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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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.