Alan White's Olympic diary: Can the Olympics put an end to our terrible treatment of female athletes?

Team GB's fantastically successful female Olympians mean we surely can't ignore women's sport any longer.

British female athletes have bossed these games. They don’t quite have the numbers (at the time of writing eight of our 22 gold medals and six of our 13 silvers have been won by women or teams containing them),  but it may well be the female performances that live longest in the memory.

Think of Gemma Gibbons and the cathartic salutation to her mother against the crowd’s roar, as she secured a place in the judo final. Think of the staggering bravery of Laura Trott (of whom Jeremy Vine said: “It is impossible to believe there is cruelty in the world when you have heard [her] giggle”), born prematurely with a collapsed lung, and liable to vomit after every race. Think of the envy-inducing combination of athletic perfection and sheer bloody niceness that is Jessica Ennis.

Watching these women hasn’t just encouraged us to engage with affable, compelling characters. It’s been thrilling viewing: edge-of-the-seat, high-octane sport delivered by ferociously talented athletes at the peak of their powers. Things couldn’t be better, could they?

And yet only a few days ago, there was a dissenting voice in the form of Lizzie Armitstead, silver medalist in the women’s road race. She took the opportunity of her increased exposure to speak out: “Sexism is a big issue in women sport - salary, media coverage, general things you have to cope with in your career. If you focus too much on that you get disheartened."

It was quickly forgotten amid the joyous bonhomie. But let’s rewind a few months – to the announcement of the shortlist for BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2011. You might not remember this, but not a single woman was named. There was an outcry, and the broadcaster was quick to blame the sports editors that made the selections. It didn’t quite have time to explain why those editors were drawn from, among others, the likes of such publications as Nuts and Zoo.

Now admittedly these magazines do encourage one form of exercise that’s improved the cardiovascular systems of many a 14-year-old, but as the ever-excellent Andy Bull has pointed out, are their editors really more clued-up than those of, say, sportsister or womensportreport? 2011 wasn’t a vintage year for British women’s sport, but it was certainly good enough for a couple of names to make the shortlist. Worth noting some of those in Team GB that are now household names had successful seasons – in particular Katherine Grainger.

Maybe the problem was less their achievements than the lack of exposure they received. It was this suspicion that prompted Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, to ask the BBC about its coverage of women’s sport. She tells me: “The fact the BBC gives more coverage to darts alone than women's sport in total is so surprising and frustrating - the debacle over Sports Personality of the Year was a symptom of a broader problem where women's events aren't covered, so aren't on the radar for those voting. The interest in watching and ability of those involved merits a fundamental rethink by all concerned.”

The coverage question feeds into something else. This report by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation has received the square root of bugger all interest until now, but maybe people will start to take a little more. You see, it points out that between January 2010 and August 2011, men’s sport received 61.1 per cent of commercial sponsorship. How much do you think women got? You're wrong, probably. The answer would be half a per cent. You can moan at me about how women should take a pay cut or play five sets in professional tennis (and I’ll listen, at least), but there’s no way on earth you can justify a figure like that.

And I’m trying to confine the issue to Britain here. It’s great to see female Saudi Arabian athletes, but how much pressure has the IOC brought to bear on the kingdom to let them train in their own country? In fact the more you look around the world the worse the treatment of female athletes seems, and before you know it you’re doing a passable impression of Germaine Greer watching Top Gear.

Why the bloody hell should America’s strongest woman have to live in poverty? What in the name of God is this all about? And this? Back in Britain, isn’t this just a bit disrespectful, come to think of it? Do we perhaps think this lady should have received more sponsorship? And sod this for a game of soldiers: it’s all just insidious, isn’t it? I could keep going with this stuff – for some time, actually – but at this rate I’ll end up burning all my partner’s bras on her behalf or something.

So let me conclude on a more upbeat note. Here’s Dr Creasy again: “The idea people don't want to watch women's sport has been blown apart by the audiences for our Olympians - whether on the football or hockey pitch, in the Velodrome, the swimming pool, indoors or on the track, Britain's female sporting talent is big news. I just hope the Games will finally win the case many of us have been trying to highlight with broadcasters, to change their ways."

 

Odds and Ends

 

How to lift 247kg over your head – and win Olympic Gold.

Nice little Alistair Brownlee story.

I love Aliya Mustafina, so this is the site for me.

Bryony Gordon was with Victoria Pendleton’s family for her last hurrah.

Speaking of Pendleton, here she is with Laura Trott, a few years ago. And here is Laura Trott is with Wiggo. The interviews linked to on that first picture are worth watching as well.

John Inverdale’s Wikipedia page: hacked again.

Possibly the worst Olympics headline you’ll ever read.

Boris playing the fool again.

Are you a conflicted lefty watching the Olympics? Then here’s the site for you.

Jessica Ennis and Bradley Wiggins went to see the Stone Roses.

Chris Hoy’s mum can’t look.

So going forward, that’s all good.

This will be one of the defining moments of the Games.
 

British cyclists Dani King, Laura Trott, and Joanna Rowsell with their gold medals. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Disney
Show Hide image

How feminist was Disney's original Beauty and the Beast?

A critique with hindsight. 

In 1991, Susan Faludi’s Backlash was published. A blistering attack on the co-opting and misrepresentation of feminism in US politics and popular culture, it made clear what many had long suspected: the second wave had already broken. That phase of thought and activism was in retreat.

One year later, Rebecca Walker, daughter of the writer and activist Alice, wrote Becoming the Third Wave for Ms magazine. A radical call to action, prompted by the confirmation of controversial judge Clarence Thomas by the US Senate, it provides a taste of what third wave feminism might have become: radical, intersectional, uncompromising.

“Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger,” wrote Walker. “Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives.”

It’s a powerful call to arms, and one to which many women, especially working-class women and women of colour, have responded and continue to respond on a grassroots level. Nonetheless, had we been looking for a predictor of how the third wave of feminism would play out in popular culture and the mainstream media, there’s something else we should have been studying – Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast, first released in 1991.

I was 16 at the time and certainly thought of myself as a feminist. I hadn’t read Faludi – or indeed any feminist literature – but immediately latched onto Beauty and the Beast as a feminist film. It seems strange to me now, but it tapped into a mixture of impulses – teenage vanity, a mistrust of older women, a need for reassurance that I was unique – that I mistook for feminist principles. Perhaps they were, in a way; in a world that doesn’t see women as human, I knew I wanted to be seen as human. Only I didn’t really push it any further than that. There was a feminism, I was finding, that didn’t ask you to think about women per se. Just being a woman, and acknowledging that you had desires, was enough.

I don’t think I’m the only woman who felt that way, and 26 years later, I’m not especially surprised to see a revamped, more explicitly “feminist” Beauty and the Beast being sold to a new generation. Today’s young women are nothing if not primed for it, with self-esteem and intergenerational trust at an all-time low. The original Beauty and the Beast helped capture and nurture the disappointment many of us felt at the feminism of our mothers’ generation, at least as it had been presented to us - humourless, rigid, tactically naïve. Second waver Adrienne Rich wrote of looking at her own mother and thinking “I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” We looked at women of Rich’s generation and thought the same. Beauty and the Beast was inspiring, not least because of its mainstream credentials. Second wavers were evil stepmothers with bad PR; we’d show them you could win the battle by playing the princess.

Last night I sat down with my eldest son and rewatched the film that inspired me all those years ago. I thought I might be surprised that I’d ever found it liberating, but in fact it all made sense. So much of it predicts the path that mainstream feminism would be about to take, drifting away from the shit-and-string-beans mundanity of everyday exploitation to be dazzled by the glamour of individual inner lives. We’d given up fighting the wolves that lurked in the dark and taken to gazing into magic mirrors. The future lay in false hope.

“She’s nothing like the rest of us, is Belle”

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the 1991 film is that Belle is nothing like the “little people” in her “poor provincial town”. Then again, you would be unlikely to forget this because she never shuts up about it. She literally walks through the streets singing about how unique she is, painfully conscious that “there must be more to this provincial life” (unlike the boring old plebs getting on with their boring old work). “Papa, do you think I’m odd?” she humblebrags. “It’s just that I’m not sure I fit in here.”

What is so different and special about Belle? Like all the other young women of the town (charmingly dismissed as “the bimbettes”) she’s tall, white and thin, with large breasts and eyes. Unlike them, however, she has brown hair. You know, just like Andrea Dworkin. So far, so feminist.

Belle also reads books. This is feminist, even if said books are about “far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise!” (hence not exactly the Scum manifesto). It doesn’t really matter what you’re reading, though, as long as you’re reading, preferably while walking through a busy market square, completely oblivious to other human beings and their pathetic little lives.

Like most fairy-tale heroines, Belle doesn’t have a mother. One presumes her mother must have died while engaged in some second-wave, biologically essentialist activity such as giving birth. Thankfully Belle doesn’t need an older female role model – or indeed any female role model – because most women are rubbish, lacking the imagination even to question their fate. If they’re not fancying Gaston, they’re faffing about with babies or getting old.

While I doubt the creators of Beauty and the Beast had been reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (published in 1990), I think the overall shift in mood is obvious. This is the beginning of a new style of feminism, which is not about one’s social position, but one’s inner identity. It’s not for rubbish women, who marry local heartthrobs and have babies and get old and shit. It’s only for special women, like Belle. This makes it more inclusive (no, I don’t know why, either). More importantly, it makes it more marketable. Sod the sisterhood; as long as you have the right accessories, liberation is yours.

“Gaston, you are positively primeval”

In order to have this new feminism, you still need sexists. Fortunately, Beauty and the Beast provides us with the character of Gaston, who is your classic, out-and-out, unreconstructed chauvinist. Indeed, he’s so stereotypically chauvinist you might forget for an entire hour that he’s not actually the one keeping a woman prisoner until she falls in love with him. Gaston might attempt to use Belle’s father as a means of coercing Belle to be with him; the Beast is the one who bloody well does it.

Structurally, it turns out there’s very little Gaston wants to do to Belle that the Beast doesn’t actually do. However, the latter is excused because he does it while being a beast and hence has identity issues. Not only that, but the Beast’s sexism isn’t as clichéd and common as Gaston’s. If the latter reads FHM, the former reads Julia Kristeva. If Gaston stands for the easy-win, obvious, pussy-grabbing misogyny of the right, the Beast stands for the left’s more refined, complex, long-wordy woman-hating. It’s not for Belle to challenge it, but to listen and learn from it.

This is, I think, one of the most insidious aspects of Beauty and the Beast, and the one which marks it out as a fundamentally third-wave project: it remarkets femininity – by which I mean female accommodation, empathy, self-sacrifice on behalf of males – as not just a female, but a feminist, virtue. Belle is sneeringly dismissive of the Bimbettes’ adoration of Gaston, yet quite prepared to embrace self-effacement for a more unusual male in a more unusual setting. Why, then it starts to look like empowerment! Watching this now, I can’t help recalling my own feelings about leaving behind the “coarse and unrefined” men of my own town to go to university, where I met men whose sexism I chose not to see. I associated misogyny with a lack of education and an uncritical embrace of stereotypes. Surely men who looked different and read books couldn’t hate women, too? Perhaps all they needed was a woman who understood them.

“Why, we only live to serve”

Feminism makes no sense without a meaningful analysis of work and class. I didn’t realise this back in 1991. As far as I was concerned, sexism was simply a massive, global misunderstanding, the unfortunate outcome of the mistaken belief that women were inferior to men. It never crossed my mind that it might all be the other way round: that the dehumanisation of women could have arisen as a means to justify their exploitation, an exploitation upon which countless social, political and economic structures depended. That would just have been too depressing, not to mention terribly second-wave.

While my analysis made little sense, it did make solving the problem of sexism a whole lot simpler. We could explain to men that women were people, too. We could show them that we were people, too. Job done. It did occasionally strike me as oddly fortuitous that I should have been born at just the right time for feminism to succeed. I would have pitied the women of my mother’s generation, were it not for the fact that most of those I knew were not feminists anyway. They were, if not happy with their lot, then at least accepting of it, or so it seemed to me. Women my own age, on the other hand, were more enlightened (or at least the Belles among us were).

Belle rejects Gaston’s vision of her future as his wife: “A rustic hunting lodge, my latest kill roasting on the fire, and my little wife, massaging my feet, while the little ones play with the dogs.” As she keeps on reminding us, Belle wants more to life than unpaid domestic labour. While second-wave feminists had an annoying tendency to remind us that such work never actually goes away – someone still has to do it, and surely it should be everyone – third-wavers had a better idea: pretend there still exists a class of people who are born to do all the boring old tasks no one else wants to do, only this time, said class doesn’t have to include you personally. This is the solution to which Belle turns.

The likes of Betty Friedan may have fretted over how to liberate middle-class women from domestic servitude without piling the labour onto other women. One solution Friedan didn’t count on was an enchanted castle, with the staff who claim to “only live to serve”. In modern feminist terms we would call such people “cis women” (singular version: your mum). Such women’s relationship with their class status is not conflicted; on the contrary, they apparently identify it. This means feminists don’t have to challenge an exploitative hierarchy after all. Rather they only need ensure that they – as individuals wanting “more than this provincial life” – don’t find themselves wrongly positioned within it. 

This was my kind of feminism, one based not on the world I wanted for everyone, but on the women I didn’t want to become. It was and remains incredibly appealing. It’s only now it strikes me that feminism as flight from stereotypical womanhood into one’s own perceived exceptionality isn’t reaping the rewards one might have expected, at least not for female people. It’s only now that I can’t help wondering whether Mrs Potts wasn’t such a happy teapot all along. Maybe she was seething with inner resentment. Maybe she and Babette the feather duster – tired of her unpleasant, Benny Hill-esque, rapey relationship with Lumière – dreamed of running away together. The sad fact is, we’ll never know.

I don’t take the view that Disney films are an unmitigated anti-feminist evil. Frozen (along with Tangled) is the film that inspired one of my sons to turn up to the school disco dressed as Elsa, to grow his hair long, to become the kick-ass, non-conforming seven-year-old he is today. The truth is I enjoyed watching Beauty and the Beast again. It’s comforting to be reminded of a time when sex-based inequality seemed like an easy problem to fix, when I believed I could identify my way out of my mother’s fate. But that is a fantasy. What’s worrying is the degree to which fantasy feminism is now winning out over reality, while real, live women continue to suffer.

“To be a feminist,” wrote Rebecca Walker, “is to integrate an ideology of equality and female empowerment into the very fibre of my life. it is to search for personal clarity in the midst of systemic destruction, to join in sisterhood with women when often we are divided, to understand power structures with the intention of challenging them.” In other words, it’s more than simply stepping beyond the barriers that still hold other women back. Let’s not spend the next 26 years pretending otherwise.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.