Feminists: beware ‘the decoy effect’

The success of a few outlying women does not mean that the struggle is over.

Over the past few decades, the passive wife, mother and hostess has been replaced across mainstream cultural forums by a more assertive and sexually empowered woman. This more confident expression of femininity suggests that women could do or be anything they wanted. Yet this portrayal of the new empowered woman is often hollow, with her choices narrowly centred on shopping, marriage and babies.

IPPR’s new report on the future of feminism reveals a pervading unease about the portrayal of women in public and cultural life, and about the values and views promoted by the media and popular culture among young men and women. Some of the women we interviewed were concerned that the media and ‘celebrity culture’ reinforce traditional gender norms and promote an increasingly narrow way to be a woman, while the realities of women’s lives are rarely represented.

There was consistent concern that, rather than promoting resilience and confidence among women, elements of the media play on and drive women’s anxieties about the way they look. The scrutiny of female celebrities’ appearance in magazines was seen as confusing and suggests that women ‘can never get it right’. Some minority ethnic women raised concerns about the dominance of white beauty norms, and the lucrative sale of damaging hair-straightening and skin-whitening products.

The debate about the representation of women in cultural life has taken on a new dimension in recent years. Across all ages, generations and backgrounds, women expressed concern about the sexualisation of women in popular culture. The portrayal of women in lads’ mags, celebrity culture and pornography was seen to promote an unrealistic view of women’s bodies and of sex. It wasn’t nudity, or even pornography, that offended most of the women we interviewed, but the way in which women are portrayed as objects, reduced to the sum of their body parts – in the words of one woman, ‘as if that’s all we’re good for’. A core concern is the impact on teenage relationships, and the disturbing rise of ‘sexting’, where young people are encouraged to text explicit photos of themselves to their partners, which are in some cases shared more widely or used as leverage in the relationship.

This is what women told us:

“It went from empowering women, to women are just items again. It’s gotten even worse, because women are just portrayed as if they’re just a piece of meat … It’s dead, it’s cold. We’re not even human beings – it’s just, equality’s just gone well out the window.”

Aged 19, Greater Manchester

“I mean nudity itself – there’s nothing wrong with the human body, it’s a wonderful machine. It’s never been bettered anyway, even with a computer! I think the human body is a wonderful thing, and to desecrate it in this way … If you don’t legislate to limit the publication you have to balance that with education to teach these young girls to be proud of their bodies and not to flaunt it in a provocative way, but to be proud of themselves.”

Aged 73, East Yorkshire

“In the magazines, it’s all to do with diet, for women it’s all to do with weight and being conscious of how you look and your appearance … [I’d like to see] successful women, but successful because of their career, not just because their parents are rich. And I’d like it if there was as well, maybe, nothing to do with how you look.”

Aged 17, London

Concern about the portrayal of women in everyday culture appears to have helped drive a feminist renaissance that takes a far broader view than the focus on high-powered role models which permeates mainstream debates. The emergence of new feminist thinkers and writers and the rise of media campaigns tackling sexist advertising and sexualised norms also offer opportunities to harness consumer concerns.

There is a clear risk of the portrayal of more empowered women creating a decoy effect, giving the illusion that women have ‘made it’. Instead, feminism should focus on breaking down stereotypes, to show that there is more than one way to be a girl – or a boy – and reflecting the realities of growing up and growing older in today’s world.

Richard Darlington is Head of News and Dalia Ben-Galim is Associate Director at IPPR

Francois Hollande and ministers at a breakfast for women's rights. Photo: Getty

Dalia Ben-Galim is Director of Policy at Gingerbread. 

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.