Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What Sexy Means and Other Things Middle Doesn't Understand

It’s the parenting moment I looked forward to for years—that one when my eight year old came home from a classmate’s birthday party and asked, “Mom, what does sexy mean?”

“Why do you ask?” I said.

“Because we were dancing to ‘I’m Sexy and I Know it’ and Jenna* was all like, ‘I’M SO SEXXXYYY!’” Middle growled and clawed at the air in bear paw fashion.

“Where did you guys get that song?”

“It was on Emily’s mom’s Ipod.”

“Did her mom know you were listening to her Ipod?”

Yeah. So what does it mean?”

I'll admit it: I was surprised that my 8 year old was dancing to "I'm Sexy" at an 8-year-old’s birthday party. But then I realized that this song was featured in the recent kids’ movie, Madagascar 3, which just came out in 2012. Everyone under five knows it now.

Language has changed since I was 8. When I was 8, sexy meant just sexy.  Now sexy means sexy and, if you’re 8 years old, it means cool because when you’re 8 you can’t understand the actual meaning of sexy if you don’t understand sex. And most 8-year-olds don’t seem to have a holistic grasp on that one. So sexy gets translated as cool because the rest of the lyrics are too fast, too confusing, to slammed together for them to really make out their mysteries. Although, in Madagascar the song is pumping, “Girl, look at that body. Girl look at that body,” and  if Middle actually was asking to know the lyrics to the song and then added those to the context of some barnyard critter going all googly-eyed over a rotund brown bear in a tutu, she’d know that sexy meant a little more than just cool like your-bike-is-so-cool cool.

I’m only 34, but I’ve been wondering: Am I old-school already?  Am I not flexing with culture in a way that makes perfect sense? Should I start calling my Middle sexy for fun when I think she looks cute and sparkly and peppy on her way to school some day? Can you imagine complimenting your 8-year-old in such a way (put on your best smile and happy voice, now):  

Hey Middle, you look so SEXY today!!! 

You can’t, can you.  So I’m not the only one who’s old school.

Middle has also been coming home requesting to listen to Kidz Bop songs. She’s hearing them in her classroom once in a while during writing time (the teacher plays them from his computer).

I don’t listen to much pop music on the radio so I didn’t recognize Miley Cyrus Partying in the USA or Sean Kingston’s “Fire Burning” remade/re-edited into children’s songs when she came home asking me to play them on Spotify.  What I did notice was this:

The main feature of these songs is dancing on dance floors. In clubs.

My Middle doesn’t go to clubs. In fact, she probably can’t legally get into any in the state of Iowa because they serve alcohol. Also, people smoke there. And wear clothes she’s too young to wear. And do things with their bodies she’s not allowed to do yet.

A little more digging into her two favorite Kidz Bop song lyrics: Jay-Z and “Brittany” (both totally appropriate role model-artists for an 8-year-old) are mentioned in Miley’s “USA,” which seems to be an ode to all things Hollywood through the eyes of a young, impressionable girl who thinks “famous” people are the bomb.  I was truly thrilled to find out that “Fire Burning” in its original form is all about a guy getting an erection at the club while watching a woman dance. Oh, but maybe not. I’m not sure: Does “My pocket started tickling/the way she drop it low, that thang” mean that a few stray bills in his pocket suddenly took on a life of their own?  And of course, she’s “that thang” (or some part of her body is).  And he likes her body and he’s going to “take it home.” 

And while the Kidz Bop version is a little more PG, the woman is still an object: she’s a fire, a birthday cake, she’s gotta be “cooled down” by Shawty.

You might be able to guess what happened next. I got all psychotic-mama-bear on Kidz Bop (just the two songs I knew) and I emailed Middle’s teacher, a sweet 25-year old Justin Timberlake-from-ten-years-ago lookalike. I dropped a lot of big words into my email (objectification, sexualization, concern), thinking I’d either be his worst nightmare or his friendly neighborhood feminist. I was channeling warm, sweet, smarter-than-a-whip Naomi Wolf from The Beauty Myth days, hoping to be perceived as the latter.

It turned out to be a useful exchange; we’ll talk more at our conference next week.  But I’m stuck tonight in awe at the marketing model of Kidz Bop, which seems to be: get some kids under the age of 15 to do covers of the most popular current songs (age-appropriate or not), and market the songs to babies. From break-ups to angsty love to clubby dance-lust, the central themes of most of the bops seem not to be a good fit for my Middle, who’s reading Little Women and The Boxcar Children and drawing self-portraits and playing spies in her free time.  And I think someone as wonderful and charming and energetic as she deserves some good dance music.

*Names were changed to protect privacy.

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