The “sexy baby” phenomenon
I noticed a few months ago while watching my favorite television shows (generally, comedy shows) that there has been a bit of a theme: women acting like helpless babies, and being sexualized for it. These shows have distilled a cultural phenomenon which has fascinated me ever since I learned the word infantilization. In our society, not only are the physical traits of a very young woman considered desirable, but the helplessness, naivete, and general innocence are somehow alluring. The clips from these shows are not just making funny observations–they are actually getting into interesting issues about gender.
Watch the videos after the cut for some recent examples.
This is something I’ve dubbed the “sexy baby phenomenon”, and it is behavior I’ve observed time and time again in the real world. Of course it’s hyperbolized for television. But I have heard a woman turn on her high-pitched voice, squeeze her knees together, and act a little clueless to be flirtatious and cute. It happens unconsciously, around people she likes. It happens all the time. And yet I’ve also met women who do it all the time, as if it’s a nervous tic they can’t get rid of. I have mixed feelings about this kind of behavior, feelings which seem to be nicely encapsulated in these episodes.
One thing you can glean from watching the bits is how differently the men and women are supposed to view the “sexy baby.” In the How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock episodes (“Baby Talk” and “TGS Hates Women”) this division along gender lines is firmly established: one woman, generally depicted as strong-willed, dislikes how the infantilized woman is acting. She takes it somewhat personally and is frustrated by how her entire gender seems to suffer because of one woman’s behavior. (Or at the very least, that woman feels like her own femininity and/or dignity is being diminished.)
I have definitely acted like this in the face of baby-like behavior — judgmental, dismissive, and ultimately confused about whether it was okay to put other women down in the name of fighting gender stereotypes.
The end of the 30 Rock episode reveals that the woman was putting on her “sexy baby” act to disguise herself from her abusive ex-boyfriend. Liz Lemon feels guilty for revealing to everyone that in reality, the woman used to be the opposite of a defenseless infant with feminine wiles — she was a stand-up comic. (Hah.)
What is our role as girls and women who see ourselves as freethinkers, but who also respect one another’s space? Do we judge others who may be working out how they want to represent themselves as women? I certainly don’t know how to answer the question. I have friends who are strong, intelligent, independent women — who sometimes get a baby voice when they’re very excited, or act helpless when they just need a little bit of guidance.
I also have friends who dress in men’s clothing and play video games and feel trapped when they are too proud to ask for help. I have explicitly denied help when I’ve sorely needed it, in a macho attempt to look competent and put-together. We all seem to have different ways of relating to our assigned gender, and different ways of expressing it. It seems like we’re all trying to figure out what works best on us.
And now to address the men in these clips: they usually just fall for the helpless behavior, and are depicted as dopey guys who can’t get enough. And, it’s suggested in the HIMYM episode, this is perhaps because it makes them feel capable and masculine by comparison. (The episode also makes the obvious point that being helpless and acting very young is not considered an attractive trait in men. I don’t know what to say about this here, except to acknowledge that it’s generally true. Addressing the gender boundaries of masculinity are not really within the scope of this post.)
The one exception is in the Community episode (“Regional Holiday Music”), where the man reacts differently to the silly baby Christmas song. He declares that whatever could have been sexy rapidly disappeared with her ridiculous behavior. I mean, “Mistletoe for eating taste good?” That kind of raw stupidity isn’t sexy to anyone. I think all of the readers of this blog, of any gender, can appreciate that. (I have to note that in this context, however, it is hilarious.)
Lastly, I’ll note that, in the end, being sexy should never be as important as being smart, well-informed, and overall acting like a good human being. But we do get some mixed messages from the media about what is important.
What do you think about the sexy baby phenomenon?