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 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