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Laurie Penny on Kate Middleton: benefit scrounging mother moves into palace at taxpayer's expense

Britain only permits two types of outrage today: dog-whistle disgust for the extremely poor and spanielish devotion to the aristocracy.

“Dole Queen Owns Horse!” screeched the front page of yesterday's Sun. This masterpiece of balanced headlining ran alongside a full-length picture of a distressed-looking pregnant woman who is due to be relocated into an extravagant new home at the government’s expense. The thirty-one year old, who has never held a full-time job, will shortly be moving into a twenty-bedroom palace with a fleet of staff, all funded by the taxpayer at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds per year. Kensington Palace, to be precise. The state is to fund the redecoration of every room to suit the unemployed mother-to-be and her husband, who is also out of work after a brief stint in the army. 

By now, the twisted logic of tabloid mob-whippery dictates that a small host of outraged citizens carrying pitchforks, cameras and branding-irons should be forming to descend on Kensington. The public must be demanding to know who this brazen madam thinks she is and why she's being allowed to have a kid on the state and hundreds of millions of pounds in handouts instead of accepting a slow slide into alienated penury like the rest of us. Throw the hussy to the vultures! Smear her face over every front-page, have her chased from her home by packs of wild paparazzi! Confiscate her uterus! Rent out the offending organ to wealthy Chinese families until the surrogacy fees have paid back the exorbitant cost of her outrageous hyperfecundity to the public purse! If we’re not careful, every scrounging harlot this side of Anglesey will grow up thinking that the recipe for an easy life is to amass a collection of elegant wrap-dresses and marry the hereditary heir to the Duchy of Cornwall. The shame of it. 

Rather than string this one out until it snaps, let's be absolutely clear that we're talking about the Duchess of Cambridge here. By an unhappy oversight of tabloid subediting, Kate Middleton’s picture appeared yesterday in every paper looking slightly sad about some slightly mean things said about her by a Booker Prize-winning author, alongside headlines attacking Heather Frost, mother-of-eleven, for daring to be rehoused by a local council that has a statutory duty to do so. That these two stories have hit the front pages this week tells you most of what you need to know about class and media manipulation in Britain today. 

Tabloid persecution of individuals in receipt of welfare benefits is practically encouraged by the Department for Work and Pensions, which has been known to feed its tame papers stories about "benefit scroungers" to drum up support for its policy of plunging hundreds of thousands of children into poverty. Say anything the least bit critical about the Duchess of Cambridge, however, and you’ll get an official reprimand from the PM, or worse. If Hilary Mantel’s subtle and incisive essay merits public excoriation of this sort, I’m expecting a team of black-baggers to burst through my window at any second once they find my back-catalogue of republican rantery - so please forgive any spelling mistakes. I’m writing this column at speed, in the dark, hiding under the bed.

Before they come to take me away, let's look at the figures. Frost's large family costs the British state some £30,000 a year, as opposed to the £30m paid to the Queen per annum, on top of the Royal family’s land-based income and travel and living expenses. The morality of having a child at state expense is not what I want to discuss here: the key difference between Kate Middleton and Heather Frost is that the Duchess’ future children will never be at risk of poverty, whereas Frost’s are. In fact, in the sixth richest country in the world, over a quarter of children and young people live in poverty. The morality of that uncomfortable little statistic is never questioned, because Frost’s real crime in the ledger of proto-fascist tabloid morality is not the fact that she has a lot of children, but the fact that she is poor. Every millionaire in Britain will be receiving a £42,000 tax cut come April, and none of them are being shamed for it on the front page of the Sun.

There are two types of outrage permitted on of this bitter little island right now: dog-whistle disgust for the extremely poor and spanielish devotion to the aristocracy. If we're going to talk about large, dysfunctional families gaming the system and spoiling democracy for hard-working, law-abiding, ordinary citizens, the discussion should start and finish with the House of Windsor. The royals and their retinue cause more damage to the British psyche than any luckless single-parent family scapegoated by the tabloids, and it's a cost that goes way beyond the financial implications of the Civil List. Yesterday’s headlines, like tomorrow’s and next week’s, tell the people of Britain in terms as stark and brutal as an eviction notice: ask for nothing, doff your cap, and know your place.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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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