By Sophie Fennelly
Image credit: Calvin Klein
Why do we think it is acceptable to sexualise young female artists?
Not even a week after her eighteenth birthday and Billie Eilish was revealed to be the top search on PornHub. The American singer and songwriter first came to public attention in 2016 as a young teenager and has remained in the public eye ever since. A large group of people spoke out on different social media platforms, shocked that as a society we appear to deem it more acceptable to use the artist for our own sexual pleasure a few days after she became legal. On Twitter many users were quick to point out that Eilish has repeatedly emphasised her strong desire not to be sexualised by the media. During her campaign ad with Calvin Klein released in May earlier this year Eilish explained her attire, stating that she wears baggy clothes to avoid the media commenting on her body, something she has been doing since her first single ‘Ocean Eyes’ was released in 2015, when the singer was 13. Although this is not an uncommon occurrence for many adolescent women, this should not be brushed over. Why should a 13-year-old girl, who just wants to make music, have to think about whether what she wears will cause her to be sexualised?
This is not the only incident where Eilish has had problems with the media sexualising her. In August last year the German cover of Nylon magazine used an image of Eilish without her or her team’s permission and doctored it, so she looked like a bald, topless, robot. Eilish was quick to respond, commenting on Nylon’s Instagram post that she was not consulted about being featured on their cover and that this is not a real picture of her. The picture in question presented a sexualised image of her when she is 17 years old and that she has not consented to.
Similarly, in June a photo of Eilish clad in a white vest top and a zip-up hoodie began to circulate on Twitter with comments focusing on her cleavage. One user, when confronted about his sexualising comments stated ‘Apparently, I’m not allowed to think she’s attractive until a few months from now lol…’ Statements such as these emphasise the issue that will likely follow Eilish throughout her career: we feel as if we have a right to any artist’s sexuality, regardless of their age, or whether they want to share it. If an artist, particularly a female one, chooses to share their art, it comes at the price of an invasion of their body and their sexuality. This user has also reinforced the concept that shocked me most about the PornHub revelation: we think that it is okay to sexualise women the minute they are ‘legal’. The fact is that sexualising a young girl is no different on the day she turns 18 than on the day before, so if it would count as paedophilia before then, it is still creepy the day after.
Unfortunately, this is all too common for female artists. Natalie Portman has spoken out before that the first fan letter she received, when age 13, was a ‘rape fantasy’. A local radio station had a countdown to her 18th birthday as that was the date she would become ‘legal to sleep with’. Not only are these sorts of attitudes to women that imply that the only barrier between adult men and sleeping with young women is the legality of it, but they also suggest that the woman in question has no say in who she sleeps with. Portman has said that the way she was objectified by the media as a teenager made her rethink her film roles. Why should women have to compromise their career opportunities because of the media attention they may receive?
Unfortunately, this is not an easy problem to fix without completely overturning our attitudes to celebrity culture. However, we can start by stop obsessing over celebrity relationships. Instead of calling Taylor Swift a bitch for her ‘icy stare’ aimed at Nancy O’Dell when she was told ‘You’re going to walk away with more than a trophy tonight, I think, lots of men.’, let’s call out interviewers who choose to focus on an artist’s sex life over their work. Let’s stop thinking it’s acceptable to ask Adele whether she’ll be back in the studio now that her and her partner have broken up – you probably wouldn’t ask Ed Sheeran the same thing. Essentially, we need to try to treat female artists in the same way as we do male and allow them to focus their interviews on their art, rather than their sex life.
Portman is just one of many to share stories like this, and I doubt that the surge of searches for Eilish on PornHub will be the last incident for her, let alone female artists as a whole. The fact of the matter is that regardless of how much progress we feel as if we have made, until we stop acting as if female artists owe us their bodies and sexualities then feminism has not achieved enough.