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Young Girls as a Holiday Treat

mgarcias Icon Posted by michelle garcia

December 21st, 2008

With just a few days left until Christmas we bear witness to the annual surge in demand for trees, socks and little girls. That’s right, little girls, 13, 14, 15 years old, for hire in Brownsville Brooklyn, strutting across city blocks in Jamaica Queens, teetering in stilettos in Hunts Point in the Bronx. The Holidays are a good time to be a pimp and a busy season for New York City’s child prostitutes.

I’d like to tell you that the scenes of adolescent girls selling their bodies on New York City streets infuses Very Young Girls, a new documentary airing on Showtime, with its gripping power, its edge. Indeed, vile home videos of pimps bragging about expanding their stable of girls and the startling scene of the mostly white “johns” in “John school” spares the audience little of the harshness of “the life.” But truthfully, the documentary is gripping because of its universality. Carolina, a teenage prostitute, sips soda at a Chinese restaurant and muses about love, a teenager’s craving for love, a teenage girl’s hunger to feel beautiful.

Those are the scenes when Very Young Girls strikes deep and close, because we can remember living them in our own lives. We all wanted love, validation, to feel special. And typically we sighed, picked up the phone, mustered our courage and dialed our pimply-faced puppy love interest. Carolina phones her pimp, a man she calls ‘daddy.’

I recently had breakfast with Nina Alvarez, a director on the film and veteran television producer whose projects lead her to Afghanistan and Iraq. And our conversation quickly turned to race and sexuality. Alvarez noted that when the victimized girls are white the media storyline typically centers on the the urgent need to “rescue” the girls. Simply revisit the Primetime special earlier this year of child exploitation in America’s heartland. But with young black and Latina girls there are “factors” that must be weighed, we must “consider” and “debate” if they are indeed victims or hookers.

It was, after all, only this year that New York governor David Paterson signed into law the Safe Harbor Act which spares young girls from criminal prosecution and treats them as victims of sexual exploitation. And take a good look at the New York Time’s review of the film (emphasis is mine): “Ignoring underlying issues of upbringing, class or race (only one of the film’s victims is white), ‘Very Young Girls’ is still an effective scratch on the surface of a serious social problem.” The Times’ very assessment reinforces the notion that “race” and “class” must be explicitly explored with Black and Latino victims as if their victimization is not compelling enough as is. Why do race and class issues come into play with non white victims but not with white victims?

Moreover, this argument suggests the need to delineate the differences between these girls and us–the viewers–when in fact, we share much in common. We the audience are challenged to confront our perceptions of these girls as street wise hookers or victims of an exploitative trade as we watch grainy video of street walkers interspersed with testimonials from former prostitutes whose faces still bear traces of baby fat.

If there is a class/race criticism to make about Very Young Girls it’s that the film succumbs to tidy and predictable storybook endings. The wedding scene of one girl sadly delivers a feel good sensibility to its audience when the time would have been better used developing the multiple “antagonists” or adversaries the girls face: the johns, the justice system, parents, and most critically, society’s attitudes toward their budding sexuality.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Alvarez’s observations and film attempt to transcend predictable patterns of racial discourse, delivering a film that forces the viewer to confront and observe our assumptions about race, gender and sexual exploitation. She found the part of the girls that connected with her own story, our story, and the result ought to be empathy.

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