The Jamie Lynn Effect

Susan J. Douglas

The story was so big it made front page of the New York Times: Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney’s 16-year-old kid sister, and star of Nickelodeon’s squeaky-clean Zoey 101,” was pregnant by her 19-year-old boyfriend. And everyone was shocked – shocked!

In a culture that is prudish and pornographic, girls are supposed to turn themselves into enticing little pop tarts who then 'just say no.'

There was plenty of derision for Spears’ mother, who was surprised because Jamie Lynn was never late for curfew” – as if sex happens only after 11 p.m. Jamie Lynn herself said, I was in complete and total shock,” apparently not aware of one of the more significant outcomes of having sex.

But few noted that this story is emblematic of the highly hypocritical and often hostile media environment surrounding girls in American society. With media panics about girls outperforming boys and attending college at higher rates, it can seem as if 21st century girls don’t face many struggles. And with the white, upper-middle-class bias in TV shows, films and magazines geared toward young people, it would appear that girls’ biggest challenges are planning their latest over-the-top party, à la MTV’s Laguna Beach” or My Super Sweet Sixteen.”

But the advocacy group Girls Inc. has found that many girls are stressed out navigating the contradictory expectations that surround them. Teen girls, especially, live in a culture that is simultaneously prudish and pornographic. They are supposed to turn themselves into enticing little pop tarts who then just say no.” They are constantly told, in images more so than words, that their main value comes from their sex appeal and being regarded as hot” by guys. 

The hyper-sexualized media environment that surrounds them – to which Jamie Lynn’s older sister has certainly contributed – targets girls at ever-younger ages. Midriff-baring tops and thongs can be found in girls’ clothing departments; the Bratz dolls, in their Sunset Strip hooker outfits, make Barbie look like a priss (although a very stacked priss).

Television exaggerates the centrality of sex to everyday life, even for adolescents. In 1998, 67 percent of primetime shows contained sexual content, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. By 2005, 77 percent of primetime shows did. Among the top 20 most-watched shows by teens in 2005, 70 percent included some kind of sexual content and 45 percent included sexual behavior. Per hour, the number of sex scenes in top teen shows is 6.7. That’s higher than overall primetime, which showed 5.9 sex scenes an hour. (In any given hour, the scenes in my home concern things like who fed the dog and whether the electric bill got paid.)

As University of North Carolina researcher Jane Brown has noted, the media have become a sexual super peer” for young girls, that approves of teens having sex while providing them little information about the consequences. 

A study released a year ago by the American Psychological Association reported that the hyper-sexualization of girls is harmful to their emotional and physical health, encouraging them to objectify themselves and promoting eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.

Meanwhile, the same kids who watch random hook-ups through the infrared cameras on MTV’s The Real World” get little or no reliable information about sex. The Guttmacher Institute reported that in 2002, one-third of teens had not received any formal instruction about contraception,” and the figure was even lower for black teens. For girls, there was actually a decline in how many had gotten such instruction since 1995. In 1995, only 8 percent to 9 percent of teens got abstinence-only instruction (without any mention of contraception). By 2002, thanks to the Bush-Religious Right approach to sex education, the figure was 21 percent for girls and 24 percent for boys. Recent studies have shown that abstinence-only sex-ed programs fail. So, as sexual content in the media has increased, exposure to thorough, reliable sex education has decreased.

One result of all this? The trend that Jamie Lynn Spears represents: The United States continues to have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world, twice as high as Great Britain and eight times as high as the Netherlands. (U.S. teens also have one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections in the industrialized world.) To top it off, while many girls are told they can do or be anything, our hyper-natalist celebrity culture insists that the most important thing they will ever do is have children. Forget other achievements; only by having children will they be truly sanctified as real” women.

The Jamie Lynn Spears story, as banal as it is, offers not just an opportunity to talk to teens about responsible sex. It also provides an opportunity to point out how girls can still be trapped in no-win situations, rank with hypocrisy, that benefit, primarily, white male conservative politicians and white male libertine corporate honchos. Welcome to a powerful new patriarchal reformulation that is the latest post-feminist Catch-22.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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