This week marks the launch of the campaign Lose the Lads’ Mags, spearheaded by feminist organisations UK Feminista and Object. Depending on who you believe, this is either an attempt to free employees and customers from “an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” that could arise from exposure to sexist pornographic content – or, in the words of Loaded and FHM journalist Piers Hernu in a report by the BBC – “a deeply sinister and disturbing attempt by a group of fundamentalist, fanatical feminists…to bully supermarkets into removing lads’ mags from the shelves”.
As far as deeply sinister and disturbing acts by fundamentalist groups go, this one seems fairly civilised. The lawyers and campaigners behind Lose the Lads’ Mags are unlikely to turn up, Spring Breakers-style, in pink balaclavas, toting pistols at the local Tesco Extra. Any facet of the Equality Act that may or may not be used against employers is unlikely to be found “disturbing” (unless you’re a person regularly given to using that well-worn phrase, “IT’S POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD!”) And as for fundamentalism: while we’re taking the dictionary definition of feminism as the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men, charges of ‘fundamentalist’ egalitarianism don’t seem very threatening at all. Unless, of course, you’re a sexist.
The idea that customers or employees could sue retailers for lads’ mags isn’t necessarily new. In theory, it’s been possible at the very least since the Equality Act came into being – so the announcement that those in the workplace can do so is presumably intended as more of a statement than an incitement to get running down to the courthouse. Getting the word out that the law is on your side is an effective way of empowering those who might have felt disempowered by the regular wallpaper of tits and arse that confronts them every day in the workplace or the supermarket. And, of course, it sends an effective message to retailers by threatening to hit them where it hurts: their wallets.
This form of protest has been gaining feminist traction in the last year. A campaign to make Facebook recognise gender-based violence, led by such feminist powerhouses as Laura Bates at Everyday Sexism, has seen huge companies like FinnAir respond angrily that placing their adverts next to content such as “Next time, don’t get pregnant” (with accompanying image of an injured woman at the bottom of a staircase) is “totally against our values and policies”. In the past, photographs of breastfeeding had been removed by Facebook filters, while pages like “Domestic Violence: Don’t make me tell you twice”, adorned with pictures of visibly beaten women for humorous purposes, apparently didn’t contravene their guidelines. Facebook might have turned a blind eye, but the advertisers themselves felt differently. Inevitably, money will talk.
In all likelihood, a woman in her twenties today will have pulled such innocent, pony-based fodder as Girl Talk magazine in her childhood off the same rack that displayed at least ten polished and Photoshopped FF-cup boobs with the nipples starred out. If the owners of the breasts had faces, they were probably suggestively licking their fingers, lips, or a phallic object. The idea that children would quickly internalise this imagery led a Birmingham-based women’s group to campaign earlier this year to force retailers to shelve pornographic content at least five feet nine inches off the ground. But UK Feminista and Object aren’t going to settle for a height restriction on sexism: Shelve the Lads’ Mags is intended to tackle an entire culture of misogyny targeted towards women and girls of any age. It’s a vastly more difficult pursuit – especially at the beginning of a week where Roman Polanski just claimed in Cannes that the fight for female equality is “a great pity”.
Opposing the Sun’s page three or the ubiquity of lads’ mags isn’t necessarily an “anti-sex” position – or, indeed, an anti-porn position. Just like the claim that “you can’t even hold a door open for a woman anymore” is an infuriatingly reductive view on the pursuit for equality between the sexes (basic rules of politeness: hold doors open for people behind you, no matter what they look like), “feminist prudes hate sex” is an unfair charge typically levied against people who speak out against the gender discrepancies in raunch culture. If both sexes were equally objectified in society, this might be an argument about sex alone. But, because they’re not, it has to be an argument about feminism.
Meanwhile, there will always be a loose canon around like Polanski to claim that the birth control pill is “masculinising” women, turning them into feminists, and “chasing away romance”. He may as well have come straight out with the old adage that feminists are “ugly butch lesbians” and continued on his way. But modern day feminism is more nuanced than anything such out-of-date commentators could imagine. Having made so many progressive achievements in the past, women are now able to wield the power of legal and capitalist systems which we were previously excluded from to enact social equality. Threatening to generate bad PR for an advertiser or a retailer is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal, such is the world that we live in.
Will shelving the lads’ mags go some way to combating the widespread objectification of women? Most likely, yes. There are certainly other battles to be fought in places where unmitigated access to much more violent material is commonplace, such as the internet. Policing imagery can only go so far, and it’s a blunt tool; social attitudes are what really need to change. But by reminding those who feel degraded by their experience of lads’ mags on the racks that they have legal recourse, UK Feminista and Object are easing the pressure on women who are bombarded with such imagery every day. And as media coverage surrounding the campaign heats up, it’s a positive reminder to many that, as a woman who may well not be clad in a swimming costume composed entirely of whipped cream on the cover of Nuts, you are still visible.