While putting together a PowerPoint for a presentation I recently did at a Conference for Girls and Young Women, I visited Google to search for some images of girls with their friends to help illustrate my points about friendship, bullying, and body image. Imagine my surprise when doing an image search for “girls” on Google showed me pornographic images of women. I was expecting to find gals and their pals at a playground, or hugging and laughing, not pouty lips, cleavage, and thongs.
So, here I sit at Starbucks wanting to tell y’all how ridiculous and scary these images are, but I’m too embarrassed about what the woman sitting behind me might think if I pull up the search results for reference. “OMG! She’s looking at porn!” Essentially she’d be right, because these images definitely border on pornography.
How did I go from innocently looking for pictures to inspire girls to be good friends and not bully each other to scrolling through naked pictures of females with my jaw dropped? Thanks, Internet.
After getting over the initial shock, I tried to figure out how this happened and what it all means. I did some initial research into how Google finds, orders, and presents images.
One article that tried to translate the process in layman’s terms said, “A web crawling program travels through the web and aggregates images and text that appears on the same pages as those images.”
Basically, to me (a layman), this means the word “girls” was on the websites where these pictures were posted. I think this means the word “girls” is mostly associated online with pornographic pictures.
Using the word “girls” to refer to women is meant to infantilize or objectify them. This sends the message that women are easily controlled and manipulated.
Our culture uses the word “girl” to demean non-girls (example: “You throw like a girl.”), suggesting that girls are not valuable, making it more acceptable to commit violence against them, or whomever is referred to as a “girl”.
Since the images in the search results show women as sexual objects, the message here becomes that women are available for your sexual pleasure, and if necessary, violence is an acceptable way to obtain that pleasure. This is scary, especially given the high rate of sexual assault of girls and women.
If you Google “women” the images you find are much different. Sure, there are a few images of women in sexy poses, but for the most part, you find headshots of strong, confident women, and even Rosie the Riveter telling you that “We Can Do It!” This seems more than a little backwards.
So what can we do to change the search results for “girls”? Is it possible to outnumber the porn sites with our own content showing positive and empowering images of actual adolescent girls? I think it’d be worth a try so future generations won’t get the same old patriarchal message that women and girls are only valued as sexual objects.
Gretchen Edwards-Bodmer is a curvy grrrl from Virginia with a Master’s degree in Humanities and Women’s Studies. You can find her musings about raising two boys in this crazy world at www.grrrlwithboys.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter @GrrrlWithBoys.