Remember Girl Talk? One of those magazines plastered with wonderfully lurid yellows, pinks and purples, every ‘i’ dotted with a heart, always accompanied with a cheap but somehow irresistibly enticing beauty-product-freebie? Needless to say, it has all the appeal in the world for the average nine year old girl. The preteen magazine has been going for almost two decades, making it Britain’s longest-running magazine of its kind. And now editors of the mag are making headlines with their new campaign, positively named ‘#Girls Are Amazing’.
Reading up on this campaign, initially I thought it seemed great. It sounded so positive and affirming – it’s not often girls get to feel amazing when delving into a magazine, be it preteen or straight from the ‘women’s lifestyle’ section. Bea Appleby, the editor of Girl Talk, claimed the campaign comes in response to a survey carried out by the mag that revealed all of the top ten most-admired celebs chosen by readers were either actors or singers, with the sole exception of author Jacqueline Wilson. The same survey found that over 80% of girls wanted to be described as ‘pretty’ and ‘funny’ rather than ‘clever’, ‘strong’ or ‘brave’. Appleby claimed she wasn’t all that surprised by the findings, describing them as ‘predictable and disappointing at the same time’. She wants her magazine to take the focus away from beauty and image as the most important thing, the thing that all too many girls seem to be concerned with above all else.
Appleby wants to show readers that there are a multitude of things girls can be and they need not feel pressured to fit into this one ‘narrow ideal’. To do this, Girl Talk is banning certain celebs that they deem to be bad role models from their magazines. Namely, they’re ditching the likes of Miley Cyrus, and splashing Taylor Swift and Jessica Ennis over the covers instead. In showing more sports stars and businesswomen than controversial pop singers, the aim is to show young girls that there are plenty of things women can aspire to be that don’t revolve around conforming to idealistic and unnatural beauty standards.
The aim is great. There’s no doubt that girls are bombarded with magazines and media aimed at them, whether they’re 13 or 35, that tell them exactly how they should look and dress. The Western-world is image obsessed to the point of absurdity and it’s time the focus shifted away from appearance; women are so much more than just looks. However, I have a problem with Appleby’s reasoning. There’s something about the campaign that is a little bit reminiscent, frankly, of slut-shaming.
Bea Appleby wants to ditch overtly sexualised stars like Miley in favour of singers like Taylor Swift, who she believes isn’t as likely to get caught ‘dancing around in a sexy way and wearing nearly nothing’. Of course, the magazine is aimed at children, so clearly highly sexualised stars aren’t age appropriate. I’m not suggesting that a still shot of Miley gyrating with that famous foam finger should be on the next front cover of Girl Talk. I would say, however, that Appleby is, consciously or not, reinforcing a difficult dichotomy that most feminists have been battling for decades. What constitutes a bad role model? Is being open with and in control of your sexuality a predicate for being an immoral person? If the girls that do their jobs with all of their clothes on are the good guys, while those deemed more controversial with their sexy dancing and near-nakedness are the villains, isn’t the old whore-angel dichotomy just being rephrased, and reinforced?
Like her or not, I think it’s wrong to vilify Miley Cyrus because of her sexuality. She is a product of a culture that tells young women that they need to be slim, sexy and provocative to be successful. When sexuality is everywhere, it’s not difficult to see how people come to assume that sex is what gets you ahead. I think it would be fair to say that the former Hannah Montanna star understands the industry very well. She knows that sex sells, the team behind her all know that sex sells. It seems that from day one, we are told that image is everything. We live in a world in which everything from our food to our furniture is sexualised as it is sold to us in advertisements. Miley’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ video, for example, might have been explicit, and certainly not suitable for Girl Talk’s eight year old readers, but does it make Miley a villain? No. Sex and sexuality utterly pervade modern culture and Miley’s controversial image is a product of that. Holding her up and comparing her to stars with more clothes on, maybe stars in different lines of work such as sports, seems pretty slut-shame-y to me. Miley Cyrus is a performer who knows what sells: sex and shock.
Of course, I do think magazines have a duty to show all different kinds of women doing all different kinds of careers and there does need to be a shift away from the constant emphasis on the narrow, largely unattainable ideal of beauty. People like Jessica Ennis are positive role models for young girls in that they are passionate and dedicated about what they do and are not defined by their bodies. But vilifying those that wear less and dance more explicitly than those such as Taylor Swift makes me think that the people behind this campaign seem to be saying girls are amazing – as long as they’re nothing like Miley Cyrus. Playing into this division between ‘us’ (angels) and ‘them’ (whores) isn’t helpful to anyone. My advice, Girl Talk? Keep the campaign, ditch the slut-shaming.