We need to talk for a hot second about the sexualization of young girls.
Specifically, we need to talk about the sexualization of Willow Smith by the media.
In case you’ve somehow missed the whole hullaballoo, the picture below of thirteen year old Willow and twenty year old actor Moises Arias was recently posted on Instagram, and the internet subsequently exploded.
Everyone immediately leapt to the conclusion that the photograph was somehow sexual. Hollywood Life referred to it as “compromising.” Complex Magazine said that it was “creepy.” Folks on twitter said that it was “disgusting on so many levels,” and promised that the picture would “seriously gross you out.” Even Sesali Bowen, coming to Willow’s defence in an article on Feministing, wrote, “The photo itself is sexy. I can’t deny that.” The general consensus seemed to be that, whether you thought (or cared) that the photograph was inappropriate, it was undeniably sexual in nature and indicative of some kind of romantic relationship between Willow and Moises.
And that is incredibly fucked up.
It is fucked up that people are creating this narrative about a sexual relationship between two people based on one picture in which they are not doing anything sexual. It is fucked up that news outlets are throwing a thirteen year old to the dogs in order to get page hits and retweets. And it is unbelievably fucked up how quickly and easily we sexualize young women (especially women of colour), to the point where their every look and gesture is dissected and somehow turned vulgar. Jada Pinkett Smith gets it exactly right when she calls the media “covert pedophiles.” That is exactly how they are behaving, and the fact that they are peddling this so-called “compromising” picture for their own profit is appalling.
It is an enormous leap to go from seeing a candid photograph of two people – one of them sitting, the other lying down, one of them shirtless, the other fully clothed, their bodies barely touching – to assuming that something inappropriate is going on. It says a lot about how we view girls, and especially how we view black girls, that this captured moment was immediately sexualized. As bell hooks wrote in her review of Beasts of the Southern Wild (which she uses to criticize the eroticization of the film’s protagonist and of black girls in general), “black children no matter their age are always seen as miniature adults.” The reaction to this photograph is certainly proof of that. If it had been a white girl, would we have had this reaction? If it had been a thirteen-year-old Elle Fanning or Hailee Steinfeld or Kiernan Shipka, would we have been as quick to leap to the conclusion that there was something untoward going on? Maybe, but probably not.
Had this been a picture of a young white girl with a man a few years older than her, it most likely would have been written off as totally innocent. If there had been a media narrative at all, it would have contained the facts that a) the two of them were not alone; they were hanging with Willow’s older brother Jaden and b) Moises is a family friend and particularly a close friend of Jaden’s and c) the three of them were attending Coachella (where, as is my understanding, going shirtless is pretty standard). But those details are all missing from most articles about this picture – instead, it’s presented as an intimate moment between two lovers.
Black women are so consistently devalued and dehumanized by the media that most people barely even notice it anymore. Young black girls are sexualized from the moment they hit puberty (and often even before that). Black girls are barely allowed to have a childhood before they become the object of the male gaze – especially the white male gaze. And when we share and judge and comment on pictures like this, we are contributing to that problem.
I mean, Jesus, she’s just a little kid – even if you do look at this picture and see something sexual, why would you think it was fine to attack and humiliate a kid like this? Think back to when you were thirteen, and then imagine that the entire world was passing around a humiliating picture of you and calling you all kinds of horrible names. I don’t know about you, but I would pretty much have died of shame. So why would you do that to someone else? And don’t say that as a celebrity she’s asking for it – she’s thirteen. She hasn’t asked for anything. You are the adult here, so start behaving like it.
Female bodies – especially black female bodies – do not exist purely for our voyeuristic enjoyment. We need to actively push back whenever stories like this are created by the media, and we need to work hard to protect the privacy and autonomy of young women. Most of all, we need to stop ascribing sexual intentions and desires to young girls, because doing so is dangerous and damaging. Treating a picture like this in this way says far more about us, and what we project onto black girls, than it does about anything else.