America the Beautiful 3: Oversexualization of Our Youth – Interview with Director Darryl Roberts
The third installment of the documentary series America the Beautiful sharply questions the highly sexualized media we consume and how deeply it affects our youth. Award-winning director Darryl Roberts teams up with industry experts to delve into the problematic reality behind child beauty pageants, teen pregnancy, the porn industry and rape culture. This documentary takes a look at the harrowing consequences of sexualizing our youth, while also highlighting the positive strides made by those determined to bring it all to an end.
America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth is not an exposé. It should not be news to anyone that there is rampant objectification of girls and women in the media and everyday life. Since the hey-days of Marilyn Monroe, it has been common discourse that America’s youth has increasingly more access to sexualized imagery than ever before. It is also quite obvious that they’re becoming more sexually active far earlier than previous generations.
What is not so obvious, is why? In a DIY style documentary, Roberts invites us to explore beneath the glossy, doctored perfection of images presented in pop culture, and question our cultural landscape. He poses questions such as, “Who is at fault for perpetuating these harmful standards? Is it corporate greed in advertising? Is it pop culture? Could parents be to blame?”
Roberts is aided in his exploration by a few, focused case studies. He goes behind the scenes of a Georgia pageant competition for preteen girls and speaks with former models and beauty queens to identify the role that competitive events have on instilling inappropriate focus on body image and celebrity. Though he refrains from a Toddler and Tiara style lampooning, Roberts draws attention to the pushy mothers who cajole their daughters into “glitz” outfits, pounds of makeup, and hair extensions, all so they can be compared to other little girls in the same, sad situation.
In a quick transition, Roberts then touches on the premise that media’s propensity for racy messages and sexualization of children has led to unwanted teen pregnancies, among other things. He interviews a handful of teen mothers in attendance at Chicago’s Charles H. Houston Alternative Charter High School. Though none of these young mothers anticipated on having children so young, as one teen mom put quite eloquently, some teens are simply yearning for the love they’ve been deprived of at home.
The film also posits much blame for skewing attitude’s about women’s appearance and normative sexual behavior on the porn industry. The ubiquity and accessibility of porn is as harmful to men as it is women. Besides the violence and general awfulness of pornographic production, the overstimulation that derives from excessive or even casual consumption of such content poses a danger to the individual, and can cripple one’s relationships and pervert their sense of reality.
A substantial portion of the film is also spent on the stories of two young women in particular. The first is of Cali Linstrom, one of Roberts’ interns, who he discovers is recovering from an eating disorder. The disorder doesn’t get the best of Cali, however, who is not only supported by an understanding family, but is determined that she can start to change industry standards. From there, Roberts supportingly follows Cali’s campaign to persuade clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fith to adopt a less sexually aggressive advertising stance and sponser her on a nationwide anti-bullying tour.
Cali’s story is starkly juxtaposed with that of Sydney Spies. The aspiring model Spies, who hales from the Denver, Colorado area received nationwide attention when her yearbook photo was rejected by her high school editoral board. Spurred on by a fame-hungry mother, Spies got the idea that she could make it big in LA if she pursued an acting career. When acting failed, she tried modeling. When modeling wasn’t working, she (with her mother’s help) tried Playboy. No word on whether she ever made the centerfold, though.
The film hits home the notion that women grow up believing that they only have two choices: to be desirable or invisible. Though it is not the most sophisticated critique on the subject matter, the documentary looks beyond the superficial into the psyches of our youth and those that perpetrate the epidemic of over-sexualization.
Fortunately, I was granted the opportunity to interview Darryl Roberts and ask him a few questions about the creative and business decisions behind his film.
What was your point of inspiration to create this particular installment in the ATB series?
“A few years ago, I read a report released by the American Psychological Association called The Sexualization of Girls. They made a case that the onslaught of sexualized images in media and pop culture has created a mental health crisis, evidenced by the increased levels of depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders in young girls. Three weeks later, I heard about a flyer that was being circulated at Miami University in Ohio about “10 Ways to Get Away with Rape.”
Both these events shocked Roberts, and considering his knack for documentary producition, he felt compelled to explore these issues more deeply via film.
What from the first and second installment became incorporated into ATB3?
“I did not intend on touching upon eating disorders in this film. I had covered that whole thing in the first two films. My intern Cali Linstrom played a part in this project, but I did not plan featuring her as much as I did. Not until I learned that she had been suffering from an eating disorder.”
Though unexpected, Cali’s story very well illustrates the unforseen consequences of the oversexualization of youth. A young girl may not notice that by taking in all that pop culture has to offer, she is also absorbing the notion that media mandates a thinner, more youthful, and sexier version of herself.
The first two films were mostly self-distributed via film festivals, movie theaters, universities and social organizations. You’ve also utilized DVD, VOD, and cable, as well as social media. Due to those films’ success, has the distribution process been taken out of your hands?
“After completing the first one, I got over a million people to see that film. From there, I was able to self-finance and distribute the second. Self-distribution has always been a choice. [Part of that is because] ninety-five percent of documentaries that are released in Hollywood studios don’t do well. Every executive I talked to at a studio candidly told me that if they released it through their label, the film would not get nearly as much play. I have the know-how, and a Hollywood distributor wouldn’t know where to find the right audience.”
Roberts elaborated to say that if a studio/distributor does decide to slate small-budget documentaries, they only want the films that do well at Sundance or Toronto. The hope is that film reviews after these festivals will bring out the art house crowd to see the movie. Thus, the studios don’t have to push as hard with advertising and marketing. If that festival-prestige is not a part of the film, then the studio has the burden of finding an audience. Unlike Roberts, studios are not usually willing to put in the effort to find hundreds of organizations to support the film and do the grassroots marketing.
There are many different narratives and reasons describing or attempting to explain the epidemic of oversexualization. At points, the stories and case studies don’t seem to overlap. Is there an underlying message in this method?
“People might not get this at first, but the main message of the film is Cali’s story. At first, she epitomizes how pop culture presents young people and teens. Then, she’s able to recover and do something great [i.e., successfully protest Abercrombie & Fitch’s bullying ad campaign]. But when you really look at how she was able to pull [the protest] off, there’s no way in the world she’d be able to do that without help [of both Darryl and her parents]. The real message is if parents stand up and help their children, they would be able to thrive and be great. Parents should try to be friends with their kids and support them. I want this film to bond parents and their children.”
Roberts’ point becomes clearer when you compare Cali’s and Sydney Spies’ stories side by side. Where Cali has a team of supporters leading her in the right direction, Sydney’s desperation for success in mediocre modeling is only further excacerbated by her loving, yet fame-crazed mother.
In response to this overwhelming issue, would you suggest any societal regulations or lobby for certain laws?
“The reality is we’re fueld by capitalism. That’s why I’m pushing the bond between parents and children. Parents [should] help educate their children so they’re not just left out on their own. [After all,] the nature of a child is to search, and when they search, they’ll surely find something. A strong family structure could serve as a space for combating at least some of what’s happening.”
 Director – Writer –Producer Darryl Roberts has made cinematic social statements before. He won his first award for the film How U Like Me Now, which explores relationships in the 1990s. Then in 2007, the first installment of the America the Beautiful trilogy made waves by presenting America’s morbid fascination with youth and beauty. He followed that film up with his 2011 sequel, America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments, in which he continued exploring America’s lethal obsession with diets and beauty.