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?

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA