Hot Docs 2012 Interview: Winnifred Bonjean-Alpart of SEXY BABY
Indeed, the social and psychological effects of sexualizing girls and adolescents via media messages and targeted consumer marketing has long been a topic of conversation among feminists, parental groups, and media literacy advocates/academics. Thanks to this film, though, and Bonjean-Alpart's highly candid and articulate role in it, there's now a profoundly human face to supplement all the speculation and hand-wringing by adults over the influence of today's social media, pornography, and highly gendered/sexualized advertising. This is why I was happy to learn she could take some time out of her busy press schedule to chat briefly about Sexy Baby.
ScreenAnarchy: You're a creative person yourself, and a socially aware one as well -- so what's your take on the audience for Sexy Baby? For example, is there a risk of it being so perfect for teens, and especially girls, to see... and yet its graphic content making it off-limits for many such viewers?
Winnifred Bonjean-Alpart: I actually don't think it's too graphic for girls or boys my age to see. Kids my age are exposed to graphic sexual images all the time, and it's just ignorant to think that the content is inappropriate. At least this sexual content has a greater purpose. I think it's important for boys to see the film because porn is primarily marketed to boys, and porn dehumanizes women in a way that affects how boys treat girls. If boys can see the real people behind the computer screen, like Nichole [aka "Nakita Kash"], I think it will humanize these women and have a positive effect on their relationships with real girls their age.
I also think it's important for boys to see how their attitudes about sex (which come mostly from watching porn) impact girls and women like Laura in the film. Boys need to take some responsibility for why Laura chooses to do what she does [undergo labiaplasty]. But I think it's equally important for adults to see this film because it sheds light on what kids my age have access to, what we are exposed to, and how it changes our views about sex and relationships.
So how has your own awareness of the film's other two subjects changed your perspective on your own experiences? Or how might that juxtaposition affect how audiences see any of the individual stories?
WB-A: Nichole was the more influential character in my opinion. Like normal kids, I'm sure I had a skewed view about women who are in the porn industry, and through watching her and listening to her speak about her experiences and views, I learned that even women in the adult entertainment industry can be articulate and thoughtful and are concerned about the impact our porn-culture has on kids.
I absolutely think the fact that Nichole and Laura's stories are being told simultaneously with my story impacts how the audience sees the film. I think Nichole and Laura's stories and their words highlight in a real and powerful way what girls my age are being exposed to and the pressure we are under. I also think that the audience becomes more invested in seeing me turn out okay because of Nicole and Laura's stories.
Mass media has a tendency to reduce people to "types" according to the groups they belong to, and teens are often portrayed as flawless, almost Romantic heroes, or else completely shallow or deeply disturbed (or both of these negatives). So what's your reaction if I say that one reason your presence in the film is so great is that it makes things real and dimensional?
WB-A: I think all three voices in the film are not frequently heard in mass media. So the fact that they are featured in a documentary definitely brings realness and dimension to these people. When do you hear a porn star reflecting on her experience as a porn star at the stage in her life when she is starting to raise a family? Teens my age are much more thoughtful about these issues than is recognized in mass media. I think adults are intimidated by teenagers, and rather than face the reality of these issues they think we have to figure it out on our own. But that's because they don't know how to deal with the new elements of adolescence. Most adults are uncomfortable engaging us in conversation.
Finally, do media messages harm us directly or does it depend on the kind of filters we're using, our ages, and so on? That's a leading question, I know, but I'm wondering what your thoughts are regarding the "we must protect kids and teens from 'the media'" versus the "no, don't protect them -- teach them media literacy instead" camps.
WB-A: It is impossible to protect kids from the media. The messages contained in the media are everywhere, television, magazines, commercials, billboards, the internet. The only thing that can be done is to educate kids and teach them to critically analyze what they are seeing and to teach them to filter the media themselves. Kids are not alone in feeling the negative effect of the media. Media impacts everyone. So kids need to learn how to regulate what they are exposed to and how to critique what they see. Parents can't just let kids to figure it out for themselves and then expect them to have the tools to resist the negative impact of the media, like poor body image or overly sexual conduct. I think parents need to have an ongoing conversation with kids about what they are being exposed to, even if it makes parents uncomfortable, because even though we act like we don't want to hear it, we are listening and taking it to heart.
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Sexy Baby screens tonight at 7:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1