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.

Getty
Show Hide image

How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

0800 7318496