Last week's Taliban attack on 15-year old Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai was a jolting reminder of the strange paradox facing the adolescent girl of the 21st century. No one elicits the paroxysms of sympathy and adoration the way a victimized adolescent girl does, as we saw last week in the global outpouring of grief for what was inflicted on Malala. At the same time, it would be difficult to find a more endangered class of human at this particular historical moment. For all the visible sorrow at the fate of Malala, adolescent girls around the world nevertheless get raped, beaten, stolen, sold, mutilated and brutalized in hideous numbers. Even as money flows into charities to support girls' education, politicians boot the adolescent girl around like a rugby ball in a closely fought match. They argue about what is right for her to do, not to do, to say, or to wear without so much as a passing reference to what she herself might think about any of it.
An adolescent girl in Pakistan might not seem to have much in common with the American version we see on display in the striking new documentary, Sexy Baby, of which I am very proud to be executive producer and which opens tonight, October 19, at the Quad Cinema in New York City. And yet, they both find themselves living more on a razor's edge than they ever have, pinched as they are between the nihilistic threat of this brutal, modern incarnation of fundamentalism and the relentless indignities perpetrated by a prurient Western culture so steeped in the tropes of pornography it no longer can differentiate between what is "normal" and what is "aberrant."
I find myself wondering what Anne Frank might make of Sexy Baby, given that she wrote her diary at roughly the same age the film's heroine Winnifred is when we meet her -- on the cusp of being a child and a woman, getting ready to figure out what kind of person she would like to become. I wonder what kind of diary Anne might have written raised as Winnifred has been -- as virtually all of our Western adolescent girls have been raised -- on a steady diet of Lady Gaga's disingenuously "empowered" gyrations; the normalized lap-dance as it is depicted in films like The Hangover; and the panoply of sexual rubbish that flows from their computer screens, whether they've gone looking for it or not.
Winnifred is a wonderful guide as we venture with her into a world that many people born before 1975 or so are only beginning to realize has formed right under our noses. She shares Anne Frank's wit and wisdom, and displays feistiness and a similar contempt for hypocrisy that makes us find ourselves looking to her for help to finally understand our current social and sexual mess. As she makes her way through her bat mitzvah year in an upscale family from downtown Manhattan, her parents are flummoxed by the increasing symptoms of a sort of sexual Stockholm syndrome Winnifred displays. As a mother, I found myself relieved to see others feeling as powerless as I felt as I watched my daughters grow into womanhood too fast and too early to understand any of it.
The moral center of Sexy Baby turns out to be Nichole, a pole dancing porn star (and if pole dancing were an Olympic sport, she'd be on the front of a box of Wheaties). She is looking to retire to start a family with her husband, a man who also has spent a lifetime in the business of porn. Her description of the difference between what she calls "sport fucking" and making love may not use precisely the same vocabulary I have used with my own kids, but it does a better job than I could ever hope to in explaining why divorcing desire from love and respect has a way of transforming sex from an interaction to a transaction. In one of the more enlightening moments in the film, she wonders out loud how they will feel when their future child stumbles across some porn on the internet and her husband cuts her off right there, unwilling and unable to even imagine the consequences. It is an utterly normal moment tinged with an exquisite irony.
Malala and Winnifred are sisters born of the same father. They are the objects of the anxiety and anger that comes with the unchecked and hyper-entitled male gaze and they endure a twinned set of responses. On the one hand, the fundamentalist responds to his discomfort by forcing the girl to cover, to shut up and to disappear. He inhibits her to the point of annihilation because he sees the consequences of his desire for her as her problem to solve. On the other hand, the pornographer's gaze is to be indulged at any and all costs, knowing that the costs will always be hers. He trots the girl out for his amusement, exploits her burgeoning sexuality, obsesses over aspects of her physical self while muting all manifestations of her individuality, mainly because he sees the problem of his desire as, again, her problem, not his.
Desire unyoked from respect unleashes all manner of cruelty and exploitation. At its most benign, it transforms sex from an interaction to a transaction, transforming one of life's most beautiful ways to bond and connect into the simple act of using someone else's body to masturbate. When the object of desire is not also a subject of respect, we find ourselves in a twinned universe of child-brides, female genital cutting and honor killings on the one hand, and labiaplasty, rampant child pornography, sex trafficking and the media's relentless hyper-sexualization of the girl child on the other.
We inhabit a moment unlike any other. Never has a generation of children -- and yes, adolescents are still children, both in the physical and psychological sense -- been so exposed so early to so much pornography. According to my 12-year-old son, as many as 50 percent of his classmates regularly watch pornography on their smart phones, often on the school bus. It's not a very scientific study, but it should nevertheless scare the hell out of all of us. And by the way, I don't see many scientific studies happening on the subject, much less honest discourse in the public sphere.
Anne Frank's diary spoke to us because she was both ordinary and special. With the clarity of a bell, she connected us with all that the modern world seemed only too delighted to crush under its disregarding boot, of all that was sacrificed in the name of something that remains so difficult to quantify. Her language was exceptionally refined for a girl her age, but the sentiments she expressed were certainly recognizable to anyone that had ever been a 13-year-old girl. What was both mundane and glorious about her stood in devastating contrast with her ultimate fate, sending with every word a sharp pain through the hearts of men and women around the world.
But I wonder, how many Anne Franks are out there that we have never heard of? And never shall? How many Anne Franks huddle in dark houses, afraid to step out into the light, to walk the short distance to school for fear that she will be terrorized, brutalized, maimed? How many Anne Franks are dumbing themselves down lest they step off the narrow line of conformity demanded by a culture that values them only for what they offer physically, and even then only if they willingly squeeze themselves into a skintight dress and keep their ideas to themselves?
This is what makes Sexy Baby so important. It is the beginning of a conversation. It is the beginning of a chance to take stock and to ask ourselves where we are headed, and whether indeed that direction is one that is worthy of us. It is a chance to begin, with neither prurience nor prudery, to figure out how to help our kids navigate sexual waters that are far rougher and more treacherous than ever, so that they can reach the other side of adolescence well-grounded, with all their capacity for love and empathy intact and with a fully developed sexual identity that is the positive and creative force for connectedness that many of us have found it to be in our own lives.
This article was originally published at The Huffington Post.
Abigail E. Disney is a filmmaker and philanthropist. Her longtime passion for women’s issues and peacebuilding culminated in her first film, the acclaimed documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008) about the Liberian women who peacefully ended their country’s civil war. She was also a co-creator of the award-winning series Women, War & Peace (2011). Abigail co-founded the Daphne Foundation, which works with low-income communities in the five boroughs of New York City. She received the prestigious International Advocate for Peace Award from Cardozo Law School and is a sought-after public speaker. Abigail holds degrees from Yale, Stanford, and Columbia.