What actresses eat, Herman's gaffes and why I’m turning into Batman

My column from the latest <em>New Statesman</em> magazine.

Feminism has been such a success that I seldom have cause to think about why it's so necessary. Sure, there is the occasional reminder - it was the 61st Miss World in London on 6 November, because women's opinions are much more interesting if they're wearing an evening gown - but I have a job, a vote and the choice of when and if to have children. I'm part of the luckiest generation of British women ever to have lived.

In the past few days, however, I've had a pretty revealing glimpse of a place where casual sexism and just plain woman-hating still exists: internet comment threads. On 3 November, I published a post on the New Statesman website in which nine female bloggers described the kind of threats they routinely face in comments and emails, and on other websites.

Every flavour of low-grade yuckiness was there - you're ugly, you're fat, no man would want you, no one cares what you think - but there was also a large slice of something much more sinister. The feminist activist Kate Smurthwaite was told that someone should rip her tongue out "of her suckhole". Cath Elliott, a freelance writer, was told she was "too ugly to rape". The London Evening Standard columnist Rosamund Urwin heard that she deserved to have her fingers cut off. And, in a catalogue of threats of sexual violence, Caroline Farrow, a religious blogger and former vicar's wife, said she was often informed that "people would deign to have sex with me either out of pity or to teach me a lesson". Occasionally, writers reported receiving emails with their personal details included, or photos taken from Facebook.

The blog post had a huge response, with dozens of women getting in touch to say they had faced much the same kind of comments - and dozens of men saying they had no idea the problem was so widespread. My worry is that such relentless, remorseless abuse is discouraging a generation of women from writing on the web. One established female columnist agreed that she might have given up early in her career, had she faced similar abuse.

It's nice that people are talking about this, but what next? I hope that all the women who had been suffering in silence now realise they aren't alone. I hope website bosses will ask themselves if they want to host this stuff. And I hope that the police will take such threats more seriously. Petra Davis, who used to blog about sex, told me: "When I started getting letters at my flat, I reported them to the police, but they advised me to stop writing provocative material." Oh, and on a personal note, I wish that any man who thinks we're all whining little flowers would post an article under a female pseudonym. It would be an education.

Share alike

There is one subject on which my opinion sharply diverges from that of my editor. It's Twitter, which he worries is eroding our attention spans, but which I love unequivocally (admittedly, I was never that good at concentrating to start with). One of the reasons that the blog I wrote gathered such attention was that it was shared on the microblogging site by a host of people - journalists, celebrity tweeters, activists. Since then I've heard from women (and men) as far away as Australia and the US.

Twitter, unlike many internet forums, has a culture of using your real identity, and is therefore much more civil than the online badlands. Is it too much to suggest that all internet comments must be made under your real name?

Not eating Bree

There's a fascinating phrase in the Hollywood publicist's lexicon: DIPE, or "documented instances of public eating". It involves getting whippet-thin actresses who normally get by on smelling a celery stick to order cheeseburgers, gallons of Coke and two slices of chocolate cake when they're interviewed by journalists. The resulting article then breathlessly reports this, noting their "naturally fast metabolism".

It stands to reason that not every actress or model can have such miraculous biochemistry, and every so often someone gives the game away. In 2008, Desperate Housewives' Marcia Cross blurted: "Not eating is a constant struggle. It's like they pay me not to eat. It's a living hell." Now, a Victoria's Secret lingerie "Angel", Adriana Lima, has revealed the astounding discipline needed for a career prancing around in skimpies: twice-daily workouts for three weeks before a show and no solids - just protein shakes - for nine days. Lima says that she normally drinks a gallon of water a day, but 12 hours before going on the catwalk, she will stop entirely: "so you dry out, sometimes you can lose up to eight pounds just from that". One fashion editor describes the regime as being like that of a long-distance runner, although I imagine they're allowed to eat solids.

Pizza his mind

Who could fail to be fascinated by Herman Cain, the pizza impresario-turned-Republican presidential front-runner? Allegations of sexual harassment could yet derail him but until now he's been unstoppable in spite of a string of gaffes, including the suggestion the Chinese have "indicated that they're trying to develop nuclear capabilities" (indeed they did, Herman: in the 1960s). My favourite Cain utterance was when he was asked how he would deal with the kind of "gotcha" questions that stumped Sarah Palin. Simple, said Cain: "When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I'm going to say, you know, I don't know. Do you know?" You can't argue with that. I have a terrifying feeling that the US has found its own Boris Johnson.

Batman and Susan

In between playing Batman: Arkham City on my XBox 360, I note that Susan Greenfield, the baroness, neuroscientist and former head of the Royal Institution, has been talking about video games. Having earlier ascertained, apparently without the need for pesky peer-reviewed research, that Facebook is melting children's brains, she also believes that games could lead players to "lose their identities".

I'd like to give you my thoughts on whether that is likely - and whether it's advisable for scientists to float unsupported ideas from a position of authority - but I'm afraid I've got to save Gotham City from the Joker.

You can follow Helen on Twitter: @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?

Photo: Getty
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.