Abreast of the Times


Feminism is on strong ground when it tackles violence to women. It has also more or less won the moral argument about social, economic and political equality – even if there are pockets of dissent and flaws in the delivery; small in the developed west, huge in other geographies and cultures where brutality, repression and irrational discrimination form a matrix of injustice.

Mind you, listening to Woman’s Hour on 30th January the key issue for the media sisters seemed to be why the BBC doesn’t have a female Director General and more women daytime presenters on local radio. The reality of the lefty-lib nexus between our national broadcast channel and the Guardian group was emphasised by the continuity of this story in both media on successive days. The main benefit of having a woman DG seemed to be that she would allow more flexible working arrangements. Oh dear, does that mean Today won’t start until after the school run, or that Sarah Montague’s partner will stand in on Thursdays? Better still, since local radio is in for big cuts they can replace the blokes with women who will be delighted to come into the studio when it suits them and budgets permit. Can we look forward to local radio as an outside broadcast from Tanya’s kitchen as she discusses local issues with her neighbour, puts together a bolognaise sauce and DJs the music from her i-pod?

Where the feminist warrior is still vulnerable and liable to misinterpretation is in the matter of sex; that is to say, the whole biological, gender relationship and hormonal soup in which we sink or swim. This is because the differences and interactions between men and women are the constant focus of our imaginations and fed by the story-tellers of our culture whether they are historians or ‘ologists’ (socio- and bio-), novelists and most contentiously, the media.

So it is no surprise that on 24th January the Leveson Inquiry was scheduled to receive submissions from Object, Equality Now, Eaves and End Violence Against Women. Woman’s Hour previewed some of the inquiry evidence through a discussion of the role of media in encouraging violence to women through inappropriate reporting. A local newspaper’s treatment of a gang rape as an ‘orgy’ was cited as one specific among a number of more generalised allegations such as descriptions of the clothing worn by female victims. Such details it was inferred carry suggestive undertones that link offender and male reader in erotic empathy. An Australian university experiment was cited in support of the proposition.

Prof. Roy Greenslade played both ends against the girl dominated middle. He said things like ‘well I’m always suspicious of surveys that purport to show cause and effect’. At the same time, he did not protest the inevitable lurch of the discussion into condemnation of The Sun’s Page 3 and the equally predictable reference to Clare Short’s vain martyrdom in that cause. A fellow-panellist’s suggestion that under any decent regime the paper would be banished to the top shelf was met with a small snigger. Such a thing was inconceivable the Professor implied. He did however note that he ‘knew a lot of people who have come to this country who are deeply shocked (by that sort of thing)’. I am sure of his meaning even if the words are not guaranteed to be verbatim.

So if the outliers of feminism have their way we will find ourselves back in Cromwell’s England – if not welcoming some Ayatollah to a new Ministry of Moral Media. Such a development will not only hurt the red tops. Even the pious Guardian in its Saturday review section (21st January) flagged an article on the sexual revolution with a pair of rosy boobs – albeit on an 18th century female portrait. That made it art history and so all right.

Clearly, it is not all about tits. If it were, Katie Price would be Prime Minister. But tits are not only ubiquitous in the world of popular journalism. They seem to represent everything that feminists hate about men looking at women looking at men looking at women. Yet breasts have been democratised ever since the 60s, as have buttocks – men’s included. It was, some of us recall, the girls who burned their bras in the cause of sexual freedom and ownership of their own bodies.

And while we’re on the subject of democratisation we should consider the vagina. Feminists have only their sisters, (formerly known as women’s lib) to thank for the attention now paid to girlie groins. It was women who campaigned for tampon ads to be shown on TV and a woman who wrote The Vagina Monologues; and rightly so. If only the word ‘penis’ could be uttered as freely – but even in print it seems too prissy, explicit and of course unblessed by the support of an ideological cause. But then we have other, accepted colloquialisms for the phallus to enable general use whilst only now getting used in female terms to the medical word for an organ the vulgar public expressions for which are still taboo. Dissimulation is as ever the politeness of prudes.

Mind you, it is a long time since we’ve seen those feminine hygiene ads with lithe young women in tight white chinos leaping straddle-legged over the camera; the semiotic meaning evident to all but the most naive. For some demographic and marketing reason, the intimate references we see most of nowadays are for a brand of padding called Tena. The function of this product cannot be more specifically detailed in a mixed company of gentlefolk but explains why it is women who use the expression ‘I laughed ‘til I wet myself’.

Still, the thinking women of our radical media maintain a consistent level of critique against a lust-fuelled and commercially exploitative male hegemony. This was encapsulated by a short piece in The Observer on 28th January by the normally sane, intellectually admirable and gorgeous Mariella Frostrup. After a few paragraphs endorsing our Culture Secretary’s strictures about the Today programme (and the Beeb in general) for being ‘a testosterone fuelled locker-room’, she went on to suggest a better target would be the ‘objectification’ of women as protested by the various groups attending the Leveson Inquiry. She added that she and Kirsty Young dreaded taking their daughters to the newsagents due to the proliferation of ‘photographs of women in various near-pornographic poses’.

I can’t imagine which newsagent these women use. In mine, the only magazines visible to a seven year old have pictures of cars or computers or celebrities. Nonetheless, since the ‘Ban Page 3’ movement seems to have intellectual supporters I thought it right to do some fieldwork – on the broad basis of ‘are women objectified?’ by our press. So I went out and (at ridiculous expense – no wonder sales are declining) bought all the Sunday papers – popular and unpopular. Well, not the Sunday Sport, fond as I am of this extraordinary and hilarious piece of counter-culture. It is, let’s face it, the occupant of a niche not easy to defend to almost any woman other than one with total confidence in her sexual persona and a good sense of humour about men and the nature of our society.

Quite possibly Grub Street has had a fright following the NoW suicide – but apart from the previously mentioned portrait of the 18th century damsel (repeated in a slightly different version in the Sunday Times) there was not a nipple in sight. There was a certain amount of cleavage in the more populist journals. but it was hard to critique the picture editors’ selections on the grounds of ‘objectification’ since the contexts were across a spectrum from celebrity to fashion. So unless the proponents of censorship really are in the pay of mad mullahs it is hard to see quite where lines might be drawn so long as women want to wear clothes that enhance or merely conform to their physical characteristics.

Indeed, at all levels of media sophistication, celebrity, fashion, style and design were liberally illustrated with photographs of pleasing looking women, some with a bit of cleavage others merely with a bust line; and formed a common currency of perfectly appropriate imagery.

More controversially, the so-called ‘objectification’ pictures that did appear were focused on the bottoms and crotches of their subjects – but even these were limited in frequency. The Sunday Mirror led the field on bums including a rare female appearance in the sports pages. Where others had featured the new Australian Ladies Open champion crouched in homage to her own victory, the Mirror had an obviously PR originated shot of a coquettish athlete in the unquestionably highly sexualised (and as yet feminist challenge-free) British volleyball kit. The concept is of course about audience appeal and is echoed by the proposal that women boxers should wear skirts. This completely ignores the evolution of Wimbledon where even when skirts are worn, unless one is a Lycra fetishist, the players’ apparel offers no voyeuristic appeal. In any case, the cameramen are under strict instructions not to leer.

Elsewhere, the Sunday Express carried OK Extra and some pretty innocuous lingerie shots but included a few of the usual open-legged poses and to balance things out, an H&M ad with David Beckham trying to look sexy in his tight and bulging underwear. News story and caption-wise my survey was an anti-climax. There was a footballer and kinky texts story (how did they get those?), but all the other revelatory material such as it was had clearly been bought or invented legitimately for ready money. Nor could I find a single inappropriately phrased story about rape. Well, it was January and Leveson is running.

What did intrigue however was how the left and right wing media clashed over the broader feminist agenda. While Mariella Frostrup and other less brilliant hackettes moaned, Libby Purves and Liz Jones in the Mail on Sunday enjoined their sisters to brace up. Libby told us that she never had a discrimination problem in her BBC time and if women want success they can get it. Liz Jones recounted her experience debating in the Cambridge Union where she (sadly unsuccessfully), argued much the same about women’s career opportunities and suggested that they often squander their opportunities. In a much welcome flying visit to The Observer and as counter to Mariella and the paper’s other regular plaintiffs, Julie Burchill launched a typical counter-attack by suggesting that ‘whining women give feminism a bad name’.

All of which is to ask what the British feminist fuss over bare breasts is about. Everything we have and how it works is a matter of public record. There is fairly universal consensus about what we humans find sexually attractive. Our mating process involves compromise to a greater or (if lucky) lesser extent. But we live with that. Most of us at some time or other will have said, ‘well, I dreamed the impossible dream, and it was impossible all right’, yet unless we are notably stupid must acknowledge without rancour and even with gratitude that we probably got the partner we deserved: that said, and according to the figures, about 4:10 of us decide to change our spouse after an average 15 years.

So it is hardly surprising that in pursuit of a dream designed to give humanity something more rewarding than merely functional procreative copulation our species spends so much time, energy and emotion on its appearance, courtships and the rituals intended to unite male and female in mutual affection. In affluent societies it is this instinctive understanding of the dream and the ‘value-added’ of enhancements which allows the marketers of fashion and cosmetics to offer stuff to make us feel desirable.

It also provides the media with the stimulus to show and tell about those of their chosen glitterati elevated – however briefly above the public’s uplifted gaze. The price these lucky people pay of course is that we can see if they are wearing any knickers. And the main reason women are selected is not just that they wear frocks as well as underwear, but that they just look better – even to other women. Is ‘yea, whoa, phwooer’ or simply ‘nice tits’, such a bad reaction?

Yet the feministas do appear to be trying to avoid acknowledgement of the immutable truths of one aspect of how men see women, of which the physical sexual elements cannot but be a part. But no one – including men – wants to be seen in a monocular sexual light. Other than teenage boys, a few male sociopaths and a regrettable number of backward cultures men do not see women in that crude way.The desired discourse is much richer.

Even so, women world-wide appear to share a taste for fragrance, grooming and delightful clothes and underwear – not to mention ‘fuck me’ shoes. In truth women see men in not too dissimilar terms, but they articulate it in different ways – which may or may not include shutting their eyes and thinking of David Beckham in his trunks. Maybe this is because of their intrinsic bio-social reality (it’s the baby thing but with complexities) plus cultural conditioning and opportunity. Whatever, male icons have also wowed women and male physical forms and styles have aroused their desires since figurative and representational art hit stride.

It’s a game played between males and females in a cultural context. Those campaigning Leveson witnesses have given their evidence and asked for the press to ban ‘portrayals of naked or semi-naked women’, not least because they incite not only disrespect but violence toward women. This is seriously weird and makes you wonder why they don’t put on a veil. They cite (with otherwise thoughtful journalists’ support) exposure of such images to children as an additional reason – and of course children are the stock victims for any mendacious proposal for restriction of freedom or providing cash hand-outs – not least child benefits which reward incontinent breeding and must surely contradict pure feminist ideals.

Hard to imagine the world in which the hard core feminists live if it precludes the sight of a breast in a daily newspaper or condemns this as somehow influential. As it happens, good old Roy G did note that when the ban on Page 3 was first proposed, as many women opposed it as male readers. Well, that’s credible. Women are just as able to say ‘nice tits’ as men.

The only trouble is, as one commentator pointed out – ‘what’s wrong with small tits?’ unless posed as a rhetorical question may lead an uncertain number of women to have unnecessary, expensive and possibly risky operations. Heaven knows what it will be like if the fetish for labial surgery catches on. Men should be nice to girls and tell them, ‘your sex bits are fine as they are’. Nonetheless, while regulation of cosmetic surgery in both promotion and procedure is a legitimate and focused point of discussion it should not involve banning pictures of great – that is prettily formed rather than huge – breasts. Outsize mammaries are in fact usually dealt with as a slightly risible phenomenon.

It is arguable that some aspects of pornography will mislead young women and men about the nature of sexual relations. But making the naked human body taboo and attempts to bury representations of sexual activity will not solve the issues of rape and violence to women. Candour, parental example and good education about relationships will deal with most issues for most people. Girls and boys deserve as happy an introduction to sex as can be achieved. Their early experience will most often be far from perfect. What’s needed is a more informed and open use of diverse media to help manage the expectations and define what constitutes good sexual manners.

Problems of violence and exploitation are matters involving psychopathology and cultural attitudes. But we do have to recognise that for those of us who are white heterosexual males, there are other social perspectives that deserve understanding. We should worry that for many women it may be that ‘being a woman’ puts them into a potential victim category –as being black or gay or disabled or merely poor evidently does for many people in those categories of humanity. The merits of the claims of these groups have to be seriously considered and dealt with. But women should be very wary of proclaiming victimhood merely on the grounds of gender; especially when they demand preferential treatment. As should anyone claiming special dispensation because they are not WHMs; if in so doing they fail to acknowledge that their little speciality of grievance has a thousand contradictions in the successes of its representatives.

Those who seek to ban Page 3 are ultimately the totalitarian servants of extremism. But perhaps they are too blinkered to understand that.

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