On Page 3 and in-fighting in the feminist movement

The Sun's Page 3 is awful and outdated, and hating it doesn't mean that you hate sex, say Rhiannon and Holly of the Vagenda.

The feminist movement has always been plagued by in-fighting. If you need any convincing of that, just take a look at Tanya Gold’s recent article in the Spectator, where she recounts several notable lady-scraps - the most vicious of which involves Camille Paglia allegedly calling Julie Burchill a ‘pig-fucking cunt’.

At its most negative, pigs aside, it has boiled down to factions from one side telling the other that they aren’t even ‘qualified’ or ‘allowed’ to call themselves feminists at all, whatever that means (an accusation that has been levied against us). And while the inability of feminists to just get along like the nice, polite, cuddly little sisterhood you’d surely expect a group of women to be has often been used as a stick with which to beat the movement, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Feminism is made no different from any other political movement merely by being mostly populated by women, and expecting it to be so is frankly ridiculous. While we’re not calling for a repeat of ‘pig-fucking-cunt-gate’, we’ll acknowledge that controversy in the ranks isn’t about to end - and, that settled, we might just stick our own oar, very briefly, into the murky waters of intra-feminist debate.

The New Statesman’s own Martin Robbins is up for our ire this week, with his decision to put forward an anti-anti Page 3 article. It showed a pro-nudity but not exactly pro-Page 3 stance that relied mostly upon a personal attack on the creator of an online petition. Rather than do what most people do when a petition they disagree with comes around (shrug and not sign it), Robbins levied an unnecessary tirade about the petition’s creator, Lucy Holmes, calling her supposed anti-nudity stance ‘sinister’ and arguing that the solution to the Page 3 conundrum would be to put more nudity in newspapers instead. Most of his article took issue with the fact that Holmes once apparently said sex should be ‘beautiful’, which he then extrapolated to mean that she probably wanted to ban all porn. Then he ended on the idea that we should keep Page 3, and ‘add some cocks in too’. Awesome.

At the time of writing, the No More Page 3 petition has 44,000 signatures, many of whom, if Robbins is to be believed, are puritans disgusted by the sight of a naked human body. This is one of the most problematic aspects of Robbins’ argument, because it assumes that everyone joins movements for the same reasons, when in fact the opposite is true. Any movement comprised of 44,000 people is going to be made up of varying points of view and insights and experiences. In this sense Lucy Holmes’ own (assumed) personal views on nudity cease to be of central importance. Enough people felt that boobs were not news to sign on the dotted line. Some will inevitably find nudity somewhat offensive – this is England, after all – but just as many will be signing because they don’t want their kids to grow up in a world in which they have to witness what one commenter described as ‘the normalised commodification of the female body'. As they pointed out, it’s the casualness, the ordinariness of that commodification which is disturbing, and which many object to. It perpetuates shitty ideas about women everywhere, not just those posing in their best French knickers on a printed page.

This is something many women know, and understand. They have spoken out about the effect that seeing Page 3 has on their confidence, their wellbeing, and the way they perceive their place in society – as sex objects, as the receptacles of men’s egos and gazes and penises, routinely ogled over buttered toast, normalised. Those women’s voices are important, and should be heard. We wouldn’t accuse Robbins of ‘mansplaining’ – a word used by some feminists to indicate a man preaching to women about the nature of their own oppression in a patronising manner – mainly because it isn’t a very good word, but we will tentatively tout the idea that he is speaking from a position of male privilege, and that those (varied, complex) feelings that women experience when they look at Page 3 are likely to be somewhat alien to him. 

We welcome men as part of the feminist movement – we love men – but we need them to listen to us, to our histories and our ideas and our plans, and take these into account, and think about them before accusing us of being sinister or striving for sexual hegemony. The wonderful thing about this new wave of feminism is that many different groups are campaigning on different issues, and that people can take their pick of causes to support. We’re busy, and in-fighting just wastes our time and yours. In the time that we have taken writing this smackdown, we could have been doing something much more productive, like banning porn for ever (ha ha, got you there, didn’t we, Martin?)

The saddest thing about Robbins’ argument was that he pointed out all of the negative, misogynistic parts of Page 3 - ‘dehumanising acts of mockery’, in his own words, that ‘hilariously’ juxtapose complex political views next to scantily clad women, where the joke is that females with breasts might actually have something to say about the Higgs Boson - then dismissed the anti-Page 3 campaign as a ‘slut-shaming’ exercise that aims to force everyone into the same expression of sexuality. The anti-Page 3 campaign is actually wonderfully simple. Page 3 is awful and outdated, it’s regressive and disrespectful, and we urge you to sign the petition. Not because we hate tits or nudity or doggy-style sex with handcuffs on, but because the context of those tits is important, whether you like it or not.

This is something most feminists agree on, and with good, robust, valid (varied, complex) reasons. It’s good to have a concrete target (for once). So let’s make the most of it. The black feminists may be angry at the socialist feminists, and the socialist feminists may be angry at the radical feminists, and Paglia may hate Burchill, but at least they’re all angry at men, right?

Just joking. We’re angry at you, Martin. You and The Sun.

 

The photo used above is from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence. You can find the original here.

Lovely. Photo: Flickr/Hankzby, used under a Creative Commons licence

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

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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