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.

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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