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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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.