There's a nuanced debate on welfare waiting to happen, and Benefits Britain 1949 isn't it

Channel 4's Benefits Britain 1949 asked modern benefits claimants to live under conditions from 1949 - the reason being, what exactly?

When it comes to the welfare state, it’s clear there’s a conversation to be had. There needs to be an unpicking of the false dichotomy between "workers" and people on benefits. There needs to be a shift away from the focus on capping benefits to providing a living wage. There’s a nuanced debate waiting about how disabled people can be given the right support to work. That’s why, last night, Channel 4 decided to dedicate an hour of prime time television to asking an unemployed, sick woman to lift a potato and to making an old man cry.

For anyone who didn’t see Benefits Britain 1949 – and as it happens, chose not to enter the televisual equivalent of beating themselves around the head with a blunt object – the programme charged itself with seeing how present day benefit claimants would cope with the welfare system as it was when it was first introduced. “Does it point a way out of this current crisis?” the narrator asked. Well no, of course not, but don’t let that stop you.

It was as if Channel 4 had been hired by the Department for Work and Pensions to summarise government rhetoric for anyone who hadn’t been paying attention the past year or so. In sum, people on benefits should not only be pitted against "workers", but each other.

There was "Good Claimant": a visibly disabled man who wanted to work. Craig used a wheelchair due to spina bifida and although in the past few years he’d applied for hundreds of jobs, he’d been given none. There was "Harmless Claimant": an old man called Mervyn who lives on a state pension. There was "Bad Claimant": a long-term sick woman with an overtly working class accent. Karen had a range of conditions (like arthritis and heart problems) that are hidden and therefore "don’t count", and she had been on sick benefits for seven years.

Karen had styled hair, acrylic nails, and Egyptian style figurines in her house. This was, apparently, evidence that her benefits were too high and that, probably, she was faking her illnesses. I should mention at this point that Karen was fat. There was a moment, about when the camera brushed past Karen’s stomach to focus on her brightly polished nails. It felt as though, rather than a 1940s test, we were supposed to be craving a Daily Mail-led dystopian future – where benefits are awarded proportionate to a claimant's weight and how neat their appearance is. ("Had your hair done in the last six weeks?" "She's fat too! Fatty! She's a fatty!")

Karen was soon told to do a series of "1949 tests" like lifting a potato or using scissors in order to show she was fit for some kind of employment. Like working in a potato origami factory, perhaps. She’d already been assessed by Atos, and seemed to be in considerable pain, but the jaunty music and camera angles told me putting her through a series of humiliating tests was the right thing to do.  

Mervyn, meanwhile, was struggling to get by on a 1949 pension. In one inspiring scene, he was forced to pawn his grandfather’s watch and then move into a nursing home. He then started talking about his dead wife and we watched as he ran into his bedroom and sobbed. “Pensioners barely had enough to live from week to week,” trilled Mrs Townsend, the work officer stalking him. “The stigma was so great for the elderly receiving help in 1949 that many didn’t apply,” added the narrator. I wasn’t sure whether this was meant to be a good thing but I was distracted thinking about how much I hated Karen.

While Craig was happily sent off for work experience at a call centre, Karen was told to sew for her benefits. If you weren’t sure yet if you hated Karen, the producers helpfully orchestrated a scene in which she was put to work next to a seamstress with one arm. The camera paused subtly on the woman’s stump as Karen sat motionless next to her, and at least one Channel 4 producer looked at themselves in the mirror and cried.

Ah well, all’s well that ends well. Good Claimant got a job. Harmless Claimant was given his grandfather’s watch back. Bad Claimant, although annoying legalities meant she had to have her benefits reinstated after the show, had been humiliated.

In a nifty ending, all three were brought together and asked to decide which of them they thought was most worthy of benefits. I was hoping the fat woman would have to fight the crippled boy for a scrap of food, but sadly they all just left. Next week? We can only hope.

Karen, from Benefits Britain 1949. Photograph: Channel 4.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA