Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Glamorous fashionistas: the right kind of sexism

An unlikely feminist ally
Unlike his near-contemporary in the Vatican, Rupert Murdoch shows no sign of wanting to relinquish his grip on his huge multinational empire.  But he takes a similarly spare and pontifical approach to Twitter.  So when he suggested that in future naked breasts might be replaced in the Sun by "glamorous fashionistas", many took it as a sign that Page 3 was on the way out. 

Murdoch himself professes to be amazed that his ruminations could be considered "breaking news - Typical OTT reaction by the UK PC crew. Just considering, as we do every page daily Buy it and see...."  I assume he's not that naive.  He knows what attention his gnomic utterances invariably receive.  His timeline attracts hundreds of unsolicited comments every day.  He very rarely replies to any of them, but he chose to respond to a suggestion from anti-Page 3 campaigner Karen Mason (who goes by the name of @Kazipooh) that the feature was "so last century".  And in doing so, he put the future of Page 3 under a bigger question mark than Clare Short managed thirty years ago by her attempts in Parliament to get it banned.

These days, of course, Page 3 is little more than a charming anachronism, much like Uncle Rupert himself.  Its abolition would represent above all the embourgeoisement of the Sun, a step in the direction of the Daily Mail.  The Mail has always preferred glamorous fashionistas over naked breasts.  Dropping Page 3 in favour of pictures of celebrities in dresses isn't going to hasten a feminist revolution: at least not the feminist revolution that Page 3's opponents claim they would like to see.  But it would signal an attempt to appeal to middle class female readers in preference to its traditional, but shrinking, market among the male working-class.  The main losers would be the "glamour models" themselves, for some of whom Page 3 used to offer a route to easy and otherwise unobtainable fame and the possibility of dating a footballer. But there's always reality TV. 

Hadley Freeman doesn't think getting rid of Page 3 will lead to a feminist utopia.  It isn't even the main problem: "Page 3's sheer obviousness makes it one of the less viciously misogynistic elements in the British media."  She's thinking, of course, as Guardian writers obsessively tend to, of the Daily Mail, whose sexism she proceeds to enumerate: paparazzi stalking of actresses, an obsession with celebrities' weight, the ever present implication that women  "exist only in relation to men and children".  But she also acknowledges the important truth, which is that both the perpetrators of and the audience for the Mail's sexism are women.

As she writes:

The issue of the paucity of female bylines in the British media is, to my mind, something of a canard considering how much misogyny is uttered by so many female columnists, especially on the tabloids, who often act as Trojan horses for the paper's condescension and cruelty.  Publications that are explicitly aimed at women, such as the Daily Mail's Femail and the women's section in the Sun, generally consist of little more than body obsession and female celebrity snarkiness.

Her mistake is to imagine that Page 3 is "the most stupid example" of a more general media sexism. It's an entirely different kettle of fish: an increasingly anomalous example of sexist imagery designed to appeal to men.

Mail Online's "Sidebar of Shame", with its parade of cellulite, celebritiy break-ups and creepy obsession with six-year-old Suri Cruise, is of course notorious.  Who have we today?  Kelly Rowland, who was apparently "in tears" after a birthday lunch with Beyoncé.  Kim Kardashian, of course, who like Kate Middleton is pregnant (but, unlike Kate, you're allowed to stick a camera at her swelling tummy).  Lauren Goodger.  Naomi Grossman.  Rita Ora.  I'm afraid I haven't heard of any of those women. Nor have I the slightest interest in the fact that Katy Perry apparently has a new boyfriend or that "chic" Emma Watson has been snapped wearing knee-high leather boots.  But then I'm not the intended market.

Feminists tend to see the attitude towards women exemplified by the Mail in terms of "misogyny" and, at a slightly more abstract level of analysis, as part of a societal set-up in which women's behaviour and bodies are "policed" for the benefit of men.  Men have little or nothing to do with it, however.  If anyone is oppressing women (and that's an open question), then largely it's other women.  So if women are indeed being treated in the media as existing "only in relation to men and children", the problem lies in a quirk of female psychology - which the mass media finds it profitable to exploit - rather than in patriarchy, capitalism, male supremacy or any other feminist boo-words.

Why would heterosexual women objectify other women in such ways?  Plenty of reasons.  Human beings are primates, and primates are intensely hierarchical.  In our culture, weight, attractiveness, relationship status and so on are important status-indicators for women.   Sizing up the competition is something that men and women equally indulge in, but it may express itself in different ways because society still has subtly different expectations of the sexes.  At the same time, many psychologists argue that women are, on the whole, more interested than men in the maintenance of social networks.  Knowing the names of other people's children (especially when they're the children of high-status individuals), enforcing community norms via mechanisms of shaming and emulation, and gossip are all ways in which women can indulge this deep-seated need for making connections.

But I'm leaving something out, as indeed is Hadley Freeman.  Take another look at the Sidebar of Shame.  It's not all women; there are men there, too.  Today there's Steve Martin, who has become a father for the first time at 67; pretty-boy Ashton Kutcher (cuddling up to girlfriend Mila Kunis at a basketball game); someone called Aaron Paul who has bought a new house; the actor Mark Wahlberg watching his young son dribbling a basketball; and "Denise Welch's toyboy fiancé Lincoln Townley" who is "undergoing tests after being rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack."  That one is especially interesting: for what is a toyboy fiancé if not a man viewed solely in relation to his female partner.  The same might be said of "business Anton Kaszubowski", whose presence in the Mail is due not to his own achievements in the world of (I discover) internet gambling but because he's currently to be seen in the company of a retired Spice Girl. 

And it's a rare day that the Mail doesn't offer its readers a glimpse of David Beckham, either in a pose redolent of sexual objectification or (more often these days) with his wife and children.  Just like the women whose media image Hadley Freeman complains of.  So when she writes, "Once a female celebrity has children, she is always, in the eyes of the media, a mother first and foremost, no matter what else she accomplishes, but a man is always a man," she is quite wrong.  A man isn't "always a man"; in the Mail or even these days the Sun he's as likely as any female celebrity to be judged on the basis of his looks or by reference to his partner and/or offspring.

A glamorous fashionista?
I don't think all this means that men are being seen as sex objects.  It just means that they are being judged (by women) in the same terms that women are invited to judge female celebrities.  Sexual objectification of women by men is increasingly frowned upon in polite society, or at least in the mainstream media; these days, the only acceptable reason to display naked or highly semi-naked female flesh is to condemn it.  In the Mail, raunchy pictures of (it tends to be) Rihanna exist primarily (or at any rate ostensibly) as illustrations of the dangers of a "hyper-sexualised" society and the supposed pressures on young girls to look or act in sexualised ways.  And it's not just Rihanna.  Even a fairly demure advert featuring a back view of Keira Knightly is too much for the maiden-auntish standards of the Advertising Standards Authority.

Meanwhile, sexual objectification of men by women is scarcely admitted to exist; instead, the constant message offered by psychologists (as representatives of "science") to readers of these titles is that female sexuality isn't "visual" in the way that male sexuality is assumed to be.  Sexual objectification of men by gay men (cf Tom Daley) is permitted to exist de facto while never being referred to explicitly.  That's a paradoxical loophole, however, largely made possible by the prevailing view of gay men as respectable citizens whose principal desire is to get married.

Despite all the claims of a hyper-sexualised society, then, the overwhelming message from the media is that overt sexuality is bad and dangerous: that men who enjoy to looking at semi-naked women are misogynist dinosaurs in want of re-education, while women who make a living by taking their clothes off for photographers are simulateously victims of oppression and bad role-models.  Sex sells, but disapproval of sex sells even more.  Disapproval of sex illustrated by sexy pictures sells best of all.  But what is really being disapproved of is a failure of social conformity.  It's not just that Page 3 had become irrelevant in terms of the way that women are presented in the mainstream media.  The campaign against Page 3 is actually part of the same censorious mindset that lies behind the Mail and its Sidebar of Shame.

It's testimony to the success of that mindset that Rupert Murdoch now believes it may be in his commercial interests to replace the seaside postcard sexuality of Page 3 with a parade of "glamorous fashionistas", who will be presented not for the delectation of men but for the critical appraisal of other women.  Which is indeed feminist progress of a sort, I suppose.