Hey, little girl, is your daddy home?
Did he go away and leave you all alone?
I got a bad desire
(Bruce Springsteen, “I’m on Fire”)
And it’s no surprise, little girls hurt sometimes
(Icehouse, “Hey, Little Girl”)
Beautiful has been commonly read as an exploration of the darkness that lurks beneath pristine images of middle-class suburbia. I argue, though, that it is more intellectually and politically useful to situate this film within the context of recent Australian anxieties about the so-called “sexualisation of youth”. I argue that Beautiful is significant because it endorses arguments against this “sexualisation” and also parodies the stereotype of youthful innocence that lies at the heart of these arguments. In doing this, the film provides a multi-valenced perspective on young people, sexuality and representation.
What is the “Sexualisation of Youth”?
The term “sexualisation of youth” is most often used to describe and condemn a proliferation of cultural representations which depict children and adolescents mimicking “stereotypical forms of adult sexuality” (Rush and La Nauze, 1). This term also refers to the exposure of young people to sexually explicit material, for example, on the television and internet. The term “sexualisation of youth” gained currency following the 2006 release of the Corporate Paedophilia report written by Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze at the Australian Institute. This report interrogates the ways in which depictions of children in age-inappropriate sexual scenarios have been used in advertising campaigns.
In 2008, arguments that young people were being unnecessarily “sexualised” received particularly extensive media coverage. In May that year, police raided a Sydney exhibition held by photographer Bill Henson. At issue were a number of photographs which depicted scantily-clad, pre-pubescent models (Grealy). In June 2008, the Australian Senate released a report entitled Sexualisation of children in the contemporary media. This report provided several recommendations on “preventing the premature sexualisation of children” in the media (v). In the years following 2008, condemnations of the “sexualisation of youth” have continued to appear in protests against media and popular culture imagery featuring suggestively-posed and/or barely-dressed young men and women.
Anxieties around young people and sexuality are not new (Angelides; Egan and Hawkes; Higonnet). In Australia during recent years, they have been stirred up by critics such as the Corporate Paedophilia authors, as well as feminist commentator Melinda Tankard-Reist, ethicist Clive Hamilton and activist groups Collective Shout and Kids Free 2 B Kids. According to these critics, the “sexualisation of youth” is helping to distort young girls’ perceptions of their bodies and their relationship with boys. That is, young girls are being taught that being slender and sexually available is the norm. Young men, meanwhile, are apparently being taught (as were generations of men before them) that it is okay to sexually objectify women and girls (see Rush and La Nauze; Tankard-Reist).
Underpinning arguments against the “sexualisation of youth” is an assumption of innocence lost. According to art historian Anne Higonnet, the correlation of “youth” (and particularly childhood) with “innocence” dates back to “somewhere around the seventeenth century” (8). In the centuries that followed:
Visual fictions played a special role in consolidating the modern definition of childhood, a role which became increasingly important over time. To a great extent, childhood innocence was considered an attribute of the child’s body, both because the child’s body was supposed to be naturally innocent of adult sexuality, and because the child’s mind was supposed to begin blank. (8)
In recent times, the work of anti-“sexualisation” activists further perpetuates this correlation between “youth” and “innocence”. I will return to this point later in the article.
Arguments against the so-called “sexualisation of youth” are important because of the questions they raise about youth, sex and gender in the early twenty-first century. These questions include, to what extent does the proliferation of sexually-explicit popular culture imagery influence the ways in which “young people” (particularly children and adolescents) perceive sex? Does this imagery in fact teach young people to adopt antiquated and restrictive gender roles? Why is the idea of the sexually-active or even sexually-aware young person still the source of considerable cultural anxiety?
Beautiful might seem to be an unusual choice of film to discuss in relation to the so-called “sexualisation of youth”. The director, Dean O’Flaherty, has been quoted as saying that he fashioned the movie as a treatise on Australian suburbia “post 9-11”:
I saw posters at the bus stop urging people to tell on their neighbours to the government if they were doing anything suspicious … All of the characters (in Beautiful) have a necessity for voyeurism – this comes out of fear of what those around them are, or could be, doing. (cited in Anonymous)
O’Flaherty also cites as inspirational Hollywood films such as Blue Velvet (USA 1986), The Virgin Suicides (USA 1999) and Disturbia (USA 2007). These films depict the violence and trauma that lie behind images of respectable, middle-class and (predominantly) Anglo-Saxon suburban life. Critics have compared Beautiful with these American films (Hall).
Beautiful does indeed interrogate a bleak side of middle-class Australian suburbia. Yet this, in itself, says nothing about the film’s focus on youthful sexuality. Beautiful was released “post-911” , but it was also released at the moment when the “sexualisation of youth” debates were gaining impetus in Australia. Beautiful is striking in the way that it seems to endorse some of the arguments against this “sexualisation” at the same time as it parodies the stereotype of youthful innocence that these arguments are premised on.
Beautiful as Anti-“Sexualisation of Youth”?
A link between youthful female sexuality and violence is suggested in Beautiful’s opening scene. The camera pans through the streets of Sunshine Hills, a fictional Adelaide suburb. There are shots of teenage girls who have gone “missing”, or at least this is what the female narrator claims. The camera cuts to 17-year-old Suzy (Tahynna Tozzi) sunbaking on her front lawn. Suzy’s mother (Deborra Lee-Furness) is apprehensive, telling her husband (Erik Thomson): “I’m worried about Suzy. We should put bars on her window.” This is an overreaction, or perhaps not; after all, the young woman is parading her flesh in an area where a sex-crazed maniac is apparently on the prowl.
The film is shot (or so it initially seems) through the eyes of Suzy’s 14-year-old neighbour, Danny (Sebastian Gregory). Danny is a misfit who is taunted at school with cries of “faggot”. He sits in the schoolyard reading books while the other boys play sport. Danny is berated by his policeman father, Alan (Aaron Jeffery) for disliking football. Alan’s hyper-machismo is suggested in an early scene where he is seated at the dinner table with his son. Alan loads bullets into his pistol while Danny picks listlessly at his food. The shirtless Alan’s bronzed, muscular body contrasts with his son’s lithe, pasty frame.
Through photographing the scantily-clad Suzy, Danny tries to sexually objectify her. Captured in his lens, Suzy is transformed into one of the fantasy women Danny drools over in his Playboy magazines. Danny’s objectification of Suzy is part of his broader bid to make a claim for a certain stereotype of heterosexual masculinity. To demonstrate masculine bravado, and to win Suzy’s affections, Danny accepts her challenge to spy on their neighbours. These neighbours include a mysterious couple known as Max and Jennifer (Socratis Otto and Asher Keddie). According to Suzy, Max is a convicted rapist and may be responsible for the disappearances of the local girls.
Later, in a conversation with Danny in her kitchen, Jennifer reveals that she might know something about innocence lost. She shows her young neighbour a photograph of a faceless child clutching an adult’s arm. Jennifer concedes that when she was a child
… the world was beautiful. Then you get older. Things happen … If (Max) comes back and finds you here, he’s gonna do something really bad. And then nothing in life will be beautiful anymore.
Has Max already done something “really bad” to Jennifer? Did he rape her (and thus steal her “beautiful” innocence)? If he finds Danny in their house, will he destroy the boy’s innocence? If so, how? Through rape? Murder? Rape and murder? Or will Max help bring out something within Danny, a masculine and even dangerous side that the boy has been repressing?
Tellingly, Suzy and Danny learn about Max’s past through a crime magazine that her father stores in a box which also contains a copy of Hustler. Hustler has been frequently derided by feminists as being misogynist (Kipnis 219-42). Suzy’s mother dismisses the crime magazine as “violent pornography”. At this point in Beautiful, voyeurism, sexually explicit representations and violence become intertwined. Danny has graduated from being a shy boy who photographs his female neighbour to a consumer of hardcore porn. He receives the same lesson in gender inequality that was undertaken by a previous generation of men (I refer here to Suzy’s father, as well as Alan, who – in one cryptic and unnerving scene – spies on street-based sex workers from his police car).
Danny’s downward spiral reaches a new low in a climactic scene, in which he shoots and kills Max and Jennifer. The bloodshed in this scene is a contrast to the rest of the film, which is relatively devoid of blood. The execution takes place after the boy accuses Max of abducting Suzy and Max responds by threatening the boy with violence. In trying to claim a sense of masculinity, Danny has become a “pervert” (in Max’s words) and a killer. Danny is also indirectly responsible for his father’s death. Alan finds his son at the murder scene and orders him to go home. After Danny has left Max and Jennifer’s house, Alan shoots himself with the pistol he once loaded with pride.
“Sexual Things”: Beautiful as Parody
Thus far, little has been said about the distinctly cinematic qualities of Beautiful. I argue that it is important that O’Flaherty’s movie borrows so overtly from Blue Velvet and Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (USA 1962). These overt cinematic references, plus the climactic revelation of the narrator’s identity, are amongst the features of O’Flaherty’s movie that can help us to read it as being parodic. There is no space here to run through the various (and often conflicting) definitions of ‘parody’. I will instead look at some of the stylistic features that have commonly been associated with this term. The British film scholar Dan Harries suggests some of these features when he writes that
…parody (is) the process of recontextualizing a target or source text through the transformation of its textual (and contextual) elements, thus creating a new text. This conversion – through the resulting oscillation between similarity to and difference from the target – creates a level of ironic incongruity with an inevitable satiric impulse. (5; his emphasis)
Parody also involves the exaggeration of “lexical, syntactic and stylistic elements of (a) prototext … beyond their conventionally expected limits” (83). Parody is useful in that it can highlight (in an often amusing manner) the limitations and falsities of familiar texts and societal conventions.
A parodic reading of Beautiful is enabled by the ironic title and the absurdly immaculate Sunshine Hills. Shots of neat, sunlit green lawns and white picket fences are accompanied by a tinkling piano on the soundtrack. Furthermore, and as mentioned above, parody is suggested in the highly and self-consciously overt references to older films. The narratives of these older films focus on male protagonists who are led into dangerous territory through their obsession with fantasy images of femininity.
Let us begin with the Lolita reference. In her study of the “sexualisation” of adolescent girls, US scholar M. Gigi Durham makes the following point:
Lolita is our favourite metaphor for a child victim, a knowing coquette with an out-of-control libido, a baby nymphomaniac … Lolita may be an apt metaphor for the sexy girl in contemporary culture … (26)
Lolita is, of course, the title character of Vladimir Nabokov’s (in)famous 1955 novel. This novel has been filmed twice, with the best-known version being Kubrick’s movie. Suzy evokes memories of Kubrick’s Lolita (who was played by Sue Lyon) with her blonde hair, tight-fitting bikini, sunglasses and predilection for sunbaking. Suzy’s appearance also calls to mind the adolescent vixens in Kitten with a Whip (USA 1968), Baby Love (UK 1969), Poison Ivy (USA 1992). At the same time, Suzy is fetishised to a ludicrous extent. The camera pans slowly up her body. There are close-ups of her nipples (which are visible through the bikini) and pouting lips. In one scene, when Suzy enters Danny’s line of vision, an angelic female voice sings sweet nothings on the soundtrack. Suzy’s eroticism is more cartoonish than convincing.
Significantly, Suzy is aware of debates about young women and “sexualisation”. In one scene, she criticises a beauty magazine for “objectifying women.” This remark is half-hearted; for Suzy, feminism (like vegetarianism) is another passing fad. Importantly, though, this remark helps throw into relief the stereotype of the young girl as perpetually naïve and vulnerable. This stereotype has been invoked in some arguments against the “sexualisation of youth”, and it is problematic, as R. Danielle Egan and Gail Hawkes demonstrate in their comprehensive analysis of the Corporate Paedophilia report. According to Egan and Hawke, this stereotype is premised on the assumption that girls are “incapable of making sense of their own experience and (are) therefore in need of state intervention” (309). Relatedly, this assumption is premised on a belief that girls do not – or at least should not – have access to knowledge about sex and sexuality.
The beliefs about young people that I have described above can most accurately be described as the mental projections of adults. In her critique of anti-“sexualisation” arguments, Joanne Faulkner writes:
… the innocent child will continue to receive the projections and detritus of the adults who attempt to shape their own identities through them. Even as the object of our own protection, then, and with the best intentions, children are still positioned as desire-free objects of desire, vulnerable to contamination by the desires of those who safeguard them. (110; emphasis in original)
The adult projections described by Faulkner are unhelpful, and they are also inaccurate. In Beautiful, we see that today’s young people can hardly be regarded as “innocent”. Young people today encounter fetishised female flesh every time they open a magazine or switch on the television (this is a point, incidentally, made by “sexualisation of youth” critics such as Rush and La Nauze). Young people are also familiar with feminist critiques of such imagery.
The Blue Velvet reference is important. David Lynch’s film has sometimes been read as a “parable of male development” (Layton). The youthful male protagonist, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) reaches manhood by participating in an Oedipal love triangle involving an older woman, Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) and her gangster boyfriend, Frank (Dennis Hopper). Or so it seems. As the film theorist Barbara Creed points out, Lynch’s film “threatens to make analysis redundant, so openly does it flaunt its Freudian themes and narrative” (97). Moreover, like Beautiful, Blue Velvet is characterised by a “surface knowingness and playfulness” and an “insistent parody of family values” (97). The scenes of domesticated, familial bliss are achingly quaint, especially when jutxtaposed with scenes of sexual violence. Jeffrey seems impossibly clean-cut and wide-eyed. His transformation into a gun-toting “pervert” who spies on adults having sex, and then – following this – into a caring family man is improbably rapid.
By referencing Blue Velvet, Beautiful’s sense of parody becomes particularly pronounced. That is, O’Flaherty’s film explicitly evokes memories of a parody of male sexual development and/in middle-class suburbia. Anxieties about young people being harmed by a culture of sex and violence are not new. Neither, for that matter, are anxieties about men being led astray by beautiful women. Lynch’s movie reminded us of this in 1986, and Beautiful gives us a similar reminder in the twenty-first century.
In the latter part of Blue Velvet, Jeffrey kills Frank and saves Dorothy. In that film’s patently fake “happy” ending, Jeffrey enters into an “adult” relationship with another woman. Dorothy is last seen sitting on a park bench, playing with her young son. Conversely, in Beautiful’s highly ironic climax, Danny tries blatantly and unsuccessfully to become an Oedipal hero. As Jennifer lies dying, he calls her “mum”. This is the first time in the film that Danny even suggests that he might be related to the mystery woman. Yet, Alan concedes that Jennifer is not the boy’s long-lost mother, and there seems to be little reason for Danny to think otherwise. Danny’s behaviour should not, though, come as a surprise. He displays a kind of Oedipal desire for his stepmother, Sherrie (Peta Wilson). In one scene, Danny watches longingly as Sherrie prepares for a girl’s night out. The camera cuts constantly from Danny’s eyes to Sherrie’s ruby lips and exposed flesh. Sherrie purrs lines such as “sit down and admire my beauty” like an Antipodean Mrs Robinson.
Shortly after the murders, Danny discovers that Suzy faked her abduction. She grins wickedly at the boy as he returns home, bloodied and bruised. There is the suggestion that Danny really wanted to believe Suzy. He really wanted her to be in danger, so he could display masculine bravado and save her life (as well as Jennifer’s life). This suggestion is made overt in a dream sequence, in which a smiling Danny watches Suzy being dragged into a car by Max. Danny has already been advised by his father that the abductions are “urban myth(s)”. As Jennifer puts it, they are the kind of “stories” that “people in neighbourhoods always make up.”
In the film’s ending, the female narrator returns. Her tone is dry, teasing. She sounds aroused by the events she is describing. The following is an excerpt from her final monologue:
You learn to live with reality, no matter what the police or papers tell you … I heard the truth … No matter what my daughter says or denies, I know they did things to her. Sexual things. And I know a killer still stalks our streets … That’s why I’m gonna stay here. I’m gonna protect Sunshine Hills no matter what it takes. Sunshine Hills needs me. It will always need me.
This monologue is accompanied by a montage of shots. Danny and Sherrie leave Sunshine Hills in a car. The word “killer” is spray-painted on the “To Let” sign outside Max and Jennifer’s now-vacant house. Suzy rolls around on her bed in her trademark skimpy attire. The camera prowls menacingly down Sunshine Hill’s moonlit streets. In the closing shot, the camera stops at Suzy’s house, and zooms in to a window to reveal her mother standing in the lamplight. The mother wears a crisp white suit and sharply surveys her surroundings. Suzy’s mother, we discover, is the film’s narrator.
The climactic revelation forces us to rethink everything we have just seen. A number of intriguing questions are raised and they remain unanswered. Were the abductions figments of a middle-aged woman’s imagination? Her imagination is certainly vivid (and morbid): she suggests that Alan, Jennifer and Max were “baby-killers” and Satanists, but does not provide evidence (even anecdotal evidence) to substantiate this. The viewer is led to wonder, did Suzy’s mother fantasise about her daughter being kidnapped and raped? Indeed, did Suzy’s mother imagine everything that has taken place in the film? Has she enjoyed her imaginings?
As I read it, this climactic revelation provides a further corrective to the assumption that young people (and especially girls) are overwhelmingly vulnerable and in need of adult protection. In Beautiful, it is an adult – a parent, in fact – who dreams up narratives of sexual danger. The parent is the one who feeds these narratives to young people; she gives her daughter and neighbour something to fear, something to be “saved” from. Or perhaps the film’s entire narrative existed only in her mind. This parent inadvertently causes (or otherwise imagines) pain and suffering for those around her.
I have argued that Beautiful is most productively read as a cinematic commentary about recent Australian anxieties surrounding the so-called “sexualisation of youth”. This reading gives us a sense of why the film is politically and intellectually significant. Beautiful apparently endorses the argument that young women and men are being robbed of their innocence by a pornographic culture. At the same time, the film goes some way towards parodying the stereotype of complete youthful innocence and vulnerability that underpins some anti-“sexualisation of youth” arguments. This stereotype is rendered laughably problematic. The sexual danger faced by the young people in Beautiful owes more to popular culture than “real life”, and parents do not always know best.
Steven Angelides, “The ‘Second Sexual Revolution’, Moral Panic, and the Evasion of Teenage Sexual Subjectivity”. Women’s History Review. Vol.21, issue 5 (2012): pp. 831-847.
Anonymous, “Interview with Dean O’Flaherty”. Girl.com.au. Unknown date of posting, http://www.girl.com.au/beautiful-dean-oflaherty.htm (Accessed 8 November 2010).
Collective Shout. http://collectiveshout.org/ (Accessed 2 February 2013)
Barbara Creed, “Journey Through Blue Velvet: Film, Fantasy and the Female Spectator”. New Formations. no. 6 (1988): pp. 97-117.
M. Gigi Durham, The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It (Woodstock and New York: The Overlook Press, 2008).
R. Danielle Egan and Gail Hawkes, “Girls, Sexuality and the Strange Carnalities of Advertisements: Deconstructing the Discourse of Corporate Paedophilia”. Australian Feminist Studies. vol.23, no.5, September (2008): pp. 307-322.
Joanne Faulkner, “The Innocence Fetish: The Commodification and Sexualisation of Children in the Media and Popular Culture”. Media International Australia. no.13 (2010): pp. 106-117.
Liam Grealy, “Reorienting the Henson debate: Child pornography, consent and the masturbating adolescent”. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies. vol.27, no.1 (2013): pp. 67-79.
Sandra Hall, “Review of Beautiful”. The Sydney Morning Herald. 5 March 2009. http://www.smh.com.au/news/entertainment/film/filmreviews/beautiful/2009/03/05/1235842538006.html (Accessed 8 November 2010)
Dan Harries, Film Parody (London: BFI Publishing, 2000).
Anne Higonnet, Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (London: Thames and Hudston, Ltd., 1998).
Icehouse. “Hey, Little Girl”. Primitive Man (Sydney, El Dorado and Los Angeles: Chrysalis, 1982).
Laura Kipnis, Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender, and Aesthetics (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
Lynne Layton, “Blue Velvet: A Parable of Male Development”. Screen. vol. 35 (1994): pp. 374-392.
Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze, Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of Children in Australia. Discussion Paper 90. (Canberra: The Australia Institute, 2006).
Tanya Serisier, “The Bankstown Gang Rapes: Rape and the Construction of a Horrible Event”. Antithesis. vol.16 (2006): pp. 74-89.
Jeff Sparrow, Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship (Melbourne: Scribe, 2012).
Bruce Springsteen, “I’m on Fire”. Born in the USA (USA: Columbia 1984).
Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts, Sexualisation of children in the contemporary media (Canberra: Parliament House, 2008). http://www.aph.gov.au/binaries/senate/committee/eca_ctte/sexualisation_of_children/report/report.pdf (Accessed 2 February 2013).
Melinda Tankard-Reist, ed. Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2009).
Melinda Tankard-Reist and Abigail Bray, eds. Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Porn Industry (Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2011).
 The Australia Institute is an independent think-tank that is based in Canberra.
 Significantly, this interview was posted on Girl.com.au, an Australian website which (as its title suggests) is dedicated to paraphernalia and popular culture texts that are deemed to be of interest to girls and young women.
 Much post-911 paranoia concerned the perceived threat of the Middle-Eastern “other”. Sometimes this paranoia was sexualised, for example, in media coverage surrounding gang rapes committed by Lebanese men in Sydney in 2000. In 2002, the conservative newspaper columnist Miranda Devine – in reference to these rapes – painted a xenophobic image of “Lebanese Muslim youths preying on white Australian women” (Serisier, p.75). The majority of the characters in Beautiful are Anglo-Saxon and middle-class. We could, then, suggest that O’Flaherty has displaced the anxiety about white girls being ravished by Arab men onto an anxiety (which his film parodies) about white girls being ravished by a sexualised (but not race-specific) “culture”. On that note: I find it significant that issues of race and class have not featured prominently in arguments against the “sexualisation of youth”. See, for example, the essays compiled in Getting Real (2009).
 Arguments that sexually explicit representations degrade girls closely resemble the anti-pornography feminist argument that pornography degrades women. In Australia, the best-known proponent of both sets of arguments is Melinda Tankard-Reist. See her edited collections Getting Real and Big Porn Inc (2011). In his book Money Shot (2012), Jeff Sparrow provides an incisive critique of Tankard-Reist’s controversial politics, as well as the frequently unlikely political alliances that have been formed amongst opponents of pornography and the “sexualisation of youth” (pp.127-151).
 The second film version of Lolita was released in 1997, and featured Dominique Swain in the title role.
 This evokes memories of Brian De Palma’s Body Double (USA 1984), in which angelic music plays on the soundtrack as the male protagonist spies on his undressing female neighbour. Significantly, like Beautiful, Body Double is highly intertextual and parodic.
 Rush and La Nauze criticise the “high levels of sexual innuendo” featured in music video programs (p.25). These programs are often “rated as suitable for general viewing” and are screened at times “when many children are likely to be watching television” (p.25). Rush and La Nauze argue that this sexual innuendo “may be harmful to children’s development” (p.27).
 At one point, Jeffrey’s erstwhile girlfriend Sandy (Laura Dern) remarks: “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.” This remark is made moments before Jeffrey breaks into Dorothy’s apartment. As mentioned earlier in this article, in Beautiful, Danny is also labelled a “pervert”.
 At one point, Jennifer remarks that her fingers resemble Jeffrey’s. This (along with the photo of the faceless child and her suggestion that she had lived in Sunshine Hills years ago) might have planted the idea in his mind that she is his mother. After Jennifer is killed, Alan informs Danny that his mother is dead. This, however, is questionable. In an earlier scene, Alan sits at his desk gazing at the photograph of an unnamed woman. The film cuts from this scene to shots of Alan prowling Sunshine Hill’s red-light district. Could Danny’s mother be one of the women working these streets?