Strip till You Drop: Teen Girls Are the Target Market for a New Wave of Stripper-Inspired Merchandise
Pollet, Alison, Hurwitz, Page, The Nation
All I want for Xmas this year is a new bicycle, my very own pony and a stripper pole for the rec room. Thanks, Santa!
Luv, Amber Anykid U.S.A.
P.S. Strawberry Shortcake thongs make rad stocking stuffers!
Postal workers should not have been shocked this year to receive scores of Christmas wish lists just like little Amber's. Why? Well, in case you haven't tuned in to teen or tween media lately, stripping has gone mainstream. Teenagers of the new millennium have grown up watching college students give lap dances on MTV's The Real World; they've listened to Christina Aguilera's album Stripped; they've taken cardio strip class at the gym, perused the mall for thongs and flavored body glitter, played video games that feature strippers on their Xboxes and GameCubes, and watched endless music videos for which strip clubs and the denizens thereof provide the mise en scene. TV shows and movies from Stripperella to Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle regularly feature voluptuous heroines flashing the flesh. Indeed, a questionnaire for college-age participants in The Real Cancun, the 2003 "reality movie" depicting spring-break mayhem, posed the question: "What's the wildest thing you've ever done?" Responses included: "Stripped at a bar," "Gone on top of a bar and flashed" and "Stripped in a club." Somebody ought to break it to these co-eds: Stripping isn't so wild anymore--it's kid stuff.
Of course, for many girls who buy it, stripper-inspired fare isn't actually about disrobing in public or even having sex but about cultivating what writer and sexpert Susie Bright calls "the essence of titillation," a coy yet brazen, look-but-don't-touch sexual persona. "This is very appealing to the young crowd, the virgins, the pre-orgasmic, who want to flaunt and test their sexuality without actually having to do the deed," says Bright. Along with marketing executives promoting their goods, many adolescents embrace these products as a harmless and fun way to wield sexual power, defending their right to express themselves through "Porn Star" T-shirts and "Hot Buns" hot pants, and dismissing those who object as dour, repressed.
Still, critics like Jean Kilbourne, best known for her documentary series Killing Us Softly, about gender representation in advertising, warn that the trend is more constraining than liberating, invoking a "very narrow, cliched version of what's sexy as opposed to any kind of authentic sexuality." It's a debate whose terms are familiar, from the feminist sex wars of the 1980s to the 1990s rise of "girl power" in pop culture to the explosion of feminist cultural criticism that snubbed the old-school women's movement for its perceived lack of an ironic sensibility. But the discussion has acquired a new dimension now that a mass-marketed ideal of female sexiness derived from stripper culture is being sold to an ever younger set. The stripper-infused products aimed at young girls are a creepy synthesis of cute and tawdry--seemingly designed to appeal to a 12-year-old's tastes while gently easing her into the adult arena.
The most ubiquitous stripper-inspired purchase a girl can make is a thong, a product with a heritage in exotic dancing--in 1939 New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia decreed that the city's nude dancers cover their private parts for the World's Fair. Thongs marketed directly to kids and teens often don't resemble standard lingerie--they're usually cotton, not silk or satin, they've got a colored elastic band, and they're not overloaded with lace or frills. Designwise, they tend toward the self-consciously cute, bearing the visage of a recognizable cartoon character, adorned with a saucy saying and/or cheekily girlish iconography--cherries, gingham checks, teddy bears. The thong's ostensible purpose is to hide panty lines, but what ultimately drives the sale is the nice but naughty message its design implies--and sometimes not so subtly. "Feeling lucky? …