Remember that better time when college coeds frolicked on the quad lawn, safe from the eyes of older males, who were drawn instead to the allure of a mature woman? Indeed, doesn’t it seem like nowadays, in our Girls Gone Wild culture, we shove females into the sexual spotlight at ever younger ages? That’s what you’d conclude from the 50,000 alarmist results that a Google search for “+sexualizing +young” returns, in particular the recent panic over 15 year-old Miley Cyrus posing semi-topless for Vanity Fair. The cropped picture to the left is of Elizabeth Ann Roberts, who was 16 when she was photographed nude as Playboy Playmate of the Month — of January 1958.
On an intuitive level, though, we know that the culture must be more hostile than before to sexualizing young females — there would be no hysteria if it were acceptable. Plus, suburban housewives and city-dwelling cougars have never hogged so much of our attention. Still, let’s turn to three datasets that show the trend is, if anything, toward sexualizing increasingly older females in popular culture. We will look at data across the decades on beauty pageant winners, girls featured in nude magazines, and hardcore porn actresses.
First, take the winners of the Miss America beauty pageant, a competition determined mostly by how closely the contestant fits the ideal look of the time. A writer for the website Seduction Labs has already done an extensive analysis, so I took the age data from his work. Here is how Miss America’s age has changed over the decades:
It sure looks like Miss America is getting older — the ones from before 1940 are quite young — and this is true: Kendall’s tau for the correlation between year and age is +0.50 (p = 3 x 10^(-10), two-tailed). Admittedly, estimating the youth-obsession of each year with only one data-point — the winner from that year — is less desirable than averaging all contestants’ ages for that year, but the data are hard enough to come by that this is the best we can do.
Next, consider the Playboy Playmates of the Month, averaged for a given year. While the 1950s had fewer data, each year still had at least 7 data-points. Using 12 data-points to estimate each year should make us more confident in the results, shown here:
Again, the average Playboy Playmate is getting older: Kendall’s tau for the correlation between year and age is +0.44 (p = 3 x 10^(-6), two-tailed). The trend is clearly not linear, though, since there was a decrease in age at least from the mid-1950s, when the data begin, throughout the 1960s.
In response to a criticism brought up in the comments to the post showing that the popularity of blonds is recent, I’ve also calculated Kendall’s tau based on the raw month-by-month data-points, rather than yearly averages: it is +0.18 (p = 1 x 10^(-10), two-tailed). As I mentioned to the commenter, I think it’s more instructive to look at the year’s average since the Playboy people likely have a target girl in mind for the year’s subscription, based on the perceived demand. That is, the Playmates within a given year are comparable to the Miss America contestants for a given year — they are chosen to fill out a year’s run, and Miss April could just as well have been Miss December. Still, even by this perhaps overly stringent standard, the trend is positive and significant.
Finally, we look at actresses in hardcore porn movies. Collecting a representative sample of active females in a given year would be incredibly arduous, so instead I took famous actresses and determined how old they were when they made their first movie, and entered this as a data-point for the year in which they started making movies.
The lists I used are the AVN Hall of Fame, the XRCO Hall of Fame (which barely added anyone else), and a list of female porn stars by decade drawn up by the porn geeks at Wikipedia. I required each year to have at least 5 data-points; if there were too few, I merged that year’s data with an adjacent year (whichever had fewer data-points than the other choice), so that the data-sparse year is excluded and the beefed-up year is included. This mostly affects the 1970s and early 1980s. Here are the ages of first-time porn stars by year of their first movie:
There is no increase or decrease over time: Kendall’s tau for the correlation between year and age is nowhere near significance. There are several apparent upward and downward trends, though. This might be the only example of the 1980s and early 1990s showing greater progress by the declinists’ standards. I recently analyzed a large, representative sample of porn stars and found that their average age is 23, for what it’s worth. Again, that’s what we really want to see: the age of the typical actress for a given year.
Maybe girls enter at earlier ages in recent times but don’t reach their peak in popularity until they are in their early 20s. Another drawback of looking at age at first movie is that it ignores the recent popularity of “MILF” actresses — maybe it’s just that the variance in age is increasing. Admittedly, these pornstar data are not ideal.
Finally, we examine the popularity of beauty pageants specifically for teenage contestants. While I don’t have datasets to analyze, such as the annual TV ratings, there is enough information on them to get a rough picture. First, there is Miss Teen USA, the adolescent version of Miss Universe. It was created in 1983, reached its peak for ratings in 1988, and has declined in popularity afterward, to the point where it may not even be televised anymore. And second, there is Miss Teenage America, which was created in 1962 and was last televised in 1977. Judging by its corporate sponsorship and celebrity hosts, it must have been somewhat popular. There are other beauty pageants for teenagers, but they are not even televised, and so do not count as evidence of an obsession with youth. Rather, we see a shift away from throwing young girls into the purely sexual spotlight.
Since there are no huge long-term swings up and down in these data, as opposed to the cases of sluttiness and violence, all generations can say that they’ve improved over previous generations, or at least done no worse. If any generation is to be accused of sexualizing younger girls in popular culture, though, it is surely the older ones. It is true that the current culture does not value women over 30, but that has never been the case — just the opposite.
As with sluttiness, part of the declinists’ misperception may be due to fashion trends, such as even prepubescent girls wearing adult-inspired clothing. That’s hardly evidence of their being sexualized, though — no guy is actually looking at them as a sex object, and dressing like an adult doesn’t make you behave like one sexually. While it may be a bizarre fashion trend — though more bizarre than when pre-pubescents started wearing two-piece bathing suits? — it doesn’t reflect a sexualization of the young.
What’s causing this trend toward older sex symbols? Oh, I don’t know, but I’m sure we’ll get a bunch of half-baked ideas in the comments, so I’ll get the goofball ball rolling. Women are having their first kid later, if at all, so there’s a wider age range of females who haven’t ruined their figure by giving birth. Still, according to the analysis of Miss America winners at Seduction Labs, there are other trends: starting around 1960, winners became taller, less buxom, and less hourglass in shape, in addition to older. In short, the feminine ideal in popular culture has been worn down by the march of the masculine minxes. It’s a mistake to blame this on the women’s movement of the 1970s, though, since most of these trends began in the early-to-mid-1960s. Radical feminists were just jumping on the bandwagon and trying to steal credit for it.
Though it’s harder to measure, the manliness of these sex symbols’ faces has surely increased — go back and look at some of the Playboy Playmates from the late 1950s through the late 1960s. They look like girls, not butch transvestites (NSFW, obviously). I see this as a form of cultural decline, of course, but the declinists who decry our obsession with youth could not be more wrong.