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The Sun's Page 3 is awful and outdated, and hating it doesn't mean that you hate sex, say Rhiannon and Holly of the Vagenda.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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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.