Representations of Sexuality in Emerging Media

By Emily Spennato

Sex is everywhere. It’s in the music we listen to, the books we read, the shows we binge and the movies we watch. But when it comes to being accurately portrayed, understood, and celebrated, sexuality in the media still has a long way to go.

In my daily life, sex is on my mind constantly. No, I don’t constantly think about having sex. But when I’m walking to class listening to the latest Cardi B album, or watching Keeping up with the Kardashians and following along with the rest of pop culture, I’m exposing myself to impact of sexualization and all that it implies; I have been doing this as far back as “Secret Life of the American Teenager” and “Degrassi”. It’s evident in everyday interactions and conversations that our culture constantly wants to talk about sex. So let’s talk about it.

I am a victim of the vice that is pop culture. I can draw you an extremely accurate and extensive family tree of the British Monarchy and tell you what was on the cover of People Magazine six months ago. In my current internship with TigerBeat Media, I have been offered a new perspective as a young adult in a new world of emerging media trends.

For a generation whose outlets are Disney Channel, Brat Network, Netflix, and Nickelodeon, taboo topics are generally few and far between. Content posted on TigerBeat is always encouraged to be upbeat and positive, from the anticipated reception of the viewer to the reflection of the artist being portrayed. When I was a kid reading TigerBeat, I was reading about Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, and Selena Gomez. When I took on my internship, I had to take on a whole new generation of tween stars that include Annie LeBlanc, Johnny Orlando, Maddie Ziegler, and so many more. I’ve listened to who will become this generation’s Hannah Montana and watched what will become their “That’s so Raven” and “Lizzie McGuire”. All of these stars are under the age of sixteen, which means they are admired by younger kids and teens alike. The way they behave and portray a positive lifestyle is an example for all of the adolescents consuming their media.

We are often so worried that the media is taking over our lives, and we worry for good reason. Toddlers have iPads. Self-sufficiency is declining. The media is one of the main ways society can hypersexualize kids and expose them to false information. For kids who don’t have parents that sit down and give them a sex talk, they learn from their phones, televisions and computers. And if they are not conventionally learning about sexual wellness, they are certainly not learning about the difference between sex and gender, or other topics that go into a well-rounded sexual education, like consent and masturbation.

Unlike prior generations, current tween media is inclusive like never before. Not only do popular shows such as “Chicken Girls” and “Zoe Valentine” represent the LGBTQ community, but they are also working to normalize these subjects in popular culture. As a member of the tail end of Generation Y, I am seeing for the first time a new generation find a platform for topics that are important to them and utilize it. It is the first time in my life that I’ve realized there are younger people who are smarter than me. At 22 years-old, some of my peers still don’t know the difference between sex and gender. College course are dedicated to teaching us the difference, and that’s only if you take the classes.

Simply, sex is your biological makeup, and gender is what you identify as. Stars like Jazz Jennings and James Charles are redefining gender limitations and  beauty standards, and bringing transgender issues onto social media and reality television platforms. Shows like “Queer Eye” and “Sex Education” are normalizing gender and sexuality topics that are at the forefront of the wider cultural conversation, just as “Glee” started to do a decade ago. Viewers like me who grew up glorifying the Cory Monteith and Lea Michele can probably remember parents who would echo, “Watching boys kiss? Not my high schooler.” It’s incredible to see how far media has come in recent years, and to imagine where it might go next.

If we are going to be consuming multiple hours of media a day, and that number is only increasing as technology and the presence of social media increases, we should at least work towards consuming positive material that encourages acceptance. As an aspiring member of the media industry, I feel a collective and individual responsibility to work towards properly representing sex in the media, and improving the reception of all people on all platforms; if kids are going to be hypersexualized by the media, it’s important that those in the community are proactive about the content. By learning how to talk about it, it will create a media that treats people equally, fairly, and without preconceived bias.