SSL Interview: Dana Edell of SPARK part 1

"The long term goal is we want to reach the cultural tipping point where it is not okay, and it is not profitable to sexualize girls. So that's an ambitious goal, but we're not going to stop till we get there. We have so much evidence at this point for how these negative images are really hurting girls. There have been studies showing links to depression, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorders, and low academic achievement, and getting worse grades, and also it's bad for boys. It's creating very distorted views about what girls are supposed to be like and what relationships are supposed to be like. Boys are often portrayed as predators who only want to have sex with girls. So, it's harmful to everybody, and it seems like a problem that is in plain sight but nobody is really talking about it as a major problem because it's everywhere." This is from the interview I conducted with Dana Edell, Executive Director of SPARK. I had the pleasure of talking with her over the phone this July 30th.

SPARK is still in its infancy.  It began with a Summit in October 2010, and Dana was named their first director in May 2011. It's growing rapidly, though, and there's a lot of energy and enthusiasm in this organization. Dana told me,

Once we started talking about it, people were like, where can we sign up? It's growing very quickly because there's such a need and such a hunger to stop the machine and to just say, what the fuck? What can we do?

What the fuck, indeed. Now, I think Dana makes a really important point when she says that it's a problem in plain sight. Depicting young teens and girls as hyper sexual objects and abundantly marketing items to them that are meant to sexify is the norm. We do not do the same to boys. Now, I know it's hard to get too excited about an issue when the thing to rage against is status quo, so let's just focus on this idea of the sexualization of girls for a minute. Take Dana's comments on the upcoming holiday.

We're really seeing October as a big Take Over October month by SPARK because it's connected to  Halloween, which is really one of the worst times of the year in connection with the sexualization of girls. The corporate culture and the marketing culture and the media culture around what Halloween means for girls and how, you know, it's almost a cliche now - sexy nurse, sexy school girl, sexy fire girl. So, we really want to reclaim that holiday for girls and think about that as a way to launch ideas about taking sexy back and being powerful and sexy in ways that are not dictated by your local Halloween store that is saying this is what a sexy costume looks like, and this is what it means to be sexy. 
I mean that pic up there was on the first page listed under a "girls Halloween costume" Google search. Pirates don't dress like that. It's highly impractical, people, really. The only reason to have a pirate costume with an above the knee skirt, tall lacy boots, fishnet stockings, and an off the shoulder blouse is to make it sexy. Although the "sexy" anything trend in adult women's costumes is annoying at best, at least it seems a little less problematic that the main point of this huge costume trend is to be the object of desire. For 8 year old girls, however, you'd think, as a culture, we would encourage more important reasons to get a costume. We do for boys.

Let's take this a step (or really more than a step) further, though, and look at an ad for the dual-zone climate control feature in a KIA car. This won a Silver Press Lions award at the prestigious Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Basically, it won a print advertising award, and it's...a bit distasteful. Although direct action projects are not the main work that SPARK does, they did lead one in regards to this ad, as Dana discusses below. (Check out the ad in full size HERE)

There was this ridiculously offensive, horrific, one of the worst ads I've ever seen in my life, that won this huge advertising contest...It was this really really disgusting ad that definitely evokes pedophilia in a "funny" way...It completely sexualizes a girls who is probably 6 or 7 years old in the ad...and it won this huge award, so we were like, "What the Fuck!" This is not okay...This ad is really offensive, and what kind of world are we living in where not only is this totally normalized, but it's winning award? So we launched a petition through Change.org to get Kia to not use the ad and return their award and started putting pressure on them. Since then, Kia has actually released a statement saying (which is kinda ridiculous) that they had nothing to do with the ad - saying some advertising company used their name to create this ad which won the awards. So, I think they were freaking out thinking, "Oh my god, we're a family car company, and we do not want to be connected to pedophilia." So these actions are having impact. We're seeing it. We're trying to put pressure on corporations, on media agencies to be more accountable for what they're producing, to take action, and to also inspire. (The sexualization of girls) is a horrible crisis situation but it is reversible.

So, let's just say that the media situation in our culture is not doing so well by our girls. SPARK is dedicated to remedying that. There are a lot of things I love about SPARK's approach. I love that they are actually engaging girls in the solution. I love that they are not coming from a point of merely protecting girls from sexualization, but helping girls foster a space where they can develop their own unique and healthy relationship to sexuality in our culture. I love that they are taking on this issue.

This issue is only barely touched on in our movie, Science Sex and the Ladies. It is largely outside the scope, but it is an essential sister issue to what we discuss in the movie, and it needs to be addressed if the culture of female sexuality is to move forward. That is why I wanted to include this interview in my blog. Here's what Dana has to say about the organization.

SPARK is about, well, we say that it's about taking sexy back and really empowering girls to understand for themselves what is sexy for them and not what other people are telling them sexy is. Our cultural definition of sexy right now is a very, very limited definition that is not very layered or textured or unique or specific to particular girls or to specific girls' bodies and to cultures and histories and desires. It is a very rigid and very narrow definition of what sexy is...big breasts, blond hair, skimpy clothing.... It's not necessarily defined by the girls themselves. So, we believe fully in having a very healthy sexuality, expressing desire, and expressing your own sexuality in a unique way that is comfortable and confident; that represents a strong girl who is making choices for herself and not following things that corporations or media agencies have decided about what sexy is going to be this year.
 Rock on SPARK. I have plenty more to discuss about this organization, particularly about the amazing girls at SPARK who are putting a critical eye to our everyday cultural happenings and activating for change. However, I will leave those thoughts for my next blog entry. Till then, check out the SPARK site, where I highly recommend reading some of these girl's blogs.

update: check out the 2nd part of this interview HERE.


  1. This is awesome! Great interview, Dana! As one of the SPARK writers, I'm really excited to have found this blog through SPARK - I'm really interested in learning more about the movie (as a lady who likes both science and sex, this is a pretty awesome combination). I'll definitely be back to check out part 2.

  2. Glad you liked it! Dana was great to interview. I was really excited to find out about SPARK! The movie is getting really close to being done, and I'll keep you posted through the blog. Thanks for commenting!