Lez Miserable: "I'm more Byron Burger than Lord Byron. Is that why I can't get a date?"

Meet our new columnist, Eleanor Margolis, as she takes a frank, funny and cynical tour through life as a twentysomething lesbian. In her second piece, she describes what it's like to fancy women who wouldn’t give you the time of day on their ironic 80s Ca

A bunch of us are round at The Austrian’s, drinking wine. As usual, I’m being boring about my bad luck with women. The Austrian is having none of this:

“Try harder,” she commands.

The others agree. They set me a challenge for the next time we go out: if I say some words to a real life attractive female, they’ll buy my drinks for the rest of the night.

It strikes me that even my best buds have no faith in me. I don’t have to take this hypothetical woman home, I just have to do some talking with her. That is my insurmountable task.

But some lesbians have this really specific way of being aloof. Let me paint you a picture:

Nikki is 25. She’s skinny, gamine and lovely, with a Mia Farrow circa ’68 haircut. She enjoys cups of tea and riding her bike through the ‘queer poetry’ section of bookshops in Hackney. She DJs at a club night called ‘Minge Attack’. She once knitted an entire house and lived in it for a month as an art project. She claims never to have bought a chain store item of clothing in her whole life, although every time she goes into Urban Outfitters on Commercial Street, the staff wave at her.

Yes, I know she’s pretentious, but I still kind of fancy her.

Yet, if she existed, Nikki wouldn’t give me the time of day on her ironic 80s Casio watch. I’m stubby and veering towards moustache-y. And if I took penicillin, I might die.

I run into a lot of Nikkis on the hip ‘n’ happening East London queer scene. They ignore me because I use phrases like “hip ‘n’ happening”. So it goes.

Then again, it’s not like I’ve ever made a real effort to talk to a Nikki. I’m no chatter- upper of women. I’m more Byron Burger than Lord Byron. More of a “watch nervously from a distance” kinda gal. My face even has this special shade of red reserved purely for when a woman catches me checking her out. I call it “Just Go Home And Have A Sad, Quiet Wank Vermillion”. Weirdly, this was rejected by Crayola when I suggested it to them as a new shade. 

So, the night out arrives. We’re going to Club Lesley, a lesbian club night at the tit-achingly cool Dalston Superstore. I put on some Prince and apply red lipstick like war paint.

As we walk into the Superstore, I’m confronted by what looks like a swarm of American Apparel models. I already feel like the complimentary bag of salad that comes with a take-away curry.

And then I clock her, over in the heaving crowd around the bar – it’s Nikki. I find myself veering towards her, leaving my friends behind, looking tense. My feet are moving, while my brain is sending out distress signals:

“What do you think you’re doing, you sad, hairy twit? Do not attempt to engage.”

My feet have other plans and suddenly I’m next to her. I know it’s creepy, but I can’t help noticing how nice she smells – like pencil shavings and CK One. It’s uncanny – she ticks every single Nikki box: the pixie haircut, the Urban Outfitters shirt, the aura of someone who may have once knitted a house. I’ve accepted that my brain isn’t on my side, so I do what I’ve never done before - I listen to my vagina.

“Packed tonight, eh!” I announce, over a remix of some early 00s R&B hit.

She glances over at me. My God, she has pretty eyes.

“Uh-huh!” she replies. We’re both having to shout over the music.

“Ahh, gotta love this song!” I say, while my brain says, “You have absolutely no idea what this song is, you complete and utter wanker.”

“Mmmm. I prefer their earlier stuff, to be honest!”

“Oh yeah, classic!” I reply, while my brain is now screaming the word “arsehat” at me repeatedly.

I spend the next few minutes staring at my feet, while waiting to be served. I order a gin and tonic and flee.

Flustered, I return to my friends.

“There. I did it. I spoke to someone.”

“Yah, and then you ran off like a pussy,” says The Austrian.

I’m not even going to bother fighting her on this one. Technically, I’m owed a night’s supply of drinks, but I know I don’t deserve them.

I spend the rest of the evening dancing limply, while keeping one eye on Nikki and frantically thinking up reasons why I hate her. “Look at her over there with her eyes, and her shoes, and her possible cool job in the media. I loathe her.”

At around two in the morning, I realise that my face hurts from frowning so much. All I want to do is lie in bed, eating a kebab and crying. I head off, leaving the others to enjoy the rest of the night.

The next day, I meet The Austrian for a hung-over brunch.

“You know,” she says, “Zat girl you spoke to last night – she liked you.”

I nearly choke on my eggs Benedict.

“What the..? How? No she didn’t.”

“Yeah, we got talking to her and her friends later on. You know what she said about you.”

“Oh God, what?”

“Your mate is cute. Kind of aloof though.”

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose column "Lez Miserable" will appear weekly on the New Statesman website. She tweets @eleanormargolis

Legs. All the legs. Photo: Getty

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Photo: ASA
Show Hide image

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