Author, Book review, Duckworth, M.G. Durham, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘The Lolita Effect’ by MG Durham


Non-fiction – paperback; Duckworth; 282 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Full points to the clever people at Duckworth who sent me this book on the basis they’d seen my review of Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism and thought this one would also interest me, because it treads similar territory. 

The Lolita Effect is an eye-opening account of how the mass media and the multinationals have created a huge juggernaut which targets young girls. This juggernaut convinces them they need to portray a certain image — usually blonde and blue-eyed, slim and hyper-sexual — and then sells them the products to achieve that look. This “brainwashing” begins from a very early age (as soon as they can play with dolls that conform to these stereotypical looks or use toys, such as pole-dancing kits, that show them how to behave sexually without realising or understanding the consequences) and continues right into middle-age.

The author argues that this “conspiracy” serves to create consumers for life — women who will buy anti-ageing creams, high-fashion, diet products and so on, all in the pursuit of becoming “beautiful” and “desirable”.

Anyone with any modicum of media savvyness will already know this, or at least be mindful of it. Yet I suspect there may be millions of people out there who haven’t clocked the way the media works to sell products and unattainable images of female beauty.

I work in magazine publishing, albeit far from the glossy end of the market, and I still remember how shocked I was the first time I visited a repro house and was taken on a tour of the “retouching room” where cover images of celebrities and Hollywood A-listers were photoshopped to death. In one example, Jennifer Aniston’s head was put on another person’s body, her breasts were hugely enhanced by the wave of a Photoshop brush, her hair was made blonder, her eyes bluer, her skin smoothed to the point of being impossibly perfect.

The feminist in me was outraged, because although I knew that images got reworked (this was in the late 1990s), I hadn’t realised just how much they were reworked. I suddenly wanted to make it compulsory for every school girl under the age of 12 to visit one of these places to see the truth behind the lies they were being sold.

MG Durham is herself a media practitioner: as well as being a journalist she is a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa, and she’s made a career out of researching the relationship between adolescent girls and the mass media. This book, written in a hugely accessible style, is designed to show parents, teachers and even young girls themselves how the media is sexualising girls at a younger and younger age, the unhealthy effects this creates, and what can be done to address it.

Durham’s theory is that there are five myths the media perpetuates. She argues that once you know these myths and how they are designed to impact on females, then you are in a better position to ignore and/or debunk those myths. Durham is very careful not to call for media censorship, nor does she take the moral highground about girls’ sexuality. This is a sensible, even-handed and hugely realistic approach. Durham never preaches, but she does provide very good, practical advice.

As well as examining each of the myths in turn, Durham also offers hands-on exercises that teachers, social workers and parents can use to discuss these issues with children and teenagers.

My only real problem with The Lolita Effect is that much of the evidence presented is largely anecdotal (and with an American bias), and the research conducted, say for instance on how teenage magazines buy into these so-called myths, is purely based on content analysis. How much more illuminating it would have been for Durham to interview the editors of these publications to ask them to justify their policies and outline their decision-making processes about what to run and what not to run.

Admittedly The Lolita Effect is not a cheery read; it made me downright angry in places, and had me nodding my head in agreement at others. If you have children, whether they be boys or girls, I would strongly urge you to read it. It’s alarming, but it’s also educational, and you might just discover a few tips on preventing your daughters/nieces/female friends from turning into unhappy, unfulfilled, two-dimensional, hypersexualised women.

7 thoughts on “‘The Lolita Effect’ by MG Durham”

  1. You know, I’ve heard of this book before, and in theory it sounds important. But then I look at that cover, which is completely sexualising a young girl, and I just get cranky all over again!
    I remember seeing some before & after of magazine covers a couple years ago, and just like you although I already intellectually knew what was going on, seeing just how many changes were made increased my outrage a hundredfold! My 13-year-old cousin came for a visit this summer, and I tried to explain how much all of those photos were re-designed. But I could still see her comparing herself to them. 😦
    Despite my annoyance over the irony of this cover, it sounds like a book I should read, since I’m working on getting my teacher certification in grades 4-8 (which is ages 9-13 here in the States), so hopefully this will help me help my future students.
    Sorry for the ridiculously rambling comment! This is just one of those issues I find it hard to be brief about. 😉


  2. I am a 62-year-old male with no children, so this book is about as far from my experience as it could be. And I am heartened to see this review because the book — good or bad — is addressing a very, very important issue. Thanks, Kim


  3. I know some of the things that the media does but I expect I would love this book. I’m adding it to my wishlist now as it sounds great. And I agree with Eva, awesome how her cover does the same thing 😛


  4. Not a rambling comment at all, Eva! And I know what you mean about the cover. I can kind of see what they were going for but it hasnt really worked, has it? Could have been far more tasteful or eye-catching without sexualising the very thing the book is so critical of.


  5. Good review. I wonder how this can be combatted. I fear that even when we become aware that the media is manipulating us to sell us a product, we still fall for it. Even grown men, such as myself.


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