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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, May 09, 2010

More on Deveny and Irwin

One of my (female) Facebook friends made two points in commenting over on Facebook. 1. In her opinion, Bindi Irwin's outfit at the Logies was not all that sexual or necessarily inapppropriate for an 11-y.o. girl. 2. In her opinion, Deveny meant something more like (this is my paraphrase, not her wording), "Bindi Irwin looks so uptight. She oughtta go and get laid."

There are a few points to be made here. First, I can't find a photo of Bindi Irwin at the 2010 Logie Awards, so I can't provide a link to enable you to judge for yourselves. But I do think point 1. is plausible. What is hyper-sexualisation of children in Deveny's eyes might be harmless dress-ups in someone else's eyes. I actually do think there's too much moral panic on the Left about this issue of sexualisation of children. A lot of what gets damned by Lefty thinkers like Clive Hamilton strikes me as fairly harmless (though sometimes absurd, as when little girls are given padded bras). I also think that some of it is probably not so harmless. These are matters of judgment, and we could have an interesting discussion about any particular case.

But whichever side of the line Bindi Irwin's outfit falls on, and whether or not Deveny is jumping at shadows in this case, I see Deveny as belonging to the movement on the Left that is currently very jumpy about this issue of sexualisation. So that provides me with a context to read her in a certain way.

It's not a conclusive point, but it's a point.

Second, if Deveny had actually meant what my friend suggests, I think there would have been more natural and sufficiently pithy ways to express it, such as, "Bindi Irwin needs to get laid."

Third, if Deveny actually meant what my friend suggests, that would, indeed, be an outrageous thing to say about a pre-pubesecent child. Even I, one of the most sexually libertarian people you'll find, would be outraged.

Now, Deveny does say many outrageous things. Her other comment that got her into trouble was certainly outrageous, however interpreted, so she's not inhibited. But her more usual schtick is to say things that would outrage Christians, especially Catholics, as with her frequent claims to masturbate using a crucifix (again, claims which I assume are to be given a non-literal meaning such as: "I am contemptuous of the Catholic Church and its anti-sex ideology"). It would be out of character for her to make a comment so guaranteed to outrage people who share her social and political positions. So, knowing Deveny's modus operandi, I find the interpretation offered by my friend implausible. Possible, but implausible.

Fourth, for all that ... maybe my friend is right and I am wrong. I don't claim infallibility, I welcome intelligent discussion of the issue, and she has provided it.

Moreover, fifth, if she's right, then the outcry against Deveny is more justified. I feel slightly icky even spelling out the proposed interpretation. Being the person to say such a thing in the first place is a bit hard for me to comprehend.

But sixth, not only do I think what I think, for the reasons in this post and the previous one. I am also quite confident about what I think. Open to argument, but confident.


Friend of Icelos said...

I found a picture on ABC.

Chris Lawson said...

Russell, although Google Images is not much help, Google Videos did the trick:


You can see her lower legs and her face and neck. I guess some people will find it hypersexualised: the sort of people who like burqas.

Chris Lawson said...

Ah, Friend of Icelos beat me by a few seconds.

Svlad Cjelli said...

Eh? What's the difference between "getting laid" and "getting laid", exactly? I really don't see the distinction this post addresses.
Or is the different interpretation simply that it was not intended as a joke, which I find excessively hard to believe?

Russell Blackford said...

@Svlad, see the previous post where I spell out my interpretation of what Deveny was getting at. In a nutshell, I read the notorious tweet as containing an element of biting irony. It's not to be taken literally but meaning almost the opposite - a complaint about the girl's sexualised presentation.

Anonymous said...

"I actually do think there's too much moral panic on the Left about this issue of sexualisation of children."

Russell - only on the Left? I don't find the conservatives more relaxed on the issue... (True, they are "upset" by so many other things about sexuality and society that this one may seem not to register with them. But still.)

@ Friend of Icelos, Chris Lawson: Well, the outfit Bindi Irwin wore at the Logies awards was a child-size version of a woman's evening dress. Low-cut (but apparently padded) top, skirt displaying a little bit of thigh, nothing out of the ordinary. And no extravagant make-up.

So: this child actress was not hypersexualised at this awards ceremony, and one could say it was a poor choice on the part of Devenny if she wanted to comment on the issue of the sexualisation of children in showbiz. However, one doesn't have to be an advocate of burqas to feel that this was an instance of a girl dressed up as a woman (however tastefully) at a showbiz gala, and that part of the outrage about Devenny's joke is that it was just that bit too close for comfort.

Ophelia Benson said...

What is hyper-sexualisation of children in Deveny's eyes might be harmless dress-ups in someone else's eyes. I actually do think there's too much moral panic on the Left about this issue of sexualisation of children.

Hyper-sexualisation of children? Is that really the issue? Is anyone worried about the hyper-sexualisation of little boys? Are little boys hyper-sexualized? Not that I know of. They are no doubt subject to pressure to man up, to be non-girly, but that's not the same thing. You could call it hyper-genderized, perhaps. But it's not the same thing as hyper-sexualisation, and in fact it's the opposite, and that should be a hint as to why there are worries, or "moral panic" and being "very jumpy," on the Left, or to be more precise, among feminists, about little girls being subject to hyper-sexualisation. It's because they are being trained very early to pay a lot of attention to being sexy and seductive and otherwise pleasing to men, while little boys are emphatically not being trained the same way. This is about power and equality and asymmetry. It's not about puritanism or hatred of sex, and the hyper-sexualisation of little girls is not "sex-positive" or anti-puritanical.

Seductiveness is a tool or weapon or talent for the powerless. Boys aren't trained to be seductive. That's not just some random arbitrary fact, it's a very telling fact. This matters, and it shouldn't be obscured or shoved under the carpet.

J. J. Ramsey said...

One problem that I see with Deveny's comment is that it's hard to know what she means by it. That she isn't seriously suggesting that Irwin "get laid" is obvious enough, but the rest isn't clear. If she's commenting on the hypersexualization of young girls, she picked a lousy example. Maybe she was trying to be shocking. Maybe she was trying to be borderline nonsensical. It's arguably a sign of bad judgment on her part that we can hardly tell what her point even is.

Anonymous said...

To me, she looks like an eleven year old girl in a party dress, complete with matching purse. What would be more appropriate, khakis?

The implication that she's dressed up to look like an older sex object is some kind of sickness that's purely in the mind of the beholder. I don't know or care what Deveny meant or was thinking. Her motive for her outrageous behavior isn't even worthy of speculation.

(Sorry about the crosspost. I accidentally posted this comment in the previous topic.)

leroy said...

I think Deveny was referring to the way Bindi Irwin is presented on an ongoing basis, with particular reference to her appearance on the night.
How does the Deveny issue compare with Miranda Devine's little twitter contretemps which reportedly took place on the weekend?

Russell Blackford said...

I notice, apropos of Ophelia's point, that the issue is most commonly labeled as "sexualisation (or sexualization) of children" not as "sexualisation/sexualization of girls". A google search shows that the "children" versions of the different spellings dominate the "girls" versions by a ratio almost 2:1. So, I'm using the more common terminology.

That's not to say it's the best terminology. I'm certainly open to discussion about that. The more common terminology may obscure what's at stake, as I take it Ophelia is suggesting. On the other hand, it tends to emphasise that this is a child-welfare issue. That may be politically advantageous.

Anonymous said...

I often see the defense of inappropriateness these days, and then claiming that those who do find offense at some inappropriateness as the rantings of Christians, as if categorizing such complaints then dismisses the complaint.

If Deveny was so anti religious then why not say masturbate with the Koran? In fact Russell and others may I suggest when complaining vehemently about religions why not openly attack the Koran? Just needed to add this for those claiming some kind of reasoned high ground in debating.

Bindy Irwin looked like a little girl going to a party - So Deveny, no matter how you colour the justifications was out of line when commenting on a child. If someone had said this about my daughter (who is 14)I would not be pleased at all... nor would any parent.

Russell, the high ground is a long way from what actually happens on the ground. The intellectual interpretation a long way from the truth of matters and a long way from any kind of reason for existence.

I can't take a high ground and look down in an kind of ponderance, Russell because I have been a drug addict, alcoholic, homeless, unemployed, institutionalized, locked up, beaten, starved, mean, violent and lost.

My high ground is pretty much ground level these days and I believe what Deveny said was justifiably well treated with. You cannot victimize children for you own entertainment. We have a world where that has been allowed to go on. The comment say pedophiles are right to have sex with little girls because they deserve it... that is what she is suggesting, intentionally or unintentionally.

I am sorry I cannot push back in my chair and apply philosophy 101 to the world here and come out with emotionless and pure logic based commentary -- I am sorry mate the world doesn't actually work like that.

Chris Lawson said...

Apropros the previous comment, I don't know why you'd think Russell was defending Deveny. The original post looked at two possible interpretations of Deveny's comment and criticised Deveny under both interpretations.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, I was mainly saying that we have to have a sense of tone to get the meaning of something - at least in a large class of cases, including important ones. It's true that my primary goal wasn't to defend Deveny, which others are doing. It was to provide an example to supplement my very abstract initial post on tone.

Hopefully much of what has happened since shows that it's possible to have intelligent and important discussions that involve judgments about tone. I.e., we're doing exactly that ... at least to some extent.

But, Chris, it's also true that I was, secondarily, kind of defending her. Regardless of what you think about the sexualisation issue in general, and regardless whether Bindi-Irwin-at-the-Logies was a good example of it, what Deveny said is much more socially acceptable if it meant what I confidently claim it meant, rather than what the shock jocks seem to think it meant (insofar as that's even clear).

Even if she was wrong, for one reason or another, which I've been more or less neutral about, that's okay. People are allowed to be wrong. Being wrong isn't, in itself, a sacking offence.

Colorado Commenter said...

Second time commenter here. Sorry I was "Anonymous" the first time, Russell. I didn't realize I should have used a pseudonym to avoid confusion.

This was posted by me:
To me, she looks like an eleven year old girl in a party dress, complete with matching purse. What would be more appropriate, khakis?

The implication that she's dressed up to look like an older sex object is some kind of sickness that's purely in the mind of the beholder. I don't know or care what Deveny meant or was thinking. Her motive for her outrageous behavior isn't even worthy of speculation.

I was attempting to use tone as well as content to communicate my rational and emotional responses to Deveny's tweet and your analysis, which is more nuanced then the tweet deserves. It doesn't matter if your Facebook friend is right.

Deveny's tweet sexualized and exploited a child, regardless of your interpretation or Deveny's intent. That's why it's outrageous.

Neil said...

My first reaction the Bindi Irwin comment was that it was funny, though it's hard to say exactly why. I don't think of Bindi Irwin in any way as a sexualised child. I don't think anyone does. This is what I think: What Bindi Irwin is, is a showbiz child being taught to act and speak like a celebrity and pushed into the limelight by a parent. As such, her appearing at the logies can perhaps be seen more as the excessive 'adultisation' of a child. And maybe the idea she'd get laid after the logies, like any other two-bit celebrity after a party, is funny because it shows up the inappropriateness of her position in an essentially adult setting.

Now the reaction to Deveny's comment, that is largely driven by the fear of the sexualisation of children.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"Being wrong isn't, in itself, a sacking offence."

That depends on what one is wrong about.