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In this week's magazine | Anxiety nation

A first look at this week's magazine.

Illustration by Lucas Varela with art direction by Erica Weathers.

Anxiety nation: why is modern Britain so ill at ease?

Plus

Rafael Behr on Maria Miller’s resignation and how David Cameron misjudged the public mood

Unfinished business: Jimmy Carter tells John Bew about his crusade for women’s rights

William Dalrymple on the endgame in Afghanistan

Mark Lawson, critic at large, on King Charles III – the most treasonous royal play yet

Jesse Norman remembers Michael Oakeshott: politician, thinker, lover

Stuart Maconie on the “real” Frank Sidebottom

Unfinished business: Jimmy Carter tells John Bew about his crusade for women’s rights

John Bew meets the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and international development expert Jimmy Carter to discuss his campaign to stop violence and discrimination against women.

 

In person, Carter is charming, warm and impossible not to like. In Britain we would call him a “national treasure” – a sort of Tony Benn figure, with whom you don’t have to agree in order to respect his integrity. But as one of only three one-term presidents since 1945, Carter exudes the sense of having unfinished business to attend to.

 

The 89-year-old former US leader tells Bew that he became aware of the scale of the problems facing women through the Carter Centre, which he founded in 1982. And he believes that the slave trade in women is bigger now than it was in the 19th century.

 

Is Carter aware of the recent work by William Hague and the British Foreign Office, together with Angelina Jolie, in campaigning against sexual violence in conflict zones? “Absolutely,” he says, and both he and his aide nod vigorously when I mention the forthcoming summit on the subject in London in June. Hague, Carter says in his Georgian drawl, “is an active hero of mine; he and Miss Jolie are doing a successful and admirable job”.

 

Discussing foreign policy, Carter declares Bashar al-Assad one of “the most obdurate individuals I have ever met” and suggests the US government was mistaken to demand the Syrian leader’s resignation as the civil war broke out.

 

Carter also warns that although he believes Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a “special case”, the US and its allies must present a united front to stop further incursions by Moscow.

 

Rafael Behr: the politics column

The delay over Maria Miller’s departure as culture secretary shows David Cameron is a poor judge of public feeling, argues the NS political editor, Rafael Behr, in his column this week.

No 10 invited Miller’s assassins in the press and parliament to desist but failed to erect a bulletproof shield around her. Her resignation exposed Cameron as a slow reader of the mood in his party and the country.

But Behr also points out that Cameron’s continuing reluctance to condemn Miller has much to do with his unease about gender imbalance in the cabinet:

The joke among Tory MPs is that the only way to get promoted in Cameron’s regime is to be an Old Etonian, female or Matt Hancock (the skills minister is a favourite of the Chancellor, as is the new Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid). It is widely suspected that Cameron’s reluctance to surrender Miller owed much to her precious status as one of the few women in the cabinet.

 

Cover story: anxiety nation

As the number of people in the UK with an anxiety disorder reaches three million, Sophie McBain presents the anatomy of an epidemic.

It is difficult to quantify whether it is our feelings of anxiety that have changed, or whether it’s just our perception of those feelings that is different: are we increasingly viewing ordinary human emotions as marks of mental illness?

If one in seven of us is taking pills to control or ward off anxiety, are we just medicalising an ordinary human emotion? Did the purveyors of the early anti-anxiety medicines such as Miltown – discovered in the 1940s, and the first in a line of blockbuster drugs including Prozac and Xanax – manage to create a new problem along with the solution they offered?

Or maybe the UK’s epidemic of anxiety isn’t pathological at all but a product of historically unprecedented good health and affluence. Perhaps anxiety is a luxury that comes with wealth, freedom and the privilege of having nothing fundamental to fear in our modern society.

 

Mark Lawson on King Charles III

The NS’s critic at large, Mark Lawson, reviews King Charles III, Mike Bartlett’s new play at the Almeida Theatre in London, which, unlike such Elizabeth II fictions as The Audience, “enters areas that British patriotism and tact tend to avoid”.

Half a century after [Harold] Wilson fretted about portrayals of the Mountbatten-Windsors on the boards, Bartlett, a 33-year-old whose previous work includes Love, Love, Love and 13, has written the boldest and most provocative play about the royal family in British theatrical history . . .

While the press and public of the second Elizabethan age may approve of [Bartlett’s] view of Charles as a meddling monarch, they may be more startled by the presentation of William and Catherine as baddies. In the most remarkable scene, the ghost of Diana appears to her elder son, who is now Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. If the Lord Chamberlain still policed the stage, Bartlett would be in the Tower. This is the first piece of theatre to treat the royals like any other subject.

Plus

Peter Wilby: Maria Miller proves politicians can’t master the art of contrition

David Patrikarakos reports from eastern Ukraine, where pro-Putin rebels
are waiting for Russia

Veronese at the National Gallery in London: Michael Prodger on the Venetian colourist who abhorred empty canvas

Helen Lewis on the social lives of micro-celebs and hi-tech teens

Will Self spends a week as a flâneur picking out faces in the crowd

Life aquatic: John Burnside on Rachel Carson’s great sea trilogy

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire has all the gossip from Westminster

Caroline Crampton visits the Angela Lansbury Film Festival in east London

The NS tech writer, Ian Steadman, on why the White House might sue Samsung over a selfie

 

Photo: ASA
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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