The Sexualization of Willow Smith

8 May

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.


113 Responses to “The Sexualization of Willow Smith”

  1. Monica Rochon May 11, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    Reblogged this on My Truth Captured.

  2. Kevin Hujar May 11, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    I did not read all the comments, I’m sorry if someone already brought this up. But a huge reason we draw these conclusions is because of the placement of these models. If you ever have a chance, check out Erving Goffman’s 1979 study: Gender Advertisements. According to Goffman’s examinations, he took men and women in the advertisements/photos and separated them into categories that explained how positioning, status, and surroundings played a role in defining how the two genders were portrayed in society. Moises and Willow’s stances/placement also add to the negative connotations that were described in the photo.

  3. shrug May 11, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

    It’s even more fucked up that people put so much stock into this. Are these really the things that keep people riled up? While people fight and die for nothing and our planet is being destroyed, we get passionate about pointless, hot topics like these. Long sigh..Nice writing tho

    • louque May 11, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

      These certain supposedly little trivial things (which are not trivial or little, frankly) expand to larger issues that could have been prevented if people were taught intersectionality, civility, decency, respect, boundaries, etc, towards each other, and not conclude them to be petty.

  4. fictionatrix May 11, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

    Reblogged this on random resonating rumblings .

  5. verdantsamuel May 11, 2014 at 5:14 pm #

    Reblogged this on Verdant Handshake.

  6. Lisa Mcintosh-Green May 11, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    Its both the sexualization of a young black girl and the demonizing of a young black man. that young man has done NOTHING to be thought capable of sexual interest in a girl that has been like a sister to him.
    but it is telling, of our own demons, that even in the misguided narrative people have invented, more has been said negativity about her, a girl CHILD, and even her mother, then about him, the supposed (he’s only 20, really?) adult in the image.

    • Ruth Leahy May 11, 2014 at 11:51 pm #

      it has nothing to do with sexualisation of a BLACK girl or demonisation of a BLACK man. the demonising here is by “bellejar”. i’m surprised you can’t see this, since you must know, this is not a BLACK issue, this would have occurred whatever this girl’s color and cultural background, the paparazzi have been “sniffing” around, after “blood” on this Family – her Parents, her Brother – for all 13 years of this girl’s Life and they would have also been if it was a WHITE Hollywood (or other) Family as well. this blog is Racist! in fact this BLACK Family has got off lighter I think – being favorites of the Media – more than some Others in Hollwoood, BLACK and WHITE fools Violate because they have a right to because they are Public Figures, what a lot of total crud!

      • Martin JFK May 13, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

        I did not see or hear so much fuss about Miley Cyrus and her recent out of hand actions. I instead saw a WHITE media and millions of teens still defending her despite her going overboard. So think we’ll when you say it is not a BLACK issue. Lindsay Logan still gets defense and fans till today despite her repertoire…. Yes it is an issue of BLACK….

      • Martin JFK May 13, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

        Lindsay Lohan I meant.

      • Candace May 14, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

        Because you choose to focus on the race aspects that are mentioned in this piece, it seems you have missed out on some of the excellent points the author makes here. Not sure if you accidentally overlooked where it’s stated, “we need to work hard to protect the privacy and autonomy of young women” but I think the author pretty clearly shows that the central argument of this post is not a race issue but a gender issue and even more so a human rights issue. Please don’t allow your own personal prejudices to taint the very much needed message of this post.

  7. wandapsycho May 12, 2014 at 12:25 am #

    Reblogged this on Sly Fawkes and commented:
    There’s a whole lot of nothing going on in this picture. Also, anyone who is calling a child vile, sexualized names really, really, really needs to be ashamed of themselves.

  8. chicanapoeticscholar May 12, 2014 at 1:36 am #

    Reblogged this on xicanapoeticscholar.

  9. Lysa May 12, 2014 at 10:15 am #

    I do have a problem with a man without a shirt on sitting beside a lying down pre-teen girl on a bed. To me, it is not appropriate. It has nothing to do with the color of anyone’s skin, I have a fourteen year old daughter and 2 nieces this age and I would feel the same way if I saw a photo of them replacing Willow in this photo. For me, at a certain age, men have to keep a certain distance with their pre-teen then teen daughters, girls in their lives. Hugs are appropriate but lying on a bed with a disturbs me.

  10. Richard Evans May 12, 2014 at 1:49 pm #

    Reblogged this on Richard Evans – Notoriously Naughty.

  11. Sharifah Hardie May 12, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

    The picture was unacceptable. Period. Forget what you say. Forget what Jada has said. It is what it is. What makes it sexual is the fact that the two of them are lying on the bed and he is shirtless. Anything in a bed implies sex. What do you do in the bed? Right.. You sleep. So a 20 year old man and a 13 year old girl in a bed together is inappropriate. Yes, nothing may have happened, but these things are what they call, “grooming behaviors.” Innocent behavior that is completely nonsexual to build the trust in the child to lead up to sexual behavior. So what’s the next step? She’s going to be in the same picture with a bikini, which is technically still clothed, but you’re able to see more of her body. Then what? She’s going to be topless, but covering her breasts? We are not pedophiles. We see the game. We see Hollyweird. They make unacceptable behavior acceptable every day all day!

    • Daniel May 12, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

      What I find unacceptable is that laying on a bed, or even a shirtless man, would automatically equal sex. The whole point of this article is that we are reading sex where sex isn’t there, just to get juicy stories, page hits and retweets. Your “grooming” argument – WHICH ACKNOWLEDGES THE PICTURE AS NON-SEXUAL – seems to be just a flimsy excuse to be outraged at the picture. By that logic, anything and everything between two attractive people (at least when one is over 18 and the other under) is “grooming” with sex as the ulterior motive. That logic effectively renders EVERYONE guilty of sexual ulterior motives with children. You and me included. Guess the entire US population belongs in prison…

  12. g00dquestion May 12, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    Reblogged this on halfmooncookies and commented:
    I love Willow Smith and also thought this was so spot-on..

  13. GemmyB May 14, 2014 at 12:58 am #

    For Christ’s sake. They’re lying in a bed and one of them is partially undressed. How is it a stretch to speculate that the photo has sexual connotations? “Disgusting” etc. might be taking it too far, but it is hardly unreasonable, knowing her age, to be uneasy about what might have been behind this photo.

    • Drea May 14, 2014 at 3:18 am #

      She is 13 years old. You to say it ok No it is not. Sexual, Nonsexual she should not be on the bed with an adult. The problem nowadays is everything is ok. No child of mines is going to be in a picture like this and I say its ok. We all raise our children differently but if you put it out there get ready for a rebuttal. Willow thinks it ok because her parents says that they let her make her own decisions, what child can make an adult situation. Some adults can’t make an adult decision

  14. Jami May 14, 2014 at 5:01 am #

    Wow. North Americans can be such Puritan idiots. I am American myself, but really… words. The only perversion here is in the eyes of those accusing here. I think we have better things to worry about than destroying the innocence of these two young people.

    Idiots are always with us, I guess.

  15. Natural Born Observer May 15, 2014 at 1:35 am #

    Reblogged this on naturalbornobserver and commented:
    Allow a child to be a child

  16. jjfrancois May 15, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

    Reblogged this on teensanddrugs.

  17. The Double Parent May 22, 2014 at 12:24 am #

    Reblogged this on The Double Parent: and commented:
    “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.”

  18. aisyadoama May 22, 2014 at 10:30 pm #

    Reblogged this on aisy adoama and commented:
    Yep. Correct. Thank you.

  19. défloreuse dépravée June 3, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

    Je terminerai de jeter un coup d’oeil à tout cela dans la journée

  20. My brother recommended I might like this blog.
    He was totally right. This post truly made my day.
    You cann’t imagine simply how much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!


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