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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.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt