Emma Stone was right to call out sexism in the media. Will other actors join her?

Time to end "rabbit food questions".

Something strange happened during an interview in American Teen Vogue last week. Exhausted from interminable questions about her hair and her ‘style icons’, Emma Stone called bullshit in the best way possible, to much applause. Listing the types of inane questions that she, and not her male co-stars, usually face, she concluded simply: ‘It is sexism.’

Of course, Stone is not the first actor to kick back against the overwhelming stream of questions women face in interviews over their diet regimes, their make-up routines and their exercise schedules (and let’s not forget how they could possibly manage to be successful while also having children).

Helen Mirren was famously furious back in 1975 when Michael Parkinson asked her whether she found that her ‘equipment’ hindered her in her aspirations to become a serious actress. She was so pissed off that she still mentions it in interviews. (Or rather, it is still asked about in interviews, and referenced in columns such as this. And thus the media feeds itself.) 

Stone and Mirren’s travails with interviewers lead us to question whether anything has really changed since 1975. Successful women are still being asked about their bodies above all else, sending the message that our appearance is what defines us; that it is our most crucial asset. Interviews by Cosmopolitan and its ugly sisters often follow an established pattern: a structure so predictable and formulaic in nature, and therefore so familiar, that Mhairi McFarlane’s pisstaking Ultimate Celebrity Interview quickly went viral earlier this year. In such interviews, cutesy little fillers such as ‘umm’, ‘er’, ‘you know?’ are interspersed with endless commentary on what the subject is eating and wearing, both at the time and on a daily basis. Invariably, the body shapes paraded on the covers of these magazines owe as much to Photoshop as they do to a personal trainer.

These women are often described as ‘impossibly thin and beautiful’, but then a piece of token advice is always offered up to remind us that we should feel bad for not achieving these heights of graphically enhanced impossibility. ‘I just eat a spinach leaf once in a while and sometimes jog from my front door to the taxi.’ Most of the time, the celeb is ‘just like you, honest’ - and allegedly dines out regularly on bacon and cheese-stuffed pizzaburgers. The subtle implication is that your failure to reach a similar state of physical and mental uniformity is an inadequacy on your part.

That can be enough to trap you into an insecurity so deep that you find yourself buying the same magazine every single month,  hoping that a ‘beauty secret’ will be revealed, as if Oracle-like knowledge of looking like Natalie Portman after you roll out of bed in the morning has just been waiting to be revealed inside the glossy pages of Grazia.

Even magazines that usually offer enlightened commentary fall short at this final hurdle: Stylist’s weekly interview with a ‘career woman’ differs notably to the interviews in its male counterpart Short List by unnecessarily mentioning the food eaten during the day for each woman they report back on, dangerously correlating calorific control with financial success.

Saying that, it’s hard to tell whether or not Stylist even asked for dietary information from their interview subjects. Perhaps women have been so indoctrinated by celeb food diaries and diet articles that a monotonous recital of every substance that has passed our lips is becoming second nature. It’s hard to know what came first: the corn fed, free-range organic chicken or the Duchy Originals egg. Either way, it’s clear that this obsession with women’s bodies is not just something celebs have to worry about.

Those reputable social scientists at Littlewoods recently conducted a study in which 2,000 women were asked to envisage their perfect bikini body, the result of which was an alarming composite image of a vacant automaton in sunglasses (they had evidently neglected to ask Tanya in Wigan for her favourite set of celebrity irises.) The tedious predictability of such shallow, familiar lines of enquiry leads us to conclude that no Western Woman is now safe from being asked about her arse as she goes about her daily business. It’s a sad state of affairs when squatting goes from signifying living rent-free in a bohemian utopia to something you do to make your posterior look like J-Lo’s. Will we be asked about our cankles next time we fill in a census? And next time a woman dares to say something insightful in a public role, will she forever carry the caveat ‘not just a pretty face’?

Which is why it’s so wonderful to see women biting back. When Anne Hathaway was recently asked how she lost ‘so much weight’, she drily asked her interviewer if he was scouting for personal advice, and assured him that he looked great as he was. Scarlett Johansson, meanwhile, highlighted how a journalist had asked her male co-interviewee ‘an interesting, existential question’ while subjecting her to ‘a rabbit food question'. Seeing these women react with  wit to the inane probing of celebrity hacks is nothing short of joyous.

If things continue in this vein, the celebrity diet/fitness/hair formula will come to be replaced by the requisite ‘sexism in the media’ question, and soon we’ll be reading confused responses to halfway-house questions such as ‘how does your hair feel about the glass ceiling?’ and ‘do your abs have anything to say about the unfair division of domestic labour?’.

So next time someone in a white coat approaches you on your local high street, clipboard in hand, to ask how you feel about your bum, you are perfectly entitled to turn around, drop your keks, and yell ‘WHY DON’T YOU ASK IT YOURSELF?’ Feminism is nothing if not an accumulation of small victories.

Emma Stone faces the media. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: ASA
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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