How I became a lads' mag feminist

Lulu Le Vay used to physically balk at the sight of a young bloke flicking through the bosom-heavy pages of a lads’ mag. But once she started working for one, she became a lot less sure that these publications were as "degrading and harmful" as she had al

Gender equality pressure group UK Feminista are the key activists of the "lose the lads’ mags" campaign - the impact of which has resulted in a number of these publications being "modesty masked" in high street supermarkets. Some, however, have stood their ground. Nuts, Front and Zoo have been removed from the shelves of Co-op stores entirely, preferring to lose their spot than comply to media censorship. According to UK Feminista: "Lads’ mags promote sexist attitudes and behaviours. They normalise the idea that it’s acceptable to treat women like sex objects. These are degrading and harmful publications."

A year ago I would have agreed with this statement wholeheartedly. I physically balked at the sight of a young bloke flicking through the bosom-heavy pages of one particular lads’ mag on a bus or a plane. This was a magazine I detested from my core. I made a snap judgement and assumption about both the reader and the publication. I instantly placed that person and the magazine within a certain category - a category beneath the one I "believed" I was smugly sitting in. My belief in being perched high up on the snobby social mobility ladder protruded with as much pride as the cover stars' monumental assets. But what were these judgements based on, precisely? My perspective on lads’ mags has now completely changed, since I started working on one of them.

I have always been interested in girls' and women’s issues since I was a teenager. Being a 1970s child born last into a family dominated by older brothers (11 kids in total, spawned from two mothers), I had no option. I had first-hand experience of growing up within the dominant patriarchal society. At 10 years old I was demonstrating at Greenham Common with my mother - an ardent first-waver. Her passion for women’s rights was a big influence. My first degree back in the 1990s in Art History explored issues of the representation of women in arts and the media, and when I embarked on a Masters in Gender, Media and Culture last year, my interest and knowledge peaked. I became immersed in Feminist Theory and got to grips with semiotics, which has enabled me to pick apart media messages with a number of underpinning theories. I have now embarked on a PhD in Sociology focusing on the feminised social body and media effects in relation to trends in assisted conception. I can now - and do - call myself a feminist. I've earned - well, am earning - the academic stripes. 

So, with this in mind, it seems remarkable (if not unfathomable) to me that I’ve made such a U-turn on my venomous standpoint against this one specific publication, that was making my feminist blood boil. Much to my own surprise I was offered - and accepted - freelance work on this magazine as a subeditor: the person who proofreads the copy, conjures up hilarious picture captions (well, I try) and creates snappy headlines.

Over the last few months I’ve been brought down a peg or two. Why? Because through the nature of this work I have had to delve deep into the magazine content and read it, rather than simmering with sanctimony from afar. To my surprise the copy is clean - there are no swear words, and no derogatory language is directed toward the featured women. The tone is light, fun and friendly. Even working in the office I’ve found myself surrounded by a pleasant team of educated, happily married blokes who are simply doing their job, and doing it well. The sprinkling of girls working in editorial and advertising are also perfectly content. Interestingly, there are more girls doing work experience than boys, mostly coming from a media undergraduate background.

During my time on the "inside", thus far, there has been much discussion about the feminist campaign against them, and how they "treat women like sex objects". The arguments that have arisen are openly debated amongst colleagues, which has been impossible to ignore. Why should the covers of lads' mags be singled out and not the torso-glistening covers of gay magazines? Why is it acceptable to have a size zero model with her nipples out in a fashion title and not acceptable to have a size 12 or 14 curvy woman doing precisely the same thing in a lads' mag? (These women would be considered too fat for the emaciated requirements of fashion mags). So, this provokes some questions. Do different rules apply within differing class categories? Does an image of a naked woman hanging in an art gallery mean less objectification because of the more esoteric space, and because the audience is of a different socio-cultural background? These arguments are complex and there are no clear answers. But they are there, and should be openly considered.

Now, more informed, I’ve become far more broad-minded. However, I still have concerns with the representation of young women in these types of publications. My issue now is not so much about the actual magazines featuring them, but more so with the girls' desire to be featured. These magazines are inundated by young girls - models and regular girls - desperately wanting to make a nudey splash across the pages; clambering for affirmation of their value, for some kind of societal approval. Is it here the cycle needs to be broken? Or is it not their own choice - emancipation through objectification? Are we as a society simply being too uptight?

I am now wrestling emotionally and intellectually with these two worlds. One moment, in my personal study, I’m exploring ideas around women’s bodies being both subjects and objects of images, and how young women’s bodies "become" through relationships with images under dominant patriarchal codes, which could be related directly to the content I am working with at this particular lads’ mag. The next moment I am confirming my next subbing shift and discussing with the production editor what cake I should bring in so he can let me leave early to meet my supervisor.

The feminist within me is now not fully sure if these magazines are "degrading and harmful", after all. But what I am decided upon, is that one genre of publication should not be targeted, and that this objectification finger-pointing is a class issue as much as feminist issue.

If society disapproves of objectification of the subject, then cover them all up - only then would that be true equality.

Why should the covers of lads' mags be singled out and not the torso-glistening covers of gay magazines?

Lulu LeVay is a sociologist, feminist, writer, DJ and fitness fanatic.

Photo: Getty
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The “lunatic” incident showed us the real Owen Smith: and it ain't pretty

Forget the slur - what really matters is what it says about his empty promises, says David Wearing. 

Owen Smith has embarrassed himself again. Having previously called for Labour to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”, advocated negotiations with ISIS, and described himself as “normal” with “a wife and three children” while competing with a gay woman to stand for the Labour leadership, you might expect him to have learnt the value of expressing himself more carefully. But no. Not a bit of it.

At a rally on Tuesday evening, Smith described Jeremy Corbyn as a “lunatic” with no “coherent narrative about what’s wrong with Britain”. It’s an interesting choice of words from someone who needs to win over tens of thousands of Corbyn’s supporters if he is to avoid a crushing defeat in this summer’s Labour leadership election. Indeed, we may look back on this as the final nail in the coffin of Smith’s campaign.

Let’s be honest. Most of us at some stage have used casual language like this (“lunatic”, “insane”), to describe those whose rationality we don’t share or understand. I’ll admit to having done so myself. But it is wrong. It perpetuates a stigma around mental illness and damages peoples’ chances of getting the care and support they need from society. We should all cut it out, especially those of us who aspire to high public office.

Beyond this, however, Smith has driven a coach and horses through the central premise of his own campaign. Throughout the summer he has presented himself as substantively agreeing with Corbyn on almost all domestic and economic issues, and only seeking to pursue that agenda more effectively and professionally. He has set out a range of policies - including a £200bn “British New Deal”, workplace rights and more redistributive taxation - that constitute an overt appeal to the social democratic, progressive values of the hundreds of thousands who joined the party to support Corbyn and secure a clean break with the neoliberalism of New Labour.

But it is simply not credible to simultaneously say “I agree with Jeremy” and that Jeremy is a “lunatic”. No one uses the word "lunatic" to describe someone whose politics they basically share. No one says “your diagnosis of the country’s ills is incoherent, and that’s the substantive agenda I want to take forward”. Smith’s remarks indicate that, deep down, he shares the incredulity expressed by so many of his colleagues that anyone would want to abandon the Thatcher-Blair-Cameron “centre ground” of deregulation, privatisation, corporate-empowerment and widening inequality. After all, Corbyn’s narrative only appears incoherent to those who regard the post-1979 status quo as self-evidently the best of all possible worlds - give or take a few policy tweaks - rather than the very essence of “what’s wrong with Britain”.

This incident will confirm the suspicion of many Labour members that, if he did win the leadership, Smith would dilute or ditch most of the policies he has used to try and win their votes. Those fears are well founded. Take as one illustrative example the issue of immigration, where Smith has shown one face to the party while suggesting that he would show quite another to the country, as party leader.

At leadership hustings, Smith presents an enlightened, pro-immigration, anti-xenophobic stance, but in a Newsnight interview last month we saw something rather different.  When asked if there were “too many immigrants” in the UK, he replied that “it depends where you are”, giving official comfort to the post-Brexit “pack your bags” brigade. He asserted that EU migration “definitely caused downward pressure on wages” despite academic studies having repeatedly shown that this is false, and that EU migration is of clear overall benefit to the economy.

Then, calling for an “honest” discussion on immigration, Smith noted that his wife is a school teacher and that schools in their local area are under pressure from “significant numbers into South Wales of people fleeing the Middle East”. In fact, a grand total of 78 people have been resettled in the whole of Wales under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. In the local authority encompassing Smith’s constituency of Pontypridd, the total number is zero.

This suggests, not someone who shares members’ values, but one who probably regards the leader’s pro-immigration stance as “lunatic”, and would prefer a return to the days when Labour erected the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention camp, rejected the vast majority of asylum applications from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and when Tom Watson put out an election leaflet reading “Labour is on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers”.

Smith’s problem is that his mask keeps slipping. And every time it does, the choice before Labour members comes into sharper focus. On the one hand, they have a man who lacks many of the managerial and communication skills for party leadership, but who shares their values and who they can trust to fight for their agenda until a credible successor can be found. Against him stands a man they may not be able to trust, who may not share their values, and whose claims of professional competence grow more threadbare by the day. It’s a poor choice to be faced with, but Smith is at least making it easier for them.