Dr. Wes: Talking to teenagers every day, I realize I have a lot higher threshold for awkward than most adults my age — higher even than Katie’s, as we see below. So I debated this week before recommending parents watch the new documentary “Sexy Baby.”
It’s on at least through March on Showtime and from other sources via sexybabymovie.com. It’s rated TV-MA, which approximately equates to R, but it will stretch your comfort zone further than that rating suggests.
Double Take has always given parents a good estimate of where teen culture is on any given Monday morning, as well as where it’s headed.
We’ve called most trends before they’ve hit public consciousness, and while they’re still pretty uncomfortable. This list includes the rise of social media (anyone remember Xanga?), sexting (before it had a name), the emergence of cellphones for teens and later the centrality of texting, the marginal impact of online predation when popular media still considered it the primary Internet threat, the considerable influence of pornography on teen boys’ education and teen girls’ body image (remember that Brazilian waxing column?), hooking up as the current dating paradigm and numerous similar teen phenomena.
“Sexy Baby” catches up to all this by examining how sexually explicit content online, in music, culture and fashion is truly, deeply affecting the way our kids think about themselves, their bodies, each other and sexuality. I pride myself on being neither a prude nor an alarmist about these things, but even I was a little taken aback by how graphically the documentary connected the same dots we’ve addressed over the years.
Several reviewers note that the movie bites off more than it can chew. I agree, but so it goes with this topic. It’s limitless.
Though often cringe-worthy, “Sexy Baby” is nonjudgmental, nonexploitative and respectful of the subjects — a tiny needle to thread, indeed.
If you watch it, you can decide if your relationship with your older teen is open and honest enough to watch it again, together. But if you imagine this film will kick in previously unopened doors for your kids, you’re either wrong or have unusually sheltered kids. This compelling, difficult content is genuinely reflective of what our kids experience living life in 2013.
And as Katie notes, that’s exactly what makes it uncomfortable to watch.
Katie: Warning: “Sexy Baby” made me nauseated. I missed quite a few shots while holding my face in my hands, peeking through my fingers to squint at the screen. After watching it, I’m now genuinely nervous for today’s adolescents.
Although it centers on three very different protagonists — a pole dancer, a woman undergoing elective cosmetic surgery and a 12-year-old girl, Winnifred, growing up in a highly sexualized culture — “Sexy Baby” allows viewers to gaze thorough a different lens at a society increasingly becoming like the fantasy universe we’ve created on the Internet, leading them to question their own behavior and participation in it.
Perhaps because she is nearest my age, I resonate most with Winnifred, whose father proudly describes her as a smart girl interested in gymnastics, theater, writing and social justice. Over the course of the film, we follow her to age 14. She’s quit gymnastics and lost her Facebook privileges several times a month for posting racy photos.
At heart, Winnifred is a kindhearted and insightful girl, telling us toward the end, “I do want to change people’s lives. And I’m not gonna do that by being sexy.” The problem is that she, like all youths in the emerging digital age (whom she describes as “pioneers”), is maturing in a paradoxical era in which teens are expected to adopt a previous generations’ ethos in a culture that bombards them with a message that sexiness equals success.
Our peer groups are no longer restricted to our communities. When modern technology can exchange words and images instantly around the globe, it’s impossible and even dangerous to pretend that we aren’t influenced by the culture of sexuality that permeates our virtual and physical surroundings.
To confront this social phenomenon, we must first face and understand it, even if we peek between our fingers to get through the experience.
I encourage parents and teens to watch this documentary. In 80 minutes it generates a powerful awareness that will live long after the credits roll.