Boys and girls

Overloaded: popular culture and the future of feminism

Imelda Whelehan (ed) <em>The Women's Press,

Overloaded is billed as a feminist critique of the new lad and ladette culture, that uncouth hinterland populated by the boys in their Nikes and the girls in their Wonderbras. So it's no surprise, then, that Imelda Whelehan identifies the failure of the new order to advance the cause of women's rights in any significant way.

To Whelehan, the 1.5 million men who read style magazines such as GQ and Loaded are "basking in reflections of their own dumbing down as part of a refusal to examine their most deep-seated prejudices against women". But this ignores the truth that most men's magazines, despite their trivial aspects, contain the sort of reportage, literary fiction and serious interviews that are sadly absent from women's glossies. The laddish spin seems more attributable to a sense that, as Michael VerMeulen (late, great editor of GQ) once noted, men are now destined to become either playboys or drones.

At the outset, lifestyle magazines naturally veered towards the playboy persona; but, as that became a cliche, the appeal disappeared. Sales of Loaded have dropped dramatically over the past year, and the old troopers in the men's market, GQ and Esquire, have begun squabbling over the masculine high ground.

The real agenda of Whelehan's book, however, is revealed by its sources, which are drawn not from men's magazines and laddish television programmes, but from standard feminist texts and newspaper articles. Whelehan identifies lad culture and its female counterpart as evidence of a backlash against "second-wave feminism". But for anyone outside the sisterhood, it is unclear exactly what is meant by "second wave". Is it a blanket term for 1970s feminism? Or for a specific group of writers? Not Mary Wollstonecraft or the suffragettes, at any rate.

Whelehan is concerned that so-called new feminists and postfeminists have moved away from the ground once occupied by their more militant older sisters; and she regrets, too, how feuds between women writers are seized upon by men. She chastises the new generation of feminists for their "amnesia about the past" and their impoverished sense of history: "Some of the most active figures in feminism have sunk into oblivion, such as Kate Millett, who was, in the late nineties, broke and jobless." I suppose this must be comparable to finding Arthur Scargill selling the Socialist Worker on your street corner, berating the Blair government for ingratitude.

In truth, the main resistance to feminism, as Germaine Greer recently pointed out, comes from women themselves. It will be a hard task to win more over with writing as flat and unimpassioned as this. I longed for the broadsides that energise Greer's writing, and I found insights such as "Blair prefers football to golf for relaxation" to be inadequate proof of sexism. Occasional moments of unintentional humour - "committed 'feminist' television is a long way from commercial realisation" - provided no solace. Some of Whelehan's observations about women seemed so off-beam that they made me wonder if we shared the same planet. If female television stars are only slim and girlie, how did Vanessa Feltz, Dawn French and Lisa Tarbuck slip through? If youthful, childless women are the "most visible, fetishised view of femininity", why was Princess Diana a global icon? Why is the term ladette "arguably" a male invention? Why is Madonna admirable while the Spice Girls are not, when Greer thinks exactly the opposite?

Overloaded is a useful and comprehensive guide to recent trends in British feminist thought. Where the book fails is in its insistence that women's independence has been jeopardised by the barbarians on the news-stands.

In my view, most women cast an eye over "lad culture" and recognise a wind-up when they see one. But according to Whelehan, the "danger of identifying cultural trends from such disparate data is that, when it comes to gender politics, anyone can do it with little requirement for substantiation". One struggles to disagree, especially when two of her citations are by writers known to me. And knowing them, I suspect they knocked out a thousand disparaging words on lad culture between a liquid lunch and a night out lap-dancing. The "lad" is no more than a media construct.

Rowan Pelling is the editor of the Erotic Review

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Englishness: who cares?