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Laurie Penny on what "panda-gate" tells us about sexism

Why were real women's brave, brilliant acts this year not considered newsworthy?

Why were real women's brave, brilliant acts this year not considered newsworthy?

Unless you're one of those boring folks who has something else to do with their day other than sit on Twitter for eight hours, you'll be aware of "panda-gate" -- the fact that the BBC has selected, as one of its twelve "Faces of the Year - Women", a giant panda called Sweetie from Edinburgh zoo, who is noteworthy for being... well, a panda. Which, even for the most reclusive of zookeepers, is not the same as being a woman.

As a feminist, I of course had my sense of humour gland removed as part of an initiation ritual involving naked dancing and wobbly cups of menstrual blood, but I have at least tried to understand the hilarious joke the BBC is making here. It is, in fact, traditional for Auntie's magazine to select at least one animal or cartoon character as a "face of the year". Previous years' notables have included Peppa Pig, Marge Simpson and a giant carp. But really, a panda? That has to be doubly insulting.

The thing about pandas is that they're the most useless evolutionary dead end ever to be preserved, at great expense, in the name of sentiment and nationalist flim-flammery. They're cowardly. They hate sex. They have to be encouraged to breed using artful tricks and deceptions, which is just embarrassing for everyone, including the panda. They have one of the most impractical, least nourishing diets on earth. They have about the worst camouflage of any animal, and they spend most of their time sleeping, on the ground, in the open. Sometimes, it's just best to let nature take its course. Particularly when there are at least seven billion humans on the planet, many of whom could do with a bit more concern for their future well-being, and at least half of whom have more qualifications to be a "woman" face of the year than Sweetie the panda, delightfully fluffy as she no doubt is.

It isn't just the panda that's insulting, though. Let's compare the rest of the line-up. Newsworthy male feats in 2011 include, apparently, being a politician (3), being a police officer, being a soldier (3), being an Oscar-winning screenwriter, being an athlete, being a revolutionary martyr, being a fascist mass-murderer who definitely shouldn't have any more sodding publicity, and being shot by the Metropolitan police. To be considered a newsworthy woman in 2011, meanwhile, you have to make an allegation of rape, be a pop star, go on a date with a pop star, get married to a royal, be the sister of someone who got married to a royal, be a royal and get married to someone who isn't a royal, or be a panda called Sweetie.

At times like this, it behoves us to consider not just whether a given list conforms to our ideals of how and on what basis women should be celebrated, but whether life itself conforms to our ideals. When Twitter attempted to rectify the situation with the hashtag #realwomenoftheyear, the feed was immediately swamped with more pop stars, more famous wives, brides and girlfriends. There have, of course, been a great deal of women who have done brave, brilliant, newsworthy things this year. Female politicians, artists, film-makers, leaders and heroes. Female activists, journalists, foreign correspondents, writers, actors and pioneers. But the papers have remained far more interested in Pippa Middleton's arse. That should tell us as much about how sexism works in cultural production as it does about the BBC.


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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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.