Life in the goldfish bowl

For good or bad, television cameras have become an unavoidable part of life in the ecovillage

Another camera crew is in town at the moment, shooting another film about life in the community.

We have become a good deal more careful about who we let in with movie cameras following the debacle several years ago with the three-part Channel Four series, The Haven, that made us look and feel rather foolish. Our naive hope had been that the film would try to depict something of our philosophy and work in the world. In fact, it turned out to be a fairly standard 'reality TV’ romp that was interested primarily in seeking out the whacky and the tacky.

Still, even though we exercise more control than we used to, a good number of film projects continue to get the nod. We are no strangers to cameras moving among us as we meet, eat and go about our daily business.

The question of privacy in the context of research, training and demonstration centres that also happen to be people’s homes is a common one for ecovillages. The community at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales (a founder member of the Global Ecovillage Network), for example, mostly moved off-site when their visitor numbers grew to today’s levels of 70,000 per year. Just too much human traffic to make any sort of normal home life possible.

The theme is taken up in Violet’s letter this week in the Rainbow Bridge, our weekly community newsletter. Violet is a gorgeously irreverent teenager whose letters provoke regular frissons of delight as she dares say the things that most of us too-careful adults keep carefully under wraps. In this respect, Violet has one great advantage over the rest of us; she is fictional.

The address on this week’s letter reads:

"Violet’s bedroom
(What is like a goldfish bowl in summer)
Feeld of Dreams"

Violet has no doubt where the problem lies:

"I blame all the programmes on British telly what tells you how to bild a house or sell a house or clean a house or make a house better or sell or swap a british house for a house in spain and make money too. I mean where else in scotland can you see a big fancy ecohouse near a yurt near a barrel house near a rusty old caravan. We got like everything."

We have nothing like CAT’s volume of through traffic. Nonetheless, with around 3,000 paying guests a year doing programmes plus several thousand more wandering around looking at the houses, the goldfish bowl metaphor can sometimes feel all too appropriate.

For most of us, most of the time, this is simply part of the package that comes with the choice of living in a social and ecological laboratory. In fact, more often than not, my feeling is one of pride that folk tend to be so interested and impressed.

Violet seem to have a different perspective. Her letter this week concludes: "Chow for now fans. I just got to go and moon at some folk who have been starin at our house too long."

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA