Willow Smith’s Whiplash: What Does It Mean To Be a 12-Year-Old Girl?

According to her father, Willow Smith backed out of the upcoming remake of the movie Annie, to be produced by Jay-Z, so that she could “just be 12.” Now, the way she is going about being 12 is raising some eyebrows.

Willow recently released the music video for her new single, ‘Summer Fling’. In it, she muses about post-sunset walks on the beach, love and the promises of one night together. She also happens to wear a midriff exposing t-shirt and bikini bottoms or short-shorts. Perhaps most perplexing, she provides voice overs in a British accent.

The public reaction has included a fair amount of brouhaha. On Twitter and YouTube alike, commenters take offense at Willow’s outfits, her chronicled love affair with an older-looking boyfriend and her adoption of the Queen’s English. There is outrage at her tongue piercing, claims of visible nipples-through-shirt and a general discussion of her puberty. Cries of “hyper-sexualization” abound.

On the one hand, it is creepy/icky/bizarre that audiences are so willing to take an image of a girl jumping into a pool, hugging someone, or wearing warm-weather clothes and transpose mature innuendo onto a potentially innocent scenario. For the avoidance of doubt, 12-year-olds, even 12-year-old girls, like to swim with members of the opposite sex, sometimes even come into direct physical contact with them, and are known to suffer the effects of temperature that would make a tank top an appealing wardrobe choice. What is happening to the viewing demographic that the exposed arms and legs of a pre-teen are enough to resonate as provocative – sexually or otherwise? That social media sites instantly abounded with debates over Willow’s propriety goes a long way towards condemning the audience as the hyper-sexualizing party to this entertainment.

On the other hand, it is fair to consider the words Willow whisper-sings as mature beyond her middle school years. For goodness’ sake, how many eighth graders are running around having summer flings? As she urges her love interest to “love harder,” and as she indulges in a romance under the stars, many might wonder what she even knows about romantic love and what time her curfew is. What’s more, the video depicts her in seemingly non-tween situations: snuggling by a pond with the aforementioned boy, who certainly looks old enough to have his driver’s license, and enjoying a nighttime bonfire at the beach with friends who look old enough to legally buy alcohol. Part of that might be described as hyper-sexualization; part of it might be more simply described as surprisingly grown up.

Even if Willow is dancing her part in this “too much, too fast” tango, her accelerated advancement, shall we say, is not really her “fault.” More than five years ago, the American Psychological Association issued a report on the early sexualization of girls, noting that:

You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand the truth behind this message. Victoria’s Secret has a lingerie line targeting teens. Eighty percent of 10-year-old girls in the US have dieted. I can’t take my 5-year-old daughter shopping at Target unless I want her decked out in sequins and navel-grazing tops. Viewed in this light, it is difficult to describe “Summer Fling” as uniquely controversial. On a micro level, this is very much a cautionary tale against shooting the proverbial messenger.

Maybe Willow and her “Summer Fling” are evidence to you of the unwillingness of a degenerate public to just let kids be kids. Maybe they demonstrate to you the corrupting influences of the marketplace’s commodification of young girls and their sexuality. Maybe they just confirm that Hollywood is a crazy place to grow up.

Almost regardless of your take on those scant four minutes of a fairly average music video, there is no denying that the path from girl to woman is fraught. No one can agree on how best to navigate it, certainly not the girls who are in the process of doing it. Willow wants to “just be 12,” but what does that even mean? You can argue about whether she is hyper-sexualized, but you will have a harder time disputing that hers is an age-irrelevant dilemma: how to embrace an age but also, somehow, decide what the number means to you, and about you, for yourself.

Then go make it all infinitely more complicated by throwing sex into the mix.

Featured image via entertainmentwise.com.

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