingly depicted on screen.

(That depiction of the sexual assault of a child in Hounddog caused a lot of controversy at the time – although some of the protest seemed to have come from those who prefer not to have to think about the reality of child rape at all. Fortunately, representatives from the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) attended the movie’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, lending their support to a film that made manifest the reality of sexual violence toward children.)

Since those difficult days Ms. Fanning has played a number of more adult(ish) roles, including the vampire Jane Volturi in the ongoing Twilight Saga series.

But is she old enough to be sexualized? While Ms. Fanning has already been depicted in a lot of very vulnerable ways on screen, some people were still not quite ready for her to be on the cover of Cosmo. A headline on the Hollywood Reporter website read: “Media critics are aghast that Dakota Fanning graces the February cover of Cosmopolitan, now on newsstands. And they cite her age -- she doesn't turn 18 until Feb 23, 2012 – as the reason.” ( )

The post went on:

“It's not that Dakota's dress, a pretty pink sparkly thing, reveals any cleavage or that her pose or gaze is overtly sexual.

“It's the [other] headlines: ‘His Best Sex Ever — Guys Describe the Mind-Blowing Moves They Can’t Stop Thinking About,’ and another cover line says, ‘Too Naughty To Say Here! But You Have To Try This Sex Trick.’ and our favorite: ‘Um, Vagina, Are You Okay Down There?’

“‘Cosmopolitan is going overboard by putting an underage girl on its cover surrounded by such article titles,’ Rachelle Friberg told Pop Tarts. ‘It is one thing to educate young women about sex and their bodies, but putting a young, underage girl on the cover of a magazine that had long been known to push the limits is sending the wrong message.’

“This isn't the first time Dakota's gotten into hot water over her underage magazine ads. Her ad for Marc Jacobs' Oh, Lola fragrance, aimed at a younger female consumer than his Lola scent, was banned in Britain for being too suggestive.

"The British Advertising Standards Authority received complaints about the Twilight star wearing a pink dress with a large bottle of perfume stuck between her legs.

"The ASA explained: ‘We noted that the model was holding up the perfume bottle which rested in he lap between her legs and we considered that its position was sexually provocative. We understood the model was 17 years old but we considered she looked under the age of 16. We considered that the length of her dress, her leg and position of the perfume bottle drew attention to her sexuality. Because of that, along with her appearance, we considered the ad could be seen to sexualise a child.'

I absolutely agree that the sexualization of teenage girls is a huge problem. It makes us regard children in totally inappropriate ways, and it gives the terrible message to young women that their only value is in their sexuality.

And I am very impressed that in Britain they actually ban ads that sexualize children!

I do, however, wonder about one thing: Why is the overt sexualization of females only considered to be a problem when the model or actress is a child?

Cosmo: Not that sexual (for once). The February Cosmo article on Fanning [“Dakota Fanning: The Side of her You Never Seen”] is actually rather mundane and rather un sexual. The title reads: “Welcome to Your Cosmo Years, Dakota: Now turning 18, Dakota Fanning has a career that’s on fire, she’s settling into her first apartment, and she’s looking for love – all of which makes her the chick to watch in 2012.”

It’s a celebrity puff piece, and a boring one at that.

But, like or not, the article does tell us that Fanning’s adult roles are coming faster and faster. This year she will appear as a cancer patient looking to lose her virginity in Now is Good. And Fanning will also play an adulterous wife in a film called Effie. So we will increasingly see her being sexually active on screen.

But these are not Ms. Fanning’s first forays into celluloid sex…

Runaway sexuality. When Ms. Fanning was 15 years old she starred in the film The Runaways, a movie that traced the rise and fall of the real-life female rock band of the same name. In the role of Cherie Currie, she had a make-out scene with actress Kristen Stewart, who played rocker Joan Jett. The scene of Currie (Fanning) and Jett (Stewart) getting physical did not raise a big stink at the time, but it was noticed nonetheless. Stewart, 19 years old at the time, said: “[Dakota] was 15, and I wasn’t allowed to grope her. I’m actually not kidding, there are major restrictions that I don’t remember [from] when I was younger.” (|latest_news)

Fanning was allowed to be sexual. But not that sexual.

But even more interesting than Stewart’s words was the reaction of the critics. Time Magazine wrote: “Dakota Fanning gets ahold of the film… and seduces us utterly… Fanning, 15 when the film was shot, turns in a performance of startling maturity. It's not just that she's sexy, although that is unexpected and slightly hard to process. (Only four years have passed since she was Fern in Charlotte's Web.)”,9171,1973286,00.html#ixzz1lAgylqYE

And New York Magazine chimed in: “It’s Fanning’s movie: You can taste the ex–child actor’s relish for playing ‘jailbait.’ But can she be ogled in good conscience? The taste is sweet and sour.” (

The real problem both reviewers have is not that they were seduced by Ms. Fanning. Or even that they found the 15 year-old sexy. No, the main thing they seem to be troubled by is that she is under the legal age of consent. A temptress frustratingly off-limits.

A common course. There are many other female child actors who have gone down the rough road leading from cute teeny bopper to sexually available super vixen. And that trek from sweet, childlike girl-next-door to object of lust and objectification is an arduous one. Many do not complete it intact.

Former Disney child star Miley Cyrus faced very harsh criticism for her nude (but tasteful?) pictures that appeared in Vanity Fair magazine, and for choosing to perform a poll dancing routine at the Teen Choice Awards. (Of all places!) Currently she is widely rumored to have issues with drugs.

And former Disney star Britney Spears went from being a fit (but modestly-covered) dancer to embracing a “sexy schoolgirl” phase before ultimately winding up dancing with snakes and shocking the public by French kissing Madonna live on stage during the Grammy awards. Spears too has had her issues with drugs.

And former Disney star Lindsey Lohan went pretty much straight from cute girl-next-door right into a haze of drugs and alcohol that has derailed her career.

So just what is wrong with these young women? What is proving so difficult for them about moving from target of affection to object of lust? About moving from naive ingénue to sexual sophisticate? From jail bait to honey pot?

Heck, it wasn’t that tough for Marilyn Monroe or Anna Nicole Smith, was it? Those two women totally mastered the art of playing the sexual siren – and they played it perfectly! Right up until each one of them died of a drug overdose.

So perhaps the move from teen heartthrob to mature seductress isn’t so easy after all. And perhaps it’s not all that much fun, either.

The age of exploitation? Those who are uncomfortable with Ms. Fanning’s more explicit work all seem to have a problem only with the sexual objectification of young women. For older women, well, it’s open season. It’s still perfectly okay to treat them as objects. Which for me begs the question:

How old is old enough? 16? 17? 18? 19? 20? 21?

At what age does it become totally acceptable for us to mentally turn (churn) a woman into just her body parts?

At what age is it okay for us to see her as only a pair of breasts? As just an ass? As a mere crotch?

When is it that we are finally allowed to start eying women with only a desire to screw them? Just what age must a woman attain before we are allowed to look at her and only want her to be our whore – and nothing more?

When can we feel free to ogle such a woman in good conscience? When the “taste” of that objectification finally proves more “sweet” than “sour”?

When are we at last allowed to reduce a young woman in our mind’s eye down to just an orifice (or two… or three…) designed only serve our physical pleasure?

Tell me, just when do you think that it becomes okay for us to do that?

Because if you ask me, my answer is...