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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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.