America’s attitudes toward sex and women have been a hot topic recently — from rape on campus to the increasing sexualization of ever younger girls in everything from pop music to toys to advertising.
The documentary, America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth, screening at the Coconut Grove Paragon Theater on Wednesday, looks at these issues and more. The film, which ranges from child beauty pageants to the explosive growth in hardcore “gonzo” porn to a young woman’s campaign against sexual advertising to teens, is the third in director Darryl Roberts’ America the Beautiful series, examining U.S. attitudes on women and their bodies. The first looked at our obsession with beauty, and the second with being thin. While the film has gotten mixed reviews, it raises powerful subjects in an outspoken way. The Herald spoke to Roberts from his home city of Chicago about his effort, which he’ll also address in a Q&A after Wednesday’s showing.
Q. What was the initial inspiration for the America the Beautiful series?
A. I used to have this social promotion company, and Michael Jordan and all these ballplayers came to these parties, so I saw the type of women they dated. I’d had these three relationships, for five years, five years, and eight years, with these beautiful-on-the-inside women. But I had became so desensitized I couldn’t appreciate these awesome women in my life; I wanted them to look like women these ballplayers went after. Looking back, I’m embarrassed. And I thought why are we so obsessed with beauty? So the first one started out as a self-healing kind of journey. But in making it I got introduced to so many women and their pain that it grew into this bigger observation on advertising and what it does to women and young girls.
Q. And what inspired this latest film?
A. The inspiration for this one came from an American Psychological Association report on the sexualization of girls … they call it a mental health crisis in young girls. Then the first thing I stumbled across after that was an article by a guy at Miami University in Ohio called, “10 ways to Get Away with Rape.” Initially, the school didn’t do anything about it. So I started thinking about what is it like to be a woman, to deal with this affront, and what went wrong with men’s lives that they think it’s OK to objectify women like this.
Q. Tell me about your observations of the child beauty pageant you show in the first part of the film.
A. I had never been to one before or seen Toddlers and Tiaras. My first thought was why would a parent take a young child to parade across the stage in sexual manner? I went to Atlanta to see one with the intent of being fair and objective. I was seeing the kids cry, “I don’t want to go out there,” and the parents push them onstage. This is child brutality. You have parents trying to hold onto their youth by any means necessary.
Q. You cover a lot of ground, from sexual images in advertising to pornography to rape on campus. What’s the connection?
A. The through line is the ways people are sexualized. I wanted to show that in our society everything affects something else. There was a legal decision that said as long as you’re 18, you can play a teenager in a movie in a sexualized way. When mainstream entertainment started doing this, a guy who is one of the most prolific porn producers started those teen porn sites. The actors in these movies were 18 to 19 but they look 12 or 13, so these porn sites gave rise to pedophilia.
We have much more teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases versus Europe and Canada — what we don’t have is education. A lot of students say sex education is not taught in their school, or it’s optional. Parents avoid it, and even if they didn’t, parents don’t understand what it means to have a healthy sexuality. A teenager, their hormones are raging, they’re searching, and if you as a parent can’t step in, they’re going to find something else, porn or whatever. You get someone looking for sex and brainwash them with 20,000 impressions a week and you get people hooked, especially on gonzo porn and all that violent objectification of women. Like the 14-year-old in my film who’s been looking at porn since he was 7; he didn’t think women were human.
Q. Some of the pornography section is pretty graphic. Were you concerned that would mean teenagers couldn’t see it?
A. Common Sense Media [an independent organization rating media for children, families and schools] rated this movie 15 and up. I thought they’d give it an X and they raved about it. At a screening in Washington, D.C, all the adults were so uncomfortable. Afterward, a 13-year-old girl comes up to me and says, “Oh my God, I’m screwed — the stuff in your movie, I see worse than that … every day. If adults can’t handle the images in your movie, how are they gonna protect me?” But a lot of parents have been bringing their kids, and it’s caused them to have conversations with their kids they never had before.
Q. How does the section on your intern, Cali Linstrom, and her campaign against Abercrombie & Fitch fit in here?
A. At the beginning of the movie Cali and [another intern] talk about Abercrombie as the worst perpetrator of sexualization of kids. Cali came up with the idea that the advertiser is a bully who’s sexualizing teenagers. It’s really about a young girl who’s been a victim of these images, fighting the bully to become a socially responsible company. And now they’ve changed the way they advertise.
Q. What effect do you hope this film has?
A. Every day I hear a lot of people say they feel powerless and so they feel hopeless. I tell them is as long as capitalism is rampant, you’re right. The gonzo porn industry makes more money than legal Hollywood blockbusters. As long as those numbers are there, that guy will not stop doing this because it hurts your child. Companies will do what they’re gonna do. So change has to come with us.
We have to be more personally responsible. I ask parents and adults, “What are you willing to do to protect your child?” Advertisers will not protect your child. We have to engage in action. It doesn’t have to be a protest. But if we as parents step in and support our children, they can thrive and they will be great.
If you go
What: ‘America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth’ screening and discussion
When: 7 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Paragon Grove 13, 3015 Grand Ave., Coconut Grove