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Scarlett Nation » Child Politics » The Eye of The Beholder

The Eye of The Beholder

Think of a child that you are particularly close to, your own son or daughter, a younger sibling or cousin or friend of the family. Now imagine that you discover that a local paedophile has a copy of their school photograph and has been using it to masturbate. There are a number of reactions that would be understandable – anger, disgust, a feeling of violation, fear. However, you would probably struggle to justify punching the school photographer. Even if a disturbed mind has made this image sexual, it’s quite clear that this wasn’t the intention and that the child in question wasn’t harmed in the process. The outcome does not alter the situation when it started.

I had a similar reaction when I heard that there was a ten year old model on the front of cover of French Vogue. Now, I grant that the above analogy is overly simplified. I grant that the school photograph is innocent in a way that these photographs may not be. But still I wonder if all too often we judge these controversies on our interpretation of the outcome as opposed to the child’s interpretation of the process. Because in much the same way as your daughter is not hurt by a paedophile interpreting her school photograph after the fact, Thylane Lena-Rose Blondeau may not have been ‘sexualised’ in her own eyes, only in the eyes of adults looking at the photos later.

In this instance, I’m not sure that it’s relevant to discuss the reaction of other children seeing these photographs. The pictures were in French Vogue, not a publication aimed at young children, and if an of them do buy it then they already have an accepted array of teenage role models dressed the same way. I remember being ten, and never did it occur to me that the teen idols I admired were in a different age bracket to me. My idea of female sexuality and everything else was based on the view I had of the world as a whole and not what I saw from other children my age. The impact of that image and how we control it is a separate debate that I haven’t the time to go into here. The reason the world is specifically discussing Thylane Lena-Rose Blondeau is a question not of what children should be allowed to see, but what children should be allowed to do.

We all seem to agree in principle that the protection of the child is the paramount issue, and yet when it comes to stories like this I can’t help but wonder if we’re not more worried about what makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps Blondeau was made to feel uncomfortable, was pressured into doing things that seemed unnatural to her, was told that the makeup was what made her pretty, in which case I would say that professional standards had been breached and an abuse had taken place. If the photographs had shown her depicting acts she would have to have been told about or pulling poses that she wouldn’t have considered on her own, then the same applies. But if she was treated in the same way as an child catalogue model, given the genuine right to do what made her comfortable, allowed to pose in a way that had occurred to her herself, then I’m not sure she has been. Because the grinning children clutching beach balls in those family friendly catalogues are also caked in makeup. They’re also ‘dressed up to look pretty’ and asked to smile and pose for the camera. They’re in the same setting doing the same thing as Blondeau and may well view their role in it the same way – the distinction is how it looks to adult eyes.

I think, quite often, young girls and boys experiment with their own appearance and identity in a way that is completely within their control, that to them isn’t sexual in the least, and that we turn into something sexual after the fact. I used to baby sit for a brother and sister and one year I took them trick or treating on Halloween. They both had near enough the same costume on – they were both wearing vampire capes, white face make up, a bit of crudely applied eyeliner and fake blood on their mouths. Clearly neither of them was trying to be sexy. However, I was pulled aside by a concerned neighbour who asked whether it was appropriate for the girl to be dressed in such a way at her age. Never mind that her brother was two years younger. Never mind that they’d both chosen their own costumes and (mainly) put their make up on themselves. Never mind that the girl wasn’t remotely concerned about her sexual identity – until this was pointed out to her. Then she became sexualised, uncomfortable and embarrassed. And I thought, I wonder whose sensibilities this neighbour was originally trying to defend?

I’m not saying that due care shouldn’t be taken when dealing with child stars and models and I’m well aware that these are sensitive scenarios that can be open to abuse. I agree that regulation in these instances has to be strict. I just happen to think that such regulation should be based on what is the best interests of the child. Because every time I watch EastEnders, and see child actors who have been calling a stranger ‘daddy’ since the age of two and who are often in surrounded by adults shouting at each other, crying and throwing things, I think I’d be more comfortable letting my child pose for Vogue than go through that. The outcome may not be as uncomfortable for me to look at, but it’s not really about me, is it?

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Co-founder and contributor to Scarlett Nation.

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  • Simon Alvey

    This article, and the Carole Cadwalladr article that you cite, raise a number of complex issues that need to be untangled – probably by people who have read more than I have on these subjects (but they aren’t here).

    The first question is the one at the centre of your article  which is essentially the extent that we should take the child’s own desires into mind. As someone who wants to believe the best in people – and have argued that the protection of performers in my opposition the violent porn ban – I think that the fact that the child model in this, and other, cases may have enjoyed the experience of dressing up in clothes and from that perspective there is much in what you are saying and I want to live in a world where Tom Ford is able to make the decision to use Thylane Lena Rose Blondeau in his photo shoots.

    However the trend that it is indicative of is not one that I think should be praised. This is not the argument about the sexualisation of children, which is an overhyped issue where – as you say – the thoughts of the adults are more concerning that the actions of the children. The trend I am concerned about, and I think this fits into, is the infantilisation of women. It is reasonable to look at the reasons that Vogue chose to put a pre-pubescent girl on their front cover and it seems to be reinforcing the fashion industry’s rigid image of womanhood. We see this in photoshoots such as those of Charlotte Church and Lily Cole ,

    Although I don’t look like a male model those who work in that industry are closer to the look of normal men such as myself, whereas female models are much further away than the look of the women who actually exist.