Flickr/RA.AZ
Show Hide image

Why I find the prospect of an apocalypse comforting

It’s easy to view the idea of the world ending as a “cosy catastrophe” – something retro and nostalgic that has returned to the zeitgeist.

“Cosy catastrophe” is the nickname the sci-fi writer and historian Brian Aldiss applied to the works of John Wyndham, author of The Midwich Cuckoos and The Day of the Triffids. Aldiss did not mean for it to be flattering: “The essence of cosy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.”

In other words, the cosy catastrophe is a cop-out. It’s safe. Bad things happen, but they don’t happen to people like us. Whether it’s a fair way to describe Wyndham doesn’t really matter, because while the name caught on, the pejorative intent didn’t. Aldiss had reached for sick burn and accidentally struck deep truth: there is something comforting about the apocalypse.

Nostalgia is part of it. The idea of everything ending was the background radiation to my childhood, and the anticipation of nuclear inferno has a retro charm, like a Fifties circle skirt or a pair of Eighties-style chunky plastic earrings. Watching the 1984 Sheffield-set nuclear drama Threads when the BBC rescreened it in 2003, the world that I saw being obliterated was a world that I recognised: pubs and Woolworths and women with headscarves pinned over their ’dos.

But besides that, there’s also the enormous, gratuitous satisfaction of destruction: there go the windows, there goes all the flesh scorched off the bones, there goes the old egg-box city hall. What a thrill! No wonder the music of apocalypse had so much strut and swagger. The Clash dancing down to the river in London Calling as the flames roll over; Frankie Goes To Hollywood welcoming the new gods of sex and horror on Two Tribes and sounding every bit as randy as they did on “Relax”.

After all, what’s the worst that could happen? According to Threads, you could be slowly poisoned under a pile of mattresses that didn’t – despite the promises of Protect and Survive – keep the fallout off.

You could suffocate in the bowels of the city hall with the rest of the council while the civilisation you sacrificed yourself to protect dies outside.

Or, perhaps worse, you could survive in the ruins: a grey and hungry hell on earth like the one Russell Hoban imagined in Riddley Walker (published in 1980) where, 2,000 years after “the 1 Big 1”, the remaining population speaks a deformed kind of English and refers incredulously to a time when humans had the technology to put “boats in the air and picters in the wind”. If that devastation is possible, why wouldn’t you just leather up and go dancing?

And then, for just a little while, it didn’t seem possible. That’s not to say it hasn’t been possible – the number of countries with nuclear weapons has grown, not fallen, since the end of the Cold War – but it hasn’t felt like a routine political reality to be accommodated. That’s the only explanation for the UK’s attachment to Trident, which is by now a fairly rickety echo of a deterrent. We have enjoyed a quarter-century interval when the inferno did not appear to be imminent.

The withdrawal of that shadow changed the way we thought about ourselves. When Al Alvarez wrote his study of suicide The Savage God in 1971, it made as much sense for him to mention “the possibility of international suicide by nuclear warfare” as it did for Jennifer Michael Hecht to make no mention of it at all in Stay, her 2013 book on the same subject. Four years later, it’s the Hecht that seems strangely dated by this, while the Alvarez comes across as consolingly frank where just a year ago it felt kitschy.

Of course we could blow ourselves up. The ability has never gone away, and now the White House contains the shortest of short fuses, a blunt little orange hand hovering over the button, attached to a man whose few days of power have already disturbed everything about the delicate international balance of power that has kept the unthinkable in the realm of the unlikely.

That’s true not only of nuclear war, but also of climate change, which Trump is apparently determined to pretend isn’t happening even while his energy policy escalates it. This is 2017’s big revival: the end of the world is back, and we’ll have to decide how we face it.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: ASA
Show Hide image

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