Let's call a bigot a bigot

Some people need offending.

Things have reached a slightly ludicrous situation when a gay rights group can be patronised for labelling as "bigots" those individuals who have gone most out of their way not only to prevent gay rights becoming a reality but also to viciously insult and ostracise the entire homosexual community.

Nelson Jones tells Stonewall to “grow up” and calls its Bigot Of The Year award “offensive and out of date”. To whom could the award be construed as offensive? The bigots it describes? That is unfortunate but something with which they will have to live. They will continue having to live with it if they insist on calling gay marriage “a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right” or, in pathetic attempts to attract sympathy, comparing their objection to gay marriage to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. If they cease to make such crass and ignorant statements they may find themselves not being described as bigots. Nick Griffin is probably offended when people call him a racist; he's still a racist.

Nelson Jones is also mistaken when he describes as “abuse” what Stonewall are doing through their Bigot Of The Year award. It seems immediately apparent that – much like the New Humanist's Bad Faith awards – Stonewall are with an ironic smile and a sense of humour highlighting the people who have done most to retard the gay rights situation. If you want a glimpse into what abuse is, read Martin Robbins' Guardian article "Gay marriage "Nazis" and the disgrace of Lord Carey". In staging its award Stonewall are fighting against a society that has been intolerant of homosexuals for thousands of years, and they are doing so with great dignity and wit. They are also, I'm happy to see, yet to apologise for the award despite hysterical outcries from clerical spokespeople.

Let's look at the word 'bigot' and see whether or not it can be accurately applied in this instance. A bigot is someone who “regards or treats the members of a group … with hatred and intolerance”. He has attempted to raise £100,000 in order to oppose same-sex marriage and compared it to slavery: if 'bigot' doesn't accurately encapsulate Stonewall's victor, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, I don't know who else it could. Nelson Jones seems perfectly happy to describe as a bigot a Chief Constable from over 25 years ago – and rightly so – but why is he afraid of being consistent in this case? A large reason is of course the religious element of the condemnation. If we were to take religion out of the equation, thereby confining to the closet the kid gloves with which it is handled, O'Brien would not be receiving the same level of support and excuse-making. Given that he is in a position of religious authority, many – including, it seems, Nelson Jones – wish to turn down the volume on criticism of O'Brien and interpret his statements in a peculiarly neutral light. This does not advance the gay rights position and encases O'Brien in the cushions in which he has been cocooned for 74 years.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church said that Stonewall “promoted terms like "bigot" and "homophobe" relentlessly in order to intimidate and vilify anyone who dares oppose their agenda”. Given that Stonewall's agenda is the battle to secure equal rights for gay people, I don't think that they can be criticised for responding passionately and with wonderful irony towards the very people keenest to see gay rights suppressed and gay behaviour demonised. If you want a discussion on language, note here its slithery usage – anyone who "dares" oppose the laudable agenda of a group representing a persecuted minority. A homophobe is someone who fears or hates homosexuals; if the word cannot be used in instances like these, when can it possibly be used? Try being told for thousands of years that loving a member of the same sex means that you are an "abomination" and should be killed, and see if "bigot" or "homophobe" are the strongest terms that spring to your lips.

Religious figures like Keith O'Brien cannot expect to be ignored for expressing hateful and outdated opinions. He is perfectly entitled to speak his mind concerning the legal recognition of the love shared between two members of the same sex; and he is perfectly entitled to be called a bigot if what emanates from his mind is extremely bigoted.

Stonewall's award may be offensive but it offends all of the people who most urgently need offending.

A flag at a gay pride festival. Photograph: Getty Images
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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