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. 

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.