Willow Smith, daughter of Will and Jada, is twelve years old, so I can see why some commentators might be anxious that she’s recording a song called “Summer Fling.” I’m less concerned, though, about the specific complaint that she’s holding hands with or being hugged by boys who are old enough to have a little scraggly facial hair, which can happen as early as age fourteen:
I don’t think anyone doubts that girls and young women are highly sexualized in popular culture: the Parents Television Council and the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism agree on this score. But I do wonder if worrying about putting girls in sexual roles before they’re ready, we’re at risk of misreading physical contact that’s tender and friendly, but not inherently sexual. Kids can hold hands without intending anything beyond it. It wouldn’t be out of line for a girl’s cousin or friend to put an arm around her or pick her up while horsing around. The text of the song is about a relationship, but the video is about kids hanging out with their friends, jumping into a pool, and playing with colored smoke bombs.
It’s easy to celebrate the news when Smith tells her father that she’s bowing out of the lead role in a remake of Annie because she’s twelve and just wants to be a kid. But if we can trust Smith to know what’s best for her in terms of how much time she spends on her career at twelve, can’t we trust her to know what’s best for her in a video for one of her own songs, which she co-directed? It’s not as if some creepy director swooped in and told Smith to do things to which she was powerless to say no, particularly given the family Smith comes from. There’s nothing wrong with wanting girls to grow up in an environment where they can mature sexually on their own timetables. But part of that is creating an environment where, instead of constantly policing their behavior, girls are truly comfortable and capable of making their own decisions. And maybe part of that is acknowledging, until we have evidence to the contrary, that Willow Smith seems pretty self-aware for a 12-year-old, and to have a set of parents who seem relatively good at giving their kids age-appropriate opportunities.