A mighty wind

People are making too much of Michele Bachmann's remark about the hurricane.

Of course it was a joke. I don't want to pop anyone's balloon, least of all the New Statesman's, but when Michele Bachmann described Hurricane Irene as an act of God, she was trying to be funny. And, indeed, succeeding. Watch the video. As the Tea Party heroine depicts the metereological devastation as a divine commentary on the size of the American government deficit, her audience fall about laughing.

There have been people daft enough to ascribe the hurricane to divine anger. Most notably, Fox News's Glenn Beck, a Mormon, called Irene "a blessing" and "God reminding you you're not in control." And that came just a few days after televangelist Pat Robertson, who has form, hinted that the recent small earthquake in Washington was a sign of the approaching "End Times". But neither of these two is a candidate for the Republican nomination, as Mrs Bachmann, to the alarm of many, most certainly is.

So what happened? The St Petersburg Times's report of Bachmann's remarks in Florida had a matter-of-fact tone and failed to mention the audience response. Taken out of context, the words went viral. Given Bachmann's Evangelical connections and some of her previous pronouncements -- her open support for Intelligent Design or her approval of wifely submissivess -- it's not surprising that many people have jumped with glee on her apparently Old Testament thoughts on divine intervention in the weather.

That said, I find it difficult to read her suggestion that God was saying: "Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now", as anything other than irony. This was a God who was not merely a Republican sympathiser but something like a frustrated taxpayer, using the forces of nature to sound-off as more humdrum citizens might on the comments section of a blog. Had she been serious, she might (like the former Bishop of Carlisle) have blamed the bad weather on "moral degredation" or the prevalence of same-sex relationships. In other words, on sin.

This minor row will pass, like hurricane Irene itself, and is unlikely to do Bachmann's campaign much damage. At most, it confirms a certain caricature of her. But it does highlight how the campaign for the Republican nomination has become religiously fraught to a remarkable degree. The other day, the New York Times's Bill Keller, suggested that it was time to confront the issue head-on:

We have an unusually large number of candidates, including putative front-runners, who belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons, a faith that many conservative Christians have been taught is a "cult" and that many others think is just weird. (Huntsman says he is not "overly religious.") Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are both affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity -- and Rick Santorum comes out of the most conservative wing of Catholicism -- which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.

Keller writes that while he doesn't much care what a presidential candidates believes in terms of religious doctrine, it does matter to him "if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon... or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country," "respects serious science and verifiable history", or "is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed". He proposes that would-be presidents should make their views clear on three major questions designed to tease out the church-state relationship: whether America is "a Judeo-Christian nation"; whether they would have any qualms about appointing a Muslim or an atheist to the Supreme Court; and their views on evolution.

He leaves out what to many is the most divisive question of all: that of abortion. But then no presidential candidate manages to get through a campaign without having to negotiate that one.

Keller has been accused of pandering to religious discrimination, although he's the first to admit that "every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders". In a predominantly Christian society, as the United States still generally is, the most popular solution to the religion/politics dilemma has been to regard affiliation to whatever church as a sign of generic virtue without enquiring too closely into particular beliefs. Recent elections, however, have seen candidates subjected to the unrelenting interrogation of every aspect of their life and character. The idea of religion as a private space, something between the candidate and his or her God (if any), has been a notable casualty of this increased scrutiny. But the intense focus on candidates' religion does not necessarily prove that religion has become a more significant factor in politics than it used to be.

Something to bear in mind, I think, is that the US Constitution, with its separation of church and state, is stronger than any one president. The president swears to uphold the constitution; the constitution is not there to uphold the president. Its checks and balances would make it impossible for any president to enforce a theocratic agenda, even if they had one.

As for Bachmann, I find her little joke about the hurricane oddly reassuring. I mean, would she have dared to say such a thing if she was a genuine believer in a thunderbolt-happy deity? Wouldn't she be afraid that God would be unamused and aim the next tornado directly at her?

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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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