Columns, General

Infantilisation and Sexualisation – About to become the same?


The use and abuse of the power of design has been the topic of my bachelor’s research proposal „Sexy Baby – Sexualisation of Girls in Return to Infantilisation of Women” and only scratched at the surface on how the Western/German society with its predominately male perspective of itself dominate this world. here, design is not only an indicator how this is done but also maintains and reproduces this hierarchy. The findings of the research proposal first were conflicting. The exploration revealed how children in the western world are exposed to sexualisation; and even worse, are getting sexualised themselves.


Design, in all is blurred4 glory, is depending on the interaction with the subject. We could focus now on the general discourse of the subject and the object, which would lead directly to the issues of production -yes, french sociologist Jean Baudrillard claimed that subjects don’t exist, they are produced and this leads directly to famous feminist Simone de Beauvoir and her famos phrase “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Baudrillard and later Judith Bulter explain how language and tradition forms us, and not vice versa. According to this, language is a precondition for subjectivity. Postmodernism leaves us with the idea that objects no longer exist. Any thing cannot be experienced without being a symbol, a sign, a container for something: As soon as we are able to read the language of these symbols we are formed by them, according to Baudrillard. That is why design is such an important, mostly underestimated indicator to give insights to society, its power-structures and values. Moreover, design with its potential to articulate critique is a tool to transform these structures and values, if not society itself.


Gender-design-research is dedicated to”(…) the analysis of objects (…) as well as the relation between subject and object unter the the perspective of gender” – Brandes 2007

The area of tension of gender and design as a field of research is a young discipline but it is gaining more and more interest of scientists, design professionals and a broader public. Design can be seen as the tool to give answers to my questions, while at the same time it is design that manifests identities, gendered objects gender subjects; thus give and create a concept of identity.
The category of gender should imply a flexible, multi-layered and diverse concept of identities. Instead of this, gender issues themselves often polarise and question the need for gender studies in general. But gender is a substantial construct for every society and therefore essential for our understanding of sociological, economical and historical structures and last but not least for our concept of self. Gender operates alongside other structural categories such as class, race or age, but these categories are not the focus of this work. Genderdesign studies show how objects – consciously or unconsciously8- are designed with the background of a gendered culture and how they are used as gendering objects within this culture, that means gender – apart from sex as category, (even though this has been questioned) – has to be performed,9 produced and maintained.
An awareness of this ‘genderisation’ can lead to a deliberate and intentional handling by users but of course also help designers. It is the inherent blurriness of design as a discipline, which mediates associative and integrative between other various relevant scientific disciplines. Design research is – just like the research field of Gender and Design – not really established in traditional science, but neverthesless absolutely relevant, since it is flexible enough to analyse a company and its products as objects intelligently. For the design practice this means that, as has been pointed out that scientific studies and their results are open, direct or indirect experience through aesthetic mediation, provocation, subversion and said critique. So there are still socio-cultural norms, stereotypes and power relations that produce sexualization and infantilisation as social phenomena, which I have explained before. It is not that these norms and stereotypes are about to overcome, but are increasingly reproduced and strengthened. Lately, various studies explored the dichotomous view of the world and how it has been manifested in design. You need a product to read to decipher the gender code. It seems as though the basic design principle these days aims at mass producing gender stereotypes, accordingly to be found mainly in polarisations and binarities like pink/blue, soft/hard, round/square and simple/complex.
It is important for a knowing and deliberate handling of design to make the effects of and reasons for the gendering objects clear. Both, users and designers profit from a conscious and gender-sensitive approach towards design. The continuous segregation made by and with designed objects manifests the dichtiomous idea of gender identities. In this mechanism, women and girls are especially affected. The certain vulnerability marks girls and women then as an exploitable being,(Butler 1997) because their identity is constructed in absolute dependence towards the patriarchal power which claims that there are two and only two sexes; every person has either one or the other sex; the gender at birth is fixed; it can be precisely identified on the basis of the genitals and therefore is a naturally, biologically clearly identifiable fact to which we have no control – these are all basic rules of the “everyday theory of the two gender hegemony.” – Hageman-White 1984

In pictures, advertising, habits, fashion and so on. This sexualisation is based on socio-cultural and economical mechanisms and reach out to occupy every part of life. Sexualisation is most obvious in the design of objects; these objects can be interpreted as a symptom for cultural expectations, norms, practices and values and are as well a tool to maintain and strengthen the given power structures. On the other hand, images of adult women and objects designed for women are clearly infantilising. Womanhood – pictured or in objects – is annotated with childlike features and attributes. In the end, these conflicting observations can be explained with Schroer’s theory of the dissolution of the stages of life and a general de-structuring of society. The explanation of the background argues with terms that might appear as common sense but needed to be clarified in this specific context.

Sexualisation, Commerce and Consumption

»Sexualisation: to emphasise someone’s sexuality or to put something in a sexual context«

The relation between sexualisation, commerce and consumption have been the subject of my research and its evaluation left no doubt how intertwined and dependent these phenomenons are to reproduce the existing power structures in society. Sex itself is a natural part of the adult daily life – but here the actual meaning is much more the eroticisation, and we encounter the principle of sexualisation almost always and everywhere: in advertising, art and of course in design – and also in the moral concepts of our society. The permanent, all-embracing (medial and public) presence of sexuality is characteristic for the sexualisation of the entire society according to sociologist Schuhmacher. Sexualisation is to be understood as a strategy to construct and manifest hegemonial systems of gender. Interesting enough, the Bailey Review refers to sexualisation as “the mainstream position of deviant sexual behaviours and lifestyles.” Sexualisation is mostly linked to commercialisation and exploitation of women in psychological and physical ways; in its very core it aims to produce economical benefits (and this is set equal with power) for a patriarchal structured world economic. It is the suggestibility of children which makes them so vulnerable to sexualisation according to the sociologists Levin/Kilbourne. In return, society denies the fact that the sexualized behaviour of children is a product of it’s very own standards. How products affect and reproduce these standards and values will be observed in the exploration. But is pink sexualising per sé? Regarding the findings of my research, the line between childhood and adulthood as well as the line between sexualisation and infantilisation is getting blurry eventually it is about to dissolve completely. The motivation for the pr motion of sexualising and infantilising products, pictures and situations is the same, too: it all happens to maintain the existing power structures that still regard everything female (or better: everything non-male in a hegemonic sense) as inferior and exploitable.


The idea of erotic capital is closely linked to consumerism and how it affects the creation of alleged identities. In the US, shopping is the number two leisure activity after watching television while Japan ranks shopping as number one hobby. (Hermann 2002) Characteristic for commodities is that they have a double nature: they have a material composition and a symbolic function. The effects of this development are ambivalent: while we can pick and chose the accoutrements that best fit our lives and the image we want to project, the ability to fulfill those wishes and goals is still impacted and dictated by our classstatus, our gender, our sexual orientation and our race. What can be consumed depends on the amount of owned/produced currency – be it social, cultural or monetary. And with the freedom to consume also comes the pressure to do so. And this pressure, too, is gendered: adhering to beauty standards, for a woman, often involves footing the bill for expensive make-up, clothes, gym memberships or even plastic surgery. (Stämpfli 2012)


The way a child has been perceived is determined by the understanding of childhood as a natural, biological and global period of human development. However, this hegemonic reading of childhood has recently become the focus of critique by educational and socio-cultural theorists who consider ‘childhood’ to be a social construction that is experienced in multiple ways across different historical periods of time, geographies, cultures and subjectivities.20 Discourses in psychology of child development, to begin with those by Piaget, underpin hegemonic understandings of ‘childhood’. These perspectives perpetuate a view of the ‘universal child’ – a state of nature – in which understandings of what it means to be a child are viewed to be a shared ultimate ‘human’ experience. The notion of childhood innocence is crucial for the established theories of child development, which have also constructed the concept of sexuality itself. In terms of hegemonic discourses of sexuality, physiological sexual maturity is constructed as a distinguishing point between adulthood and childhood. The beginning of the puberty is usually set equal with the ‘start of sexuality’. This means that sexual immaturity is equated with ‘innocence’ – considered inherent in the child. Consequently, sexuality becomes the exclusive realm of adults; a space in which children are constructed as the asexual, naive and innocent ‘other’ and perceived to be vulnerable and in need of protection. Sexuality is narrowly defined by the physical sexual act rather than as an integral part of a person’s identity, which is socially constructed and constantly reviewed and renegotiated by individuals, including children, as sexual agents throughout their lives. This point is also articulated by Louise Jackson, who argues that “the concepts of childhood, youth and adolescence have underpinned the construction of modern sexualities: through their positioning as formative stages in the growth of sexual and self awareness as well as their construction as periods of susceptibility to sexual danger’”. Nowadays, there is a permanent state of alert around children, because of their perceived vulnerability to sexual danger. This has intensified since the emergence in the 1980s, when sexual child abuse was identified as a major social problem. Children today have become the most supervised and monitored of all generations, their lives are increasingly regulated by adults while at the same time they face a paradoxon, which has never there before in that extend:

Double Standards in Sexuality and Childhood

All these moral reservations towards sexuality and childhood only focus sexual knowledge in children’s education. The greatest contradiction is the moral outcry in terms of sexual knowledge and education for children and the permanent projection of heteronormative stereotypes – imposing gender – on infants and children in the most obvious and most inevitable ways. When parents do everything to protect their children from any kind of knowledge about sexuality and sexual diversity, these parents at the same time are the ones who follow the pink/blue principle to the maximum extend. Children are trained to become objects of sexual projection and desire while at the same time parents do everything to prevent children to access, to explore and to develop their own awareness if not an independent sexuality and gender concept.