By: Julita Fenneuff
March 18th, 2022
This article is from our Spring 2022 Magazine Issue. Read the full magazine here.
The sexy schoolgirl is a trope many are unpleasantly familiar with. An unfortunate piece of pop culture that appears in music videos, movies, TV series and more, the sexy schoolgirl has been the center of male fantasies for longer than anyone can remember.
The use of ‘sexy’ in conjunction with ‘schoolgirl’ feels uncomfortable for many—and it should. However, there are enough people tempted to look a bit closer when they see those two words together. And for decades, many people, mostly men, have created media that portrays a young girl’s school uniform as something with inherent sex appeal.
Sexy schoolgirl attire generally involves a short pleated (preferably plaid) skirt, a button-up that’s covering very little, and knee- or thigh-high stockings. Bonus points for ponytails or double French braids, Mary Jane shoes, suspenders, a cardigan or glasses. Despite the fact that these are all accessories that young girls wear as real school uniforms, the entertainment industry has packaged and sold the idea that teenagers and full-grown women in these outfits are something to be sexualized.
One of the most popular examples is Britney Spears in the 1998 music video “Baby One More Time.” In it, Spears wears a button-up shirt styled similar to a bikini top, a pleated skirt and thigh-high stockings, in addition to getting the aforementioned bonus points for double French braids and a cardigan. At the time of the video’s release, Spears was the same age as a schoolgirl, at just 16 years old.
Since she came into the spotlight, Spears has been over sexualized, even at such a young age. “Baby One More Time” was her introduction to the pop scene, and its success led to the public’s sexualized perception of her for her entire career. Spears has since clarified that both the idea for the video and the infamous outfit were her idea, but it’s important to remember––she was only 16. She was too young to consent to anything sexual, including the objectification of her own body.
Many fail to recognize how damaging the “Baby One More Time” video was and continues to be, both to Spears and pop culture in general. The video is often hailed as “iconic” (Teen Vogue called it “the greatest video of all time”) and has been credited for bringing back, or at least revitalizing, the naughty schoolgirl trope.
But why is that a good thing? Why is a 16-year-old girl dancing in a provocative uniform in a school setting considered so iconic? It’s not. It’s a fetishized ideal made to sexualize young girls, yet it continues to be seen as a respected piece of pop culture.
As many have probably noticed over the years, the sexy schoolgirl trope is popular in music videos. Sunmi, a K-Pop idol who has been in the industry for nearly a decade, is seen wearing sexy schoolgirl attire in her recent music video for “You Can’t Sit With Us.” The video’s concept is centered around high school, as indicated by the “Mean Girls” inspired title.
In the video, 30-year-old Sunmi wears a plaid skirt, suspenders, thigh-high stockings and a white button-up tied Britney Spears-style. Her women backup dancers also wear tight, cropped polos and gray pleated skirts. She continues to wear this outfit in a choreography sequence where there are more than a couple up-the-skirt shots enough to make anyone with a conscience uncomfortable.
Compared to the women wearing sexy and minimal-coverage uniforms, the men wear a loose button up, vest and slacks. It fits loosely into the school uniform concept, but it’s nowhere near as sexualized as the women’s attire. There’s clearly a different standard the women are held to, and it’s as if the creatives behind the video decided that the women had to be as sexualized as possible for the school concept to work. For men, that wasn’t the case.
Music videos are popular when it comes to exploiting this trope, but they’re far from being the only medium that does. Video games are notorious for catering to the male gaze and oversexualizing feminine characters, so it’s no surprise there are schoolgirl tropes found in games, too.
In Resident Evil 4, originally released in 2005, Ashley Graham is the president’s daughter and plays a key role in progressing the plot of the game. Despite being a 20-year-old university student, she is clad in a green plaid skirt that’s presumably too short to be practical.
Throughout the game, the players have the option of looking up her skirt in certain scenes, which feature moments of recorded dialogue, including, “Hey! What are you looking at?!” and “You pervert!” At one point, there is an up-skirt shot shown shortly before Graham climbs on a jet ski and asks the protagonist if they can put in some “overtime” together. It appears as though the game developers were fully aware of the implications of these moments yet chose to include them anyway.
The game was remastered and re-released as a VR game in October 2021, and players were quick to notice that the upskirt shots and suggestive language surrounding Graham (as well as some other questionable language) were removed. However, she still dons that short plaid skirt, which is just as weird now as it was in 2005.
With Hollywood’s historical tendency of exploiting women, it’s not surprising that they, too, partake in the usage of the trope as a selling point. Similar to Spears, actress Megan Fox was identified as a sex symbol from a young age and has been outspoken about her experiences and struggles with being used as a sex object in the film industry.
In the 2014 live action “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” Fox portrays April O’Neil, a reporter who must wear a myriad of outfits and disguises to get the information she needs as a reporter. At one point, while trying to recover a foiled plan, O’Neil spots a gaggle of women dressed in provocative schoolgirl outfits. She decides to become one of them, changing into a plaid pleated skirt and tying her white button up to reveal her stomach. The camera pans from the hem of her skirt to her chest before finally showing her face again. O’Neil uses this outfit to let her sex appeal distract others from her mission.
The song that accompanies this nerdy-to-sexy schoolgirl transformation is “Blown” by DNCE, whose opening lyrics are, “I’ve been stalking you for so long / You watched me be just as strong / It feels right bein’ wrong.” Other questionable lyrics include, “The less you show, the more you get / It doesn’t matter if you’re feelin’ it” and, “I know you act like you don’t want it / Girl, I know you need it.” The lyrics are reminiscent of the infamous song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, a song that has become synonymous with rape culture and perpetuates the idea that consent doesn’t matter if a man thinks a woman “secretly” wants him.
While the song may just have been used for the opening line about stalking (which is an appropriate title for what O’Neil is doing as she tracks down her target to get the information she needs), the lyrics align frighteningly with one of the key parts of the schoolgirl fetish: the idea that the subjects dressed up in this attire may seem docile and innocent but are secretly dying to succumb to their sexual urges.
This idea is actually a key aspect of the two main facets that stem from the schoolgirl trope, both of which take the fetish a step further by adding another identifier. Enter the Catholic schoolgirl, followed by the Japanese schoolgirl.
The Catholic schoolgirl, obviously, has strong ties to Catholicism. The uniform is arguably the inspiration for all other sexy schoolgirl uniforms, while the Japanese schoolgirl aesthetic typically relies on the sailor suit. Both of these tropes rely heavily on the destruction of innocence.
Those who enjoy the Catholic schoolgirl trope enjoy the added layer of religious guilt. Catholicism often preaches abstinence, and what’s more enticing than what someone can’t have? The Catholic church’s lengthy history of sexual misconduct and abuse goes hand-in-hand with the fantasy of a secretly raunchy, sexually stifled Catholic schoolgirl. It’s hard to decide which came first, but it’s not a stretch to draw a connection between the two themes.
The Japanese schoolgirl trope is one that has bred a whole subculture profiting off of it. In Western countries, Asian women are notoriously portrayed as being innocent and submissive, making them an ideal candidate for corrupting in the eyes of the male gaze. Both of these practices are harmful to Asian women, and result in their fetishization.
These stereotypes are nothing more than generalized ideals generated by primarily men. Yet, people continue to partake in the fantasy that all Catholic or Asian schoolgirls are secret hedonists that just need to be “liberated” in the form of sexual activity.
Searching “schoolgirl uniform” on Google will bring up countless photos of adult women wearing short skirts and otherwise revealing iterations of a typical school uniform, with many of the results advertising “sexy” or “seductive” schoolgirl costumes. It’s not uncommon for women to dress up as a schoolgirl for a “tempting” costume or to fulfill a sexual fantasy. However, the intent of the schoolgirl trope is often debated. While some see it as a wrongful sexualization of women, others validate it as a way to satisfy those fantasies and desires..
If two consenting adults are partaking in schoolgirl-related roleplay, or if a woman wants to wear a sexy schoolgirl costume to a Halloween party, may argue there is no harm to that—it’s just a costume.
But many feel the issue is more serious, going far beyond a sexy costume. There are millions of actual schoolgirls who wear these uniforms in their day-to-day life, for their intended purpose. Whether the uniforms are worn at private schools, Catholic schools or Japanese schools, girls wear these uniforms because they’re required to for their education. Unfortunately, with the fetishization of standard attire for students, these school-age children cannot escape the sexualization that has become synonymous with the outfit.
In Japan, there exists a dedicated schoolgirl-inspired style called kogal. This outfit intentionally imitates a Japanese schoolgirl uniform with the exception of including a short skirt and, typically, loose socks. Japanese girls who have to wear a similar uniform for school have to deal with the repercussions of this fashion style being normalized, with young girls being propositioned for sex or harassed because men think that their school-assigned uniform is somehow indicative of their willingness to be sexualized.
Kogal stems from joshi-kōsei, commonly abbreviated as JK, which is an entire culture that has been created around the idea of the Japanese schoolgirl. JK has bred a whole host of problematic practices besides the sexualization of the schoolgirl uniform, one of which is called enjo-kōsai, where men pay teenaged girls and young women for their company.
This practice was originally created for men to pay girls to simply spend time with them but has evolved into a sort of under-the-table form of prostitution. JK business is the title given to this practice when it specifically includes schoolgirls, likely a result of the discovery that girls who participated in enjo-kōsai while wearing their school uniform tended to make more than those who didn’t.
But it doesn’t take a special title to have an effect on real girls. There’s no special streetstyle name for those in the West who wear an iteration of the sexy schoolgirl outfit, but that doesn’t change the fact that real life schoolgirls are being conflated with the sexual implications of the provocative version of the schoolgirl uniform. Countless women have recalled first getting unwanted sexual attention when wearing school-required uniforms, many noting that it was before they were even in their teens.
There is a direct connection between the schoolgirl fetish and pedophilia. People may argue that it’s just an outfit, but that outfit is something directly and intentionally taken from real, school-age girls who are wearing the outfit for its original intended purpose. The obsession adult men have with the schoolgirl outfit that’s been so heavily fetishized cannot be separated from real life schoolgirls.
The schoolgirl fetish is rooted in pedophilia—the clothes aren’t what matters. The tendency for adult men to prey on school-age girls is not new, and it’s abundantly clear that it was never “just an outfit.” Consider, for instance, how many musical artists have written lyrics about their desire to be with a schoolgirl––and these examples span decades.
In 1937, Sonny Boy Williamson wrote a song called “Good Morning, Schoolgirl.” It has since been covered by the likes of Van Morrison and Grateful Dead, earning it the title of a ‘blues standard,’ a song that’s gained recognition for how widely performed it is by multiple artists. The lyrics to the song read, “Good morning little schoolgirl, can I come home with you? / Tell your mama and your papa I’m a little schoolboy too.” At the time the song was first recorded, Williamson was 23.
Similarly, the song “My Sharona” by The Knack, released in 1979 is about 26-year-old lead singer Doug Fieger’s obsession with the real life Sharona, who was, at the time, a 17-year-old high school student.
The 1985 song “Catholic School Girls Rule” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers was written about a real 14-year-old Catholic schoolgirl that lead vocalist Anthony Kiedis had “encountered” backstage after a show. The two had a physical relationship (an illegal one, at that, which could be classified as assault because of her age) both before and after Kiedis discovered her age. It’s just one of many examples of stars using their fame to receive sexual gratification from fans.
Let us not forget that none of the abovementioned songwriters were ever widely criticized or prosecuted for their obviously predatory behaviors. It’s public knowledge that Fieger was taking advantage of a girl nine years his junior, and Keidis has been open about his escapades with a fourteen-year-old girl. Yet, there was never any public uproar or legal charges, and the two men continued to live their lives.
This behavior is sickeningly normalized.
The blame continues to fall on the women and girls that are being sexualized. On one hand, adult women who willingly participate in the schoolgirl dress-up practice could be considered to be perpetuating the stereotype. However, these women are often dressing up in such a manner at the behest of a male sexual partner or to satisfy the male gaze.
Yes, it is possible for a person to gain empowerment by dressing the way they want and sexually liberating themselves. But the line must be drawn somewhere, and it should be drawn before willingly sexualizing an outfit that underage schoolgirls wear in everyday life.
The people who aren’t willing participants in their own sexualization are the real-life schoolgirls who this directly affects. The girls who wear these outfits out of necessity are still seen as objects of desire by predatory men. Pedophiles are unable to separate their sexual fantasies from real life. The schoolgirl fetish is just a way to hide depraved urges as just a harmless kink.
The blame for the normalization of the schoolgirl trope/kink/fetish should fall on the men who find something inherently sexy about an outfit typically worn by young, underaged girls. However, it’s unfortunately not uncommon for men to blame their sexual fantasies on the women and girls who fit into them, which is why the discussion somehow shifts to women being the responsible party for their own sexualization.
So what can be done? This trope is so heavily utilized in pop culture that it would be ridiculous to suggest avoiding consuming any sort of media that relies heavily on this fetish. However, it is important to be aware and acknowledge how problematic this trope is when one encounters it.
Somehow, like they always do, the desires of men have overpowered the safety of women and girls. There’s nothing sexy about a schoolgirl outfit.
Julita Fenneuff is a senior majoring in public and professional writing with a minor in Spanish. She currently writes and edits for Sherlockian.net. In her spare time she enjoys reading, listening to music and spending time with her pet bunny.