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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue