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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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.