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Google, we have a problem

Date: June 17, 2013 | Posted By: Gretchen

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.

Photo of group of girls jumping in the air, smiling.

This is what you should find when Googling “girls”.

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.

Image of woman in a sexy pose in a bathing suit.

Doing a Google image search of “girls” will give you mostly images like this.

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.




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10 Responses to Google, we have a problem

  1. biobrit on 06-17-2013

    My friend had a similar problem. She's a theater teacher and wanted to find some images of costume ideas for her students. She googled cowboy and didn't have any trouble. However, when she googled cowgirl, she got...well, lots of porn.
  2. Reply
    • Gretchen on 06-17-2013

      Yikes! This whole experience has made me feel like I need to hide in a corner when I'm doing Google image searches in public. It's more than a little ridiculous to say the least.

      Thanks for your comment!
    • Reply
  3. Felicity Jones on 06-17-2013

    You might also get some answers from Ogas & Gaddam's research about how people look at porn online. The number one category of sexual searches online is "youth," which is pretty icky. The porn industry realizes this so they capitalize on terms like "girls," which I'm sure people pair with other words when looking for porn. I'm a naturist/nudist and have the same problem with the words nudist and nudism - which have nothing to do with sex, but those made the list too. Unfortunately we don't have as much money or time as the porn companies do, to take back these words online. I just wrote about this here if you're interested - http://nudistnaturistamerica.org/nudism-sexual-ogas-gaddam
  4. Reply
    • Gretchen on 06-17-2013

      I'll have to check that out Felicity. Makes me wonder what other seemingly innocent words bring up pornographic images. I wonder if Google is aware of this.
    • Reply
  5. Esther on 06-17-2013

    Ugh, nothing gets me more fired up than this topic. Can I help? It breaks my heart for the young women to see this. It makes my heart sink. We were made for so much more! We can be the change we wish to see.
  6. Reply
    • Gretchen on 06-17-2013

      I hope there is something we can do to change this Esther. I'm definitely thinking about what and I hope you will too. Let me know if you come up with something and I will too. Maybe there are some IT experts who can help come up with solutions.
    • Reply
  7. Kate on 06-17-2013

    Interesting... Last year, when we worked together on the presentation for Scream Queens and Tough Chicks, I wanted a picture of a girl on a black background for the PowerPoint. Same problem! I turned my monitor in case a student wandered into my office and misunderstood my intentions. I had to use a thesaurus to come up with words Google wouldn't equate with sex.
  8. Reply
    • Gretchen on 06-17-2013

      BTW Kate, I really liked working on that project with you. :-)
    • Reply
  9. Kate on 06-17-2013

    Not that this will help, but a search of "boys" produces similar, if less bountiful, results.
  10. Reply
    • Gretchen on 06-17-2013

      Kate, when I was writing this piece I also googled "boys" and "men" to see what the differences were. What I noticed about the image results for "boys" is that they are mostly not sexualized like "girls" were and the ones that were "sexy"/without shirts appear strong and active, not passive like the women being referred to as "girls". Also, you can find images of actual boys, not mostly men being referred to as "boys". I had to add a word like "playing" to find images of actual girls. Sad.
    • Reply