I sat down with my daughter on Monday this week to watch her favourite t.v. guilty pleasure Don’t Tell the Bride on BBC3. It’s a programme which gets me spitting with rage at the attitudes sometimes shown by bridegrooms (or their mates) about what the stag do will entail, together with the breezy ‘boys will be boys’ approach of the programme (will he be ‘naughty’ or not?)
Nevertheless, I watch it with my daughter and pride myself on my ability to make the odd pithy comment without getting too upset, so that I don’t put her off questioning things herself. It’s a delicate balance. I bite my tongue and make comments only when I can trust myself to come out with a laser-sharp arrow of humorous insight which I hope she will want to emulate. I want to show her that challenging things can be cool and yes, even fun…I’m not being patronising here, she’s fifteen, she has a right to be influenced by things that look cool and fun. I don’t want to put her off the message by sounding like a dried-up old bitter and twisted prude who just doesn’t get what the young people are down with. And although I want her to be aware, I really don’t want her to feel burdened with the full weight of what I know, I want her to be able to carelessly enjoy her teenage years (well, as much as anyone ever does..)
It sometimes makes me angry that I have to make this much effort. All the time.
It’s not just Don’t Tell the Bride; when you watch with a critical eye any t.v. programme popular with teenage girls – Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother are two favourites – you begin to notice just how often porn, stripping and prostitution are casually referenced in storylines, as a normal unquestioned part of life. It was Gail Dines in her book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality who first alerted me to the porn industry’s business tactic of mainstreaming porn culture through references, product placements and storylines in popular films and t.v. series such as Friends, and this cultural conditioning of girls through the normalising of ‘sex work’ continues unabated.
After Don’t Tell the Bride, my daughter went to sit at the computer and I accidentally found myself watching the following programme: Stacey Dooley Investigates: ‘the journalist examines the seedier side of Prague’ it said in my t.v. guide. ‘Examines’ turned out to be misleading; ‘breezes through’ would have been a more accurate description. It was a horrific example of a growing trend of presenting as entertainment a subject which merits a serious and disturbing expose – but when the subject is the sale of women for sex, the premise of normality seems to be assumed. BBC3 has done this before, with their jaunty so-called documentary last year, Prostitution: Where’s the Harm?
This assumption of fun normality jarred with the reality of a city completely overtaken at night by hordes of young British men looking for prostitutes. Apparently it is the stag party destination of Europe due to its plentiful supply of young women used to maintain the tourist industry and support the economy of the whole country.
As a young journalist, Dooley exhibited no signs of cognitive dissonance even when interviewing the nineteen-year-old Lucy, a young woman with haunted eyes, who was only permitted to speak in the presence of her boss who kept urging her not to make it sound too bad. Even so, we heard a story of working eighteen hour shifts in an out-of-town brothel in order to pay off paralysing debts which would trap this young woman in the sex industry for years to come, with no option of escaping. ‘She’s the same age as my little sister!’ gushed Dooley.
A further interview was conducted in the family home of an older married woman who had worked in the industry all her life and explained that she had to continue in order to keep a roof over the head of her young son (was her husband her pimp? Dooley didn’t ask.) Despite Dooley’s frustration at not being able to ask the younger woman the questions she had really wanted to, she refrained from taking that opportunity with this older woman whose strained face made me think that with the slightest tap the floodgates would have opened.
This was a prime time t.v. programme scheduled in a slot liable to attract a large audience of teenage girls, presented by a young, hip, attractive female journalist who framed the sexual exploitation of thousands of vulnerable young women in support of a struggling economy as a bit of fun for all. ‘Most of them seem to enjoy their work and they don’t feel exploited at all!’ was the constant refrain, along with the assertion that as long as a young man was not actually hurting one of the women he was treating her ‘respectfully.’
Her message to girls was that if you objected to your boyfriend being ‘tempted’ to buy another woman for sex, you could just be his mother and ‘not allow him to go.’
I’ve had enough of the media effectively grooming our girls and conditioning them into an expectation and acceptance of appalling behaviour from their boyfriends, as well as the message to our young men that this behaviour is culturally sanctioned and normal. Popular t.v. programmes are one of the most pernicious forms of cultural conditioning and I couldn’t keep my cool this time, I lost my sense of humour and I couldn’t stop the frustration and anger coming out as I watched.
I don’t think it’s going to harm my daughter to see me blow up once in a while though, and anyway, faced with this propaganda aimed expressly at young people, how is a mother supposed to react?