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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
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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.