Chloe Kim, the gold-medal winning, snowboarding sweetheart of the Winter Olympics, is 17 years old. The teen sensation was this year’s games’ breakout star, not just because of her history-making performances but also because of her embodiment of the fizzing teen spirit of Generation Z.
Throughout the Winter Olympics, Kim has been a caricature of adolescence: tweeting whilst competing, gushing over Lady Gaga and talking about churros, pizza and ice cream more than anything else. And, over the course of the Olympics, she won many hearts worldwide simply for being such a “normal teenager”, with teen outlets hailing her as “relatable AF” and newspapers awed at her ability to achieve so much, so young.
Unlike most people, whose responses ranged between parental and at times even patronising, radio host Patrick Connor’s response to her juvenile nature was to wonder aloud – and on-air – when having sex with her would no longer constitute statutory rape.
“She’s fine as hell,” Connor said to a co-host. “If she was 18, you wouldn’t be ashamed to say that she’s a little hot piece of ass. And she is. She is adorable. I’m a huge Chloe Kim fan… Her 18th birthday is 23 April, and the countdown is on baby.”
The “countdown” Connor speaks of is both figurative and literal – the practise of creating websites to count down the moments until a young female celebrity reaches “adulthood” is as old as the internet. In 2004, when I was 12 and the Olsen twins were turning 18, I remember my older sister tutting with disgust at an increasing onslaught of websites dedicated to excitedly counting down the months, weeks, days and minutes until the twins they’d watched on their televisions since infancy would finally be “legal”.
The world had quite literally seen Mary-Kate and Ashley grow up – the pair were practically born on the set of family sitcom Full House, cast at just six months old. The twins spent the best parts of their childhoods starring in our childhood classics like Passport To Paris and Switching Goals. Men patiently waiting until they hit puberty, and their fantasies made the switch from perverse to pedestrian, made me feel queasy, even before I was even entirely sure what it meant.
Before the days of the web, countdowns were often conducted on radio stations. Natalie Portman referenced this in a speech addressing a crowd at the Women's March this year: "A countdown was started on my local radio show to my 18th birthday – euphemistically the date that I would be legal to sleep with," she said. "Movie reviewers talked about my budding breasts in reviews. I understood very quickly, even as a 13-year-old, that if I were to express myself sexually I would feel unsafe and that men would feel entitled to discuss and objectify my body to my great discomfort."
There is a pervasive idea that girls are ticking sexual time bombs; that once they reach 18, the floodgates are well and truly open to all kinds of abuse
The trend truly took off with the introduction of the internet, however – with the ease a platform could be created online, it wasn’t long until the web was spawning countdown sites for Hilary Duff and the Harry Potter cast. And it wasn’t just shady websites – the mainstream media supported the trend, too. “Hot, Ready and Legal!” Rolling Stone’s August 2004 cover exclaimed about a then 18-year-old Lindsay Lohan, pictured in a strappy satin top. "Kendall Jenner – 53 Days until she turns 18. Not that we're counting," celebrity-gossip site TMZ captioned an image of her, wearing a bikini top and tugging at a pair of tiny shorts. "To all those wondering, Kendall Jenner turns 18 in 52 days," Hollywood Life wrote below the same image a day later.
Others were more direct in their approach – at least six companies reportedly made a bid for Jenner’s “pornographic debut” after her birthday, with one reportedly offering her $1.8 million to star in a video with “a partner of her choosing”. And, hoping to keep up with all of the Kardashians, Vivid Entertainment, the company behind the distribution of Kim Kardashian’s 2007 sex tape, offered her sister Kylie a $10 million deal when she turned 18. Like the Olsen twins, large swathes of America watched Kylie and Kendall grow up on reality-tv show Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which began when they were aged nine and 11, respectively. The various offers from porn sites show that, in the minds of many, the girls were simply porn stars in waiting.
While some write off this tradition as the sad delusions of even sadder men (“what chance do basement-dwelling perverts have with young, beautiful, millionairess’?” internet commentators say), in the case of Emma Watson, once the ticker on her timer stopped, she faced very real repercussions. "I remember on my 18th birthday I came out of my birthday party and photographers laid down on the pavement and took photographs up my skirt, which were then published on the front of the English tabloid [newspapers] the next morning. If they had published the photographs 24 hours earlier they would have been illegal, but because I had just turned 18 they were legal," she said at a HeForShe press conference in 2016.
There is a pervasive idea that girls are ticking sexual time bombs; that once they reach 18, the floodgates are well and truly open to all kinds of abuse. Coming of age, for boys, is a beer with your father; for girls, the rite of passage is warding off unwanted sexual attention from men old enough to be your father.
Not that many will even wait for the clock to strike before they begin to prey. Britney Spears, who also had a number of sites created to mark her 18th birthday, immortalised the world’s twisted obsession with “jailbait” in her infamous Rolling Stone “Teen Dream” cover in 1999. 17-year-old Spears donned hot pants and a bra in a setup that can only described as a boudoir merged with a child’s bedroom, complete with her clutching a Teletubby against a backdrop of silky-satin sheets.
“Britney Spears extends a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa, keeping one foot on the floor as she does so,” the opening paragraph of her first cover story reads. “Her face is fully made-up, down to carefully applied lip liner. The BABY PHAT logo of Spears's pink T-shirt is distended by her ample chest, and her silky white shorts – with dark blue piping – cling snugly to her hips.” The piece continues by referring to the singer as “the naughtiest of schoolgirls” in what is truly the creepiest of sentences. The cover didn’t even attempt to pretend they were sexualising Spears as an adult; rather, her underage status was woven into the script to somehow make the seedy setup “sexier”.
If a man’s first thoughts when seeing a young woman is to “jokingly” countdown the moments until he can sleep with her legally, he is a sick man. Connor’s employers agreed with this line of thinking, dropping him from his radio show in the wake of his comments. But the concept of the “countdown clock” is not just sick. It sends a strong message to young girls: that even if you’re an Olympic-gold winning snowboarder, a successful actress, a world-famous musician, women do not exist other than for male gratification. Even little girls become little women eventually, and women are to be objectified. We tout age limits as the protector of young women against sexualisation but, in a world that continues to tell men we are here simply to be leered at, they are increasingly impatient.