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Feminists: beware ‘the decoy effect’

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

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

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