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Laurie Penny on Rihanna and our mock concern for women's dignity

Taking a stand against sexism isn't the same as taking a stand against sex.

So, Rihanna. She's a slag, isn't she? Such, at least, is the verdict of the tabloid press, who have once again queued up to pile opprobrium on the singer, following the example of one Alan Graham, a Northern Irish farmer who shot to fame after asking Rihanna to put her breasts away and leave his field, where she had been shooting the video for her new hit, We Found Love.

Writing for the Daily Mail, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown -- a columnist I normally admire -- praises Farmer Graham for making "a brave stand against two of the worst excesses of modern life: the sexualisation of society and our celebrity culture." She says that Graham is almost alone in taking this stand, and that she "hugely admire(s)" him.

I can't agree. I could be wrong, but I'll bet against the likelihood of this elderly fundamentalist Christian having feminist concerns at the forefront of his mind when he chose to reprimand a young woman for showing her naked body in his fields. Mistaking religious prudery for feminism gets you ten whole points in "liberals missing the issue" bingo, but there is something additionally abhorrent about the way in which this older man is being commended for stepping in, as if he were saving Rihanna from her wicked ways.

The debate about whether popular culture has become too "sexualised" is hardly restricted to Bangor, NI -- it's a debate that has run and run in nearly every major paper for over two years, partly because it's simply gagging to be illustrated with full-colour examples of such "sexualisation" for readers to cut out and keep.

It is interesting that Rihanna -- not only one of the most prominent women of colour working in pop, but a woman who is well-known for speaking up about her own experience of domestic violence -- should have become the chief scapegoat in this new culture war.

Disapproving, lip twisting pseudo-feminist articles about whether or not music videos and trainer adverts are going to turn all girls under 12 into knicker-tossing teen harlots who can hardly turn on MTV without becoming pregnant or syphilitic are usually accompanied by pictures of Rihanna in her underwear.

Sometimes it's Lady Gaga, but Gaga is weird and confusing and you never quite know when she's going to turn up dressed as a man, a lobster or all three volumes of Marx's Das Kapital at once, as opposed to the standard alien vinyl barbie look of which certain sections of the curtain-twitching middle classes love to disapprove.

No, for real, quality disapproval, it has to be Rihanna. We love to disapprove of her. We love to disapprove of her cute, pert bottom; we love to disapprove of her luscious breasts and smooth skin, barely covered by those disgustingly small leather thongs she likes to wear, the hussy. Look at her sexualising our children. Look at her, sexualising away in those horrifyingly sexualised sexy pants. We disapprove of those, too.

The hypocrisy is obvious, and it's not just the Daily Mail, which rather topped the pile by linking, in the middle of their piece on the Farmer Graham story, to another article about how "Smoking Hot!" Rihanna looked in the exact same video shoot, which they illustrated with the exact same photos, this time naming her the "Queen of Seduction".

This two-faced neo-puritanism makes mock concern for women's dignity just another reason to print enormous close-ups of their soft bits in not too much. There are po-faced men in garages across middle England who will pay a lot for that sort of disapproval, disapproval that stops extremely short of actually asking for change, because change doesn't sell papers.

I'm not saying that there are no problems at all with Rihanna's brand of arse-out sexual commodification becoming a standard feature of female celebrity -- although give the girl credit, at least she isn't claiming, as others do, that it's a non-stop shuttle to planet empowerment.

I'm not saying that there aren't big, big problems with the kind of raunch culture that has made Rihanna rich. What I am saying is that perhaps, just perhaps, the best way to address those problems might not be to applaud a religious fundamentalist for telling a young woman to cover herself up in his presence.

Some people can't seem to understand the difference between taking a stand against sexism and taking a stand against sex, but it's a distinction that we must make if we want a women's movement that's smart and brave and useful.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.