Dame Joan Bakewell, the journalist and television presenter, who helped lead the sexual revolution of the Sixties, and who shocked the nation in 2001 when she presented the BBC TV series Taboo, spoke out earlier this week at the Bath Literature Festival about the effect that teenage magazines are having on young people – and young girls in particular – and what she had to say made perfect sense. According to the Daily Mail, she said that ‘teenage girls were being offered ‘coarsening trash on a huge scale’ and this was having an impact on their attitudes to sex and their bodies.’ Moreover, she went on to blame big business for this: she said that the sexualisation of society was ‘driven by a whole industry and huge financial investment that pushes young and vulnerable girls into feeling unhappy about their bodies.’ In her words, ‘We’re simply an overindulged society that is given over to complete narcissism.’
It is always encouraging – heartening, even – when people in the public eye are not afraid to stand up and talk sense about what they see around them, even if it means drawing attention to the fact that they may have held different opinions in the past. Honesty, and the ability to change one’s mind, are good characteristics to have, and are a reassuring reminder that human beings have the capacity to change for the better as they develop greater wisdom, and as the evidence presented by society around them throws up alternative interpretations and understandings of what is happening to our young people – sometimes (often, in fact) unintended consequences of well-meant activities in the past. Few people dispute the fact that the sexual revolution of the 1960’s went some way to equalising men and women – but as it has progressed, unchecked, it appears to have had an opposite effect. Young women today are far more likely to worry about their appearance than are young men – and are far more likely to be judged on how they look, too, rather than on what they do and achieve. Stereotypes are reinforced every day when teen magazines are opened and read.
It is taking time, but I am convinced that there is a gradual groundswell of public opinion and a growing understanding of the harmful effects of our sexualised society on young people. We are, I believe, developing the wisdom to see beyond the superficial and into the forces that are pressuring our young generation. We cannot let up now, however; there is much to be done. Our goal: a fairer, more equal society. We should settle for nothing less.