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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder