Food: It's Not For Girls

Pot Noodle joined the list of brands which seem determined to drive away women. They should realise that ironic hipster sexism is still sexism.

Yesterday, the beautiful city of Newcastle – hometown of one half of the Vagenda, both halves of Ant and Dec, and the endless source of entertainment that was Byker Grove – was marred by the appearance of a terrible visitor: the Piri-Piri Chicken Van.

What is the Piri-Piri Chicken Van, we hear you cry. Well, it basically does what it says on the flimsy foil lid, being as it is a van launching a new flavour of Pot Noodle here in the lucky, lucky UK. Pot Noodle and its compatriots haven’t exactly been known for their sensitivity in the past when it comes to gender issues (it is, after all, the "slag of all snacks"), but this latest incarnation of their marketing strategy really does take the preservative-laden biscuit. "Peel the top off a hottie!" is the slogan, plastered alongside two closely aligned Pot Noodle lids that are deliberately juxtaposed to simulate breasts. And if that reference was too subtle for you, there’s a half-naked girl on the photo beside it, just waiting to have her top peeled off by the slathering consumer who’s in the mood for a walk down – in their words – "Easy Street". It's enough to make you crawl back to the Iceland store, apologising for any offence you saw in "Because mums are heroes" and begging them to employ you permanently in their managerial scheme.

Of course, we’re not the first ones to raise objections to this questionable campaign. One unfortunate young lady known only as Emma dared to stick her head above the parapet on the Piri-Piri Chicken Van’s Facebook page – prompting a response from official Pot Noodle social media that she didn’t understand "tongue-in-cheek fun for all" but "sorry you feel that way". Our own attempts to contact Pot Noodle PR resulted in an email that similarly told us they were "sorry if they had caused offence", which, as anyone who has been forced to apologise against their will for a misdemeanor which they still view as entirely justified knows, is the biggest cop-out apology known to humanity.

Now, we all know that "hipster sexism" has been all the rage ever since American Apparel first launched their "now open" campaign, and it has been operating alongside the recent "new wave of feminism" as ostensible proof that we’re really not needed. We’re past all that now, you see. All this sexism stuff in the media might well be exactly the same as it was 50 years ago, but this time around it’s ironic. So can you leave us to stare at some tits in peace? You’re making too much noise at the back.

Except, of course, there's nothing all that hip about Pot Noodle. Pot Noodle is Lad Culture in snack form, an edible Page Three; drooling, retrograde sexism, and any PR exec who tries to tell us otherwise (Hi, Alex!) can jog on. Pot noodle aren't cleverly challenging sexist stereotypes by mocking them – they're perpetuating those stereotypes, one "hot bird" at a time.

Such a lack of imagination in advertising is enough to make anyone as bored and jaded as a steaming hot model hired to "sex up" a pot of instant noodles. Is this really all that the collective human imagination can give? In a month where Cambridge University students have been celebrating the end of the long long-held tradition of bikini-clad women jelly-wrestling in a paddling pool to (mostly male) spectators to signal the end of their annual exams (yes, really), did nobody over at Pot Noodle raise a tentative hand when "Peel the top off a hottie" came to the drawing board? Or are they all actually, seriously a bunch of back-slapping misogynists who were raised in a vacuum and presumably laughed raucously at one customer’s response to brave old Emma on Facebook – "Feminist, get back in the kitchen and make me a Pot Noodle"? If so, then maybe they could use that line for their next product launch.

The failure of executives from the macho world of advertising to gauge the public mood is nothing new (just look at what happened to Femfresh last year), but surely it's high time that they start listening. From Pot Noodle's campaign, you'd think that no one with a vagina had ever ingested one, when in fact Holly once felt so strongly about her right to consume one that, after being shouted at during her snack break, she quit her job over it. Is she to be condemned to the fluorescent umaminess of supernoodles? It looks like it.

And thus, Pot Noodles have been added to the list of foods that women the country over are seemingly not permitted to consume. A list which includes McCoys (Man Crisps), Yorkie Bars (Not for girls), Irn Bru (weird preoccupation with mum's boobs), Burger King (blowjob imagery) Weetabix (girls can't be superheroes) and, thanks to the date-rapey tendencies of their advertising, microwaveable burger manufacturers Rustlers.

Are these companies, along with Gwyneth Paltrow, part of some kind of global conspiracy to keep the female sex hungry? Because, from where we're standing, the only food we're allowed to eat is a green smoothie and a fucking insubstantial Cadbury's Crispello.

It's all very well blaming magazines for our current food neurosis with their championing of emaciated bodies and their diet tips, but food manufacturers are some of the worst culprits for gendered advertising. It's about time someone brought them up to date. The worst thing about the Pot Noodle campaign is its predatory sense of entitlement, as though 'peeling the top off a hottie' is as simple a transaction as picking a snack pot off the shelf. According to Alex from Pot Noodle, this is "not intended to demean women in any way". "As a brand targeting a male, youth audience, we do push the boundaries", he emailed from the 1970s.

The solution, of course, to this kind of thing is a easy one: don't let anyone who eats Pot Noodle take your top off, ever. A philosophy that we're sure many of you lived by anyway. As you were.

Part of Pot Noodle's Facebook ad campaign. Photograph: Pot Noodle/Facebook

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

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.