Thursday, 24 July 2008

I should have known better

I've had a couple of conversations with men recently that have been partly sparked by their finding out about this blog, and partly my none-so-subtle probes for material to add to said blog. What I've generally de-duced is that men in their twenties are ignorant of the relevance of most feminist issues and think feminists are in varying degrees: full of hot air, lesbians, killjoys. Men are lateral thinkers - we are told - and so is it very surprising that most of the ones I have consulted find it hard to grasp the links between various treatments of women in various arenas and subject areas? Perhaps not. Against my better judgement, I decided to send a quick interview round my office (6 women, 19 men - and I don't even work in banking) to see if I was selling them short. Hoping to be pleasantly surprised by some enlightened answers I asked three questions. 1) What do you think feminism is? 2) Who do you consider to be a prominent/good example of a feminst? 3) Do you identify with any feminist values (as you understand them)?
Maybe this was too much reality for a Wednesday afternoon marketing agency environment, or maybe I can't rely on my co-workers (who I sadly also consider friends) to give honest/serious answers. Despite this the responses I got were - aside from being rather creative and humourous - the best examples I could have asked for on males' perceptions of feminism and its champions. The transcripts below are the only two responses I received...perhaps their navigation away from the topic is proof of their ignorance of it? Or maybe they're just Neanderthals. Answers on a postcard.

Male Specimen 1

Q: What do you think feminism is?
A: Some sort of contraption, game or sex toy
Q: Who do you consider to be a prominent/good example of a feminst?
A: As in personality or someone I know? Beckham is one. Stringfellow another. Me!
Q: Do you identify with any feminist values (as you understand them)?
A: Some, yes. I have three sisters and a mother, and you so I don't have any other choice, do I?

Male Specimen 2

Q: What do you think feminism is?
A: Feminism is the belief that Cats are our all encompassing gods and they created man, then woman as an after thought! This was the belief system of the ancient Egyptians.
Q: Who do you consider to be a prominent/good example of a feminst?
A: I have 2 cats but I don’t think they’re to be worshipped. Saying that, if one of my cats comes into the lounge, I let them have it and go up to my room, so I guess they are above me in social standing.
Q: Do you identify with any feminist values (as you understand them)?
A: Like I said, I look up to cats, but that’s where I draw the line. The sphinx is amongst my favourite 5 ancient statues!

Words fail me.

Download a Woman: The Sun's latest bright idea

Until now I have suppressed the urge to discuss what I consider to be one of the biggest issues facing young feminists today, for fear of not being able to fully express without waffling what my problem is with it. This entity is all around us, omnipresent and all-encompassing in its reach and influence, which is why limiting myself to a few succinct paragraphs was never going to happen. It is of course...(drumroll please)...the media. Press, TV, film, music, advertising, marketing, PR – these are all components of this huge and monstrous being, one that didn't even exist not so long ago, and which is now an inextricable part of our lives, however subconsciously that may be. People I speak to about this issue are often offended at the suggestion that they are in any way controlled or influenced by the media – as if this is implying some sort of weakness or lack of intelligence on their part. This is not the case, the media is a powerful being - far be it from me to deny that. It's far more influential than any world leader: one only has to look back on George Bush’s election to the United States presidency and Fox News’ involvement in/orchestration of it to agree with me there. Similarly, when Bush wanted to whip up support for his war on Iraq, he didn’t take it upon himself to appeal to his people – the propaganda campaign incited by the media did a far more efficient job. It stands to reason therefore that if the media has enough clout to facilitate wars and elect presidents, it is capable of making mincemeat of ‘little’ issues like…oh I don’t know…body image or gender politics.

The current and enduring media obsession with female celebrities’ (delete as applicable) weight/age/dress sense/relationship status/professional validity are symptoms of and perpetuating factors in the objectification of women. Simple as that. Of course we all buy into it, this constant cycle of adulation, titillation and criticism and we’ve reached the stage where its considered acceptable for men to pick up a newspaper and look at a naked female body, and for a woman to launch a scathing attack on another woman for gaining a couple of pounds. A male friend of mine, having being on the receiving end of a rant of this nature, said to me: “I thought you were more intelligent than that.” He simply couldn’t see that a Page 3 girl is more than just a pair of tits for a man to look at. His argument was this: its harmless, it’s not hurting anyone, the girl’s making good money, it’s only a pair of tits. So who’s the dummy here? Forgive me for being concerned about the wider implications for women when a naked female is not only plastered across a national newspaper as ‘entertainment’ for men, but is ridiculed to boot with the inclusion of News in Briefs a snippet of the model's thoughts on a serious news matter, which clearly she is meant to know nothing about. Apparently this is all too subtle for men to detect. The media represents women in various ways, but this tabloid representation is the one that worries me most as its strutting around under our noses every day, and people don’t seem to realise the seriousness of the message it promotes. Regardless of a woman’s choice in what she does for a living – I’m sure most Page 3 Girls aren’t forced into the job – this stereotype of buxom, promiscuous woman with no brain, subservient to men’s whims and fantasies is very dangerous, as well articulated on The F Word. It is the infant in a family of ideas that includes more serious manifestations of female subjugation. Now it’s just a pair of tits, but its consumption nonetheless – it’s still suggesting women’s bodies are there for the consuming, available to buy (now in a paper, maybe later on a street corner) and available to consume (look at for now, but how long before men start helping themselves). Naomi Wolf's amazing The Beauty Myth best exposes this flagrant equation of women's looks with commercial worth - a woman's beauty is currency. The woman is therefore a commodity, the subject of ownership that could only be male. The natural bi-product of this kind of representation is for crimes like rape, prostitution/solicitation and general violence towards women to be perceived as less crimes because they involve women, who may be considered ‘fair game’ or ‘up for it’. I’m not sure anyone with a brain could dispute this much.

So what’s sparked this latest rant? Well, its not often I make visits to The Sun newspaper website, but something I read about yesterday compelled me. Not content with publishing images of women day after day in print, The Sun are rolling with the punches of the digital age and have come up with something that truly disturbs me: The Desktop Keeley. Apparently Keeley Hazell is the paper’s most popular “Page 3 Stunna” and as such is now the basis for a web tool so utterly degrading it makes Page 3 look like the Yellow Pages. Instead of just gawping at Keeley’s nubile form in the paper every day (which I guess is a bit impractical if you have a job to do) those who download this application can now order her about and are actually invited to “Play with [her] whenever you want”. I feel sick. The misogyny on display here is blatant and unashamed and what’s more – its already proven extremely popular. Great.This excerpt from the The Sun’s articulate sales pitch says it all really, in more than one sense of the phrase:

“Dressed [or should that be undressed?] in a stunning range of lingerie, Keeley will be at your beck and call 24/7 and comes armed with all the information you need, whether it’s celeb’s drunken antics, the latest football transfer news or the Page 3 girl of the day.”

Excellent range of interests you’ve got there, boys. I can only assume that the intended audience for this product are young to middle aged professionals who have constant access to a computer (i.e. work for a living). This is also a damning indictment on them surely? Is this really what we’re interested in as a nation? I’m sure it’s not…and I do actually have some faith in mankind. I’m not saying that men are in on this on an individual level – what I’m saying is that these attitudes are so richly embedded in every aspect of society and paraded around as if they are an acceptable norm that people start to believe what they are told. This sort of thing is NOT harmless and for those that refuse to see the damage that it could cause, let’s put it another way: whatever way you look at it, having a half naked avatar running around on your computer screen spouting out unimportant titbits (excuse the pun) about other naked/drunken women is hardly conducive to a productive working day is it? Packaging this up as a cool gadget and tailoring it to the digital market is a clever ploy –passing it off as a bit of fun for the modern man is distracting from the point and lulling the public into thinking this is OK. Like women don’t already have enough trouble in the 21st century workplace.

'Marital Coercion' - A Likely Defence?

The verdict is in for Anne Darwin, who I posted about last week. Unsurprisingly she’s been found guilty of deception, and her part in the scam to net £250,000 through fraudulent insurance claims is apparently as serious as the actual perpetrator of the crime, her husband John Darwin. While Mrs Darwin’s involvement is clear, the extent to which her defence of ‘martial coercion’ stands up is not as clear. In any case, this defence doesn’t seem to have been given any serious consideration anyway. Reports of Mr Darwin’s controlling behaviour and manipulation of his wife (despite accounts from people who know her that she is an unassuming woman of meek character) have been largely ignored as if they are the inevitable accusations of a desperate woman. For me, the jury is still out on Ann’s alleged submission to a crime which was of her husband’s design but I think we have been too quick to overlook the claims that she might have been pressured into it. Common attitudes towards marital control and domestic violence (mental and emotional as well as physical) seem to dictate that Anne would have found it easy to refuse to take part in the scam, that she would have handed her husband in. Unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as that. If, as she claims, Anne Darwin was a victim of her husband’s manipulation (the ‘marital coercion’ defence has only been used 5 times in the last 75 years so there is little in the way of precedent to draw upon) she would have found it very difficult to refuse him and would have believed herself to have no choice but to partake in the scheme. The irony for me is that the defence is not oft used because it is considered anachronistic, or ‘not appropriate to modern conditions’ (according to a request to abolish it is 1977!). People need to open their eyes. Martial coercion – in short the ability of one spouse (not necessarily the husband) to control another and influence their decision to participate in unlawful activity – exists in more ways we’d like to admit, and because its taboo and something we don’t like to admit still exists, laws that are designed to provide protection from it are being ignored, or worse destroyed. Worrying stuff.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Gok Wan - the lesser of 2 evils?

The original ugly sisters of the TV makeover Trinny and Susannah recently strayed from their What Not to Wear template and presented a program called Great British Body. The premis of the show was admirable enough – encouraging members of the public to bear all in a quest to re-educate people about body image – but I can’t help thinking it was all rather insincere, just like the show that brought them notoriety. What Not to Wear pretended to be an exercise in restoring women’s self-esteem, but I always found the tactics they employed quite odd, and their methodology misguided. It’s important for women to feel good about themselves, but forgive me if I’m wrong: having your wobbly bits groped and cinched in by two virtual strangers might not be the best way to achieve the end goal. There’s no denying the pair’s brashness and after a while, hearing them tell women they’ve got ‘great tits’ and ‘fabulous arses’ is more creepy than revolutionary. The general processes of the show was so formulaic it was always difficult to identify any individuality by the time Trinny and Susannah were finished with them. Invariably it went a little something like this: friends and family shop unwitting subject to Trinny and Susannah for crimes against fashion; Trinny and Susannah throw away/set fire to said subject’s entire wardrobe, express disgust at the state of things, force them into a multi-angled Auschwitz of a mirror to address their cellulite/post-baby bulge/love handles; subject is educated about how to dress – basically wear a belt and don’t mix black with brights; Trinny and Susannah send protégée into bustling high street to fend for themselves; protégée traipses round shops, red in the face, terrified of picking up something that might be ‘hideous’; they inevitably pick up something ‘hideous’ and Def Con One and Two in high heels sprint into the fitting rooms to wrench anything without a V neck out of the naughty pupil’s arms; crisis averted, ugly duckling emerges a swan and thank god! They are virtually unrecognisable, mission accomplished. It’s true that most of the women that go through this process do come away with a happier demeanour, but who’s to say that this couldn’t have been solved in another way? How is trussing women up in ‘miracle underwear’ and strapping a belts round their waist any different to lacing them into a corset, of which the right to not wear was ardently fought for? As with all prime time entertainment shows of this ilk, there is a strict formula to follow which I believe makes them unsuitable vehicles to truly be able to make any significant, non-insipid comment about body image and self worth.

That said, I do feel there is a scale against which the worth/harm of these shows can be measured because we have to be realistic – they’re always going to be part of TV schedules. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge women dressing up and I admit I can get a boost from making the effort with my appearance and a rather unsavoury attachment to Chanel lippy). What worries me about the increasing amount of self-improvement going on within the realms of light entertainment is the very fact it is being condensed and packaged up as just that: entertainment. These shows last at most for an hour, and you get the feeling that even if the issues they appear to dissect aren’t resolved by the closing titles, we would still be told that they were. Feelings of low self esteem and deeply rooted insecurities are not actually easily ‘fixed’ and their underlying causes, being myriad, are very difficult to correctly identify. Serious afflictions such as Body Dismorphic Disorder can’t be cured with a designer handbag or an empire line frock, and its irresponsible to package up these programs as solutions to emotional issues. It’s all fine and well to suggest we make the best of ourselves, but why is only one way to do this ever presented in the media? Advertisers have also been quick to cotton on to this – Dove promotes being happy with the body you’ve got…unless that entails having dry skin which would presumably be one step too far; Loreal reasserts that we’re ‘worth it’ – but worth what? Worth not letting our hair and make-up go to the dogs apparently. Happiness is now inextricably linked to outer perfection, and a very prescribed idea of what that is. It was only a matter of time before some producer got the bright idea of introducing cosmetic surgery to the mix. Shows like 10 Years Younger and Extreme Makeover are – in my humble opinion – at the far end (the bad end) of the aforementioned scale. The configurement of ‘beauty’ they promote is completely skewed and result in the absolute absence of any notion of individuality. At the end of these shows the (primarily middle aged) women are physically unrecognisable. Not even taking into account the effect this must have on their children, what is this telling viewers? That mutiliation of one’s body is OK, because the pursuit of perfect features, hair, teeth and nails is more important? Losing your identity is a small price to pay to look ‘good’, conforming to the established model of physical superiority is what’s important – who cares if your body mass is 80% silicon and acrylic? I despair at shows like this that brush over invasive surgery and gruelling physical strain, not to mention the jaw-dropping costs involved, in order package up the end result as a fairytale solution to the trials of getting older.

This brings me to man of the hour, androgynous former stylist and presenter a la mode: Gok Wan. If Extreme Makeover is at one end of the scale, his show would surely be at the other (with Trinny and Susannah loitering somewhere in the middle). How to Look Good Naked drew up the blueprint I think T & S were trying to replicate with Great British Body, promoting the same idea of inner happiness coming from taking pride in one’s appearance. I have to admit, Wan is a difficult one for me as he’s an intrinsically likeable character which immediately differentiates his offering from What Not to Wear. From the off, his tactics are ‘how to’ as opposed to their more fascist ‘how NOT to’, and his more gentle approach has won him fans the nation over. But is Gok Wan a co-conspirator in the plan to sell aesthetics as psychological DIY or is he doing something different? I genuinely believe that Wan takes more care than most with the raw materials he’s given – only a small proportion of the show is attributed to dressing ‘well' (whatever that means) and he does seem to genuinely believe in what he’s doing. His well publicised past weight problems as well as his homosexual status seem to lend him an air of ‘I’ve been there’ – he’s accessible and unthreatening to women and men alike…and – unusually for a TV personality – he actually seems quite, well, nice (it took a lot to write that). One feature of Wan’s show is to organise a sort of naked ‘line up’ of women against who Gok’s guest has to pit herself depending on what hang up she suffers. Where would she put herself in the order of ‘biggest thighs’, or ‘largest bum’? What could come off quite badly as judging one woman’s body against another actually serves to illuminate the woman on their unfounded insecurities as she is more often than not wildly over exaggerating her flaws.

That’s not to say I don’t have my gripes with How To Look Good Naked. At the end of the day, Wan still sends his ‘normal’ girls down a catwalk otherwise flanked with gazelle like models, and he does to a certain extent buy into cosmetic enhancement (though via the counter and not the scalpel). Let’s face it, if Wan advocated the idea that we don’t have to change ANY aesthetic, there wouldn’t be much potential for an hour long show, but ultimately I think he really does mean well. That this programme is handled sensitively is its main virtue. TV still has a way to go until the link between outer appearance and inner identity is dismantled (or at least afforded less impetus) but Gok Wan is at least heading in the right direction.

Science Bit

A study in The Independent today claims that men’s and women’s brains are more significantly different from one another than previously thought. There are now thought to be substantial differences in size in parts of the brain that control things such as spacial awareness, pain suppression, mental health and emotional memory. Scientists are claiming that this is proof that men and women behave in different ways for physiological reasons alone and that these differences have nothing to do with external social factors.
A C Grayling, professor of Philosophy says “this discovery does not affect just the difference between the sexes, but also different populations, and different ethnicities which have different propensities to illness and disease. For instance, we treat children differently from adults, so it's not surprising that we might treat Europeans differently from Asians, men differently from women.” Hmmm. Interestingly, he is the only “expert” quoted in the article who appears to not question what the study means for gender relations. The general consensus among those interviewed is that it would be short-sighted to lend too much weight to what is essentially a small study. Making conclusions about studies such as this can only serve to reinforce stereotypes, and there is no evidence to show that parts of the brain aren’t changed and manipulated through life and so may be reflect social experience. Psychologist Oliver James says: “It is pure speculation. The size of different parts of the brain can be affected by childhood experiences. For example, a woman who was sexually abused as a child has, on average, 5 per cent less mass in her hippocrampal region than a woman who was not sexually abused.” Phillip Hodson makes a good comment too: “I do not believe that ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus.’ We are all from Earth.” The age old argument of ‘Nature versus Nurture’ is again in full flow. Does social experience affect the way the brain has evolved, or are our societal codes governed by the fact that women have different physiological capabilities to men? I think this could turn into a chicken and egg debate. It would be naïve to claim that men and women do not differ in their physical make-up – they do (and interestingly enough, Spare Rib founder Rosie Boycott backs this up in the article) – but when studies like these appear to be backing up the way men and women are perceived and treated it is slightly worrying. We need to be aware that there are discrepancies between the physical make up of males and females but we should also remember that we are talking about the brain, an extremely complex organ about which we actually know next to nothing. As human beings advance and evolve more, we become better equipped to start questioning norms about why men and women behave and aren’t treated equally - ironically perhaps our brains will allow us to overlook their differences from one and other - confusing! Judi James says: “I think instead of trying to categorise differences we should celebrate diversity and people's individuality and their quirks, rather than looking at whether they are male or female. I find evidence like this tends to create stereotypes.” There can be no ‘justification’ for the inequality that has and still is being faced by women. It’s a question of opportunity not capability. Interestingly enough, and something that will no doubt fuel further scepticism

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Anne takes flack for husband's plot - why is her crime worse than his?

The story of John Darwin, who faked his own death by canoe accident only to reappear five years later is back in the news this week. Or, more precisely, his wife is. Anne Darwin, who was in on the plot to defraud several insurance providers all along, has been front page news for the past week owing to her court appearances in which she claims she was coerced into the idea by her husband. Headlines like 'Anne 'conned' sons' (The Daily Mirror, 15.07.08), 'Anne Darwin used 'guts and nerve' to fake husband's death' (The Sun, 15.07.08) have villainised her involvement. I'm not sure I really buy her defence - the fact that she upped sticks to meet him in Panama where they planned to remain after cashing in £250,000 worth of insurance policies would suggest that this isn’t as clear cut as all that. Who knows? What I do know is that the media coverage of this case – since Anne’s involvement was revealed – has largely ignored John Darwin, who it must be recognised is the main perpetrator of this crime. Somehow it is more acceptable to the public that a man would commit a fraudulent act such as this – fake his own death, put his family through misery – than it is for a woman. Anne’s status as wife and mother ensure that her crime is inexplicably more abominable than her husband’s, even though she was allegedly manipulated into going along with his scheme.

The press did the same – albeit in very different circumstances to Kate McCann after her daughter Madeleine disappeared while on holiday in July 2007. Despite both herself and her husband Gerry being officially recognised by Portuguese police as suspects in the case, it was Kate alone who bore the brunt of the media criticism. She was condemned for her ‘cold’ and ‘unemotional’ demeanour and vilified for leaving her children alone in the villa. Regardless of each of these women’s acts, the point is they were accompanied in them by their husbands, who largely escaped scrutiny (or at least the amount of scrutiny their wives were subjected to). Why is it that when a man and a woman commit the same crime, the woman’s committing of it is deemed less socially acceptable, more shocking and despicable? Yes, the woman’s status as mother is an important factor – and much has been made of Anne’s betrayal of her sons, who for almost six years were fooled into thinking their father was dead – but what about the father? The truth is, there still exists that ideal blueprint of ‘woman’ in the social consciousness: soft, gentle, motherly and ultimately weak and overly emotional. That a woman could be capable of an act that entails violence, deceit, malice or any other trait that is considered more ‘male’ is shocking and looked upon as unnatural. When a man and a woman stand accused of something side by side, they should be judged equally. Being a woman shouldn’t make you more guilty and being a man should not afford you leniency. It seems that women criminals provoke more of a reaction and sell more papers…but the bottom line is: the crimes we are talking about (those that harm a human being) are intrinsically unnatural. Someone’s gender makes this no more or no less true.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Playing with Fire

News reached me this morning of the unveiling of a new Barbie doll – S & M Barbie. OK, so that’s not the official name for her – this doll is apparently based on the DC Comics superhero, the Black Canary – but the connotations are obvious. Christian groups have already lambasted the toy – aimed at the “tween” market of girls aged 6 to 12 years old – for the message it could be sending impressionable youngsters. This doll has naturally inherited her predecessor's pneumatic figure and golden locks, but she seems to have developed a more racy sense of style, donning leathers and fishnets. The sexual allusions to sado-masochistic sub-culture are not difficult to identify. Instead of being an honest and faithful tribute doll to the Black Canary character, this is clearly Mattel’s attempt to "sex Barbie up" using any means necessary. It’s pretty low, but what should we expect from Mattel, who have been peddling this skewed representation of womankind to young girls for almost 50 years? I’m sure we’re all aware of the fact that were Barbie a real homosapien, she would be forced to move around on all fours. I guess that’s the bugger about having the perfect measurements – you have to sacrifice something, and if it’s a choice between big gazungas and mobility, pass Barbs the zimmer frame! It seems slightly ridiculous to dress a Barbie up as a superhero in light of her unfortunate handicap, especially when compared with the original DC version of the Black Canary doll, who looks like she could pack more than a serious punch and would probably beat Ken at an arm wrestle, never mind Barbie.

In all seriousness, the emergence of this new doll sadly doesn’t shock and is just the latest example of how the girls’ toy market is becoming progressively more seedy. Mattel is currently at loggerheads with rival toy manufacturer MGA whose hugely popular Bratz franchise has been outselling Barbie for some years now: the ‘Black Canary Barbie’ is clearly a retaliation. In a very amusing article in The New Yorker, entitled “Little Hotties”, Margaret Talbot notes that Barbie is now well into middle age and pitches her against the new uprising: the glamourous, youthful Bratz. It sounds like child’s play, but the implications of it are cause for concern. These new dolls are part a growing consumer culture whereby children are increasingly being sold to and their parents bypassed. Its worrying enough that this could happen in the first place but when you delve into the question of what they’re being sold, the waters are murky indeed.

Unlike Barbie, at least the Bratz dolls are actually upwardly mobile. Unfortunately that’s where any reference to reality ends. They have distinctly large heads (echoing the ‘lollipop’ trend that is currently sweeping the celebrity circuit), and over exaggerated cartoon-like features daubed in garish make-up (even Bratz Babies are heavily made up and wear their dummies as jewelled adornments - scary). They claim to be a ‘fashion doll’ like Barbie, and the dolls do come in a vast array of different manifestations: goth, ghetto-fabulous, evening formal. You name it – the Bratz have worn it. The common thread that links each of the ‘collections’ is the sexualized nature of these toys. Skirts are short, tops are cropped, heels are platformed. This hasn’t gone unnoticed in the American media. TV psychologist Dr Phil said they “look like hookers”, while the American Psychological Association (APA) established the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (2007), stating: “Bratz dolls come dressed in sexualized clothing such as miniskirts, fishnet stockings, and feather boas. Although these dolls may present no more sexualisation of girls or women than is seen in MTV videos, it is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4-8 year-olds are associated with an objectified adult sexuality.”

I'm not for one second suggesting that the little girls that play with these dolls are fully aware of the comment they are making about female sexuality and body image, I think selling this image of womanhood to young girls in any form is extremely irresponsible. While kids might be oblivious to the ‘sassiness’ of these play-things (as Talbot rightly points out this is simply a euphemism for ‘sexiness’), adults aren’t. I found it distinctly odd (and somewhat disturbing) when a male friend of mine joked that he was planning to see Bratz: The Movie for a bit of eye candy (however much he insisted he was joking). And this is the problem – marketing adult notions of sexuality and gender to children is plain wrong. They may not understand it, but they will grow up accepting these representations as normal. Passing the buck by reasoning that they are too young to understand these notions is downright cowardly.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Rape according to Carole Malone

I discovered Subtext magazine a few weeks ago and have since been going through their back issues. There was an excellent article by Heather Kennedy in issue 5 reporting on media attitudes towards teenage motherhood ("Pramface: The media victimisation of teenage mums"). The article pays close attention to the link between the social subjugation of this perceived ‘underclass’ and the tabloid press, making mention of the middle-class snobbery that underlies ‘Vicky Pollard’ comparisons and insulting imagery used to describe teenage girls who find themselves pregnant or with a child. Unsurprisingly the publications in question were tabloid favourites The Sunday Mirror, The News of the World and The Sun. Perhaps what is slightly more unsettling is that the columnists quoted were both female, one of whom is the subject of this post, Carole Malone.

Malone - now a highly prized News of the World columnist, has written for The Sunday Mirror and been involved in various light entertainment TV shows including that most cerebral example of female debate, Loose Women. Not being the greatest consumer of tabloid materials, she has remained relatively off radar for me until now. I almost wish I hadn’t done my research, but unfortunately I suffer from an unusual affliction whereby I regularly feel a compulsion to listen to/watch/read about things that really piss me off. I feel like it shocks my own beliefs into reaffirmation. The last time this happened was when I first listened to Nick Ferrari’s breakfast show on LBC (who incidentally also used to employ Malone). If you have never had the misfortune to listen to this show, and you don’t share my aforementioned condition I wouldn’t recommend you start. Suffice it to say Ferrari is bigoted, ignorant and misinformed. London’s Biggest Conversation with Ferrari at the helm turns into a monologue of bitter rants against whoever the host believes deserves it on that particular day. Recently I’ve heard him slate women who become pregnant without first notifying their employers, host an hour long debate about Amy Winehouse’s emphysema diagnosis (where’s the show dedicated to Pete Doherty?), and complain about an Iraqi child receiving compensation for injuries sustained in an attack by British troops. This should illustrate the type of ‘journalist’ we’re dealing with, and Malone is cut from the same cloth: that of offensive and deliberately controversial hyperbole dressed up as outspokenness and strength of character. That these pompous individuals appeal to the mainstream is a terrifying prospect. Read on if you dare.

So, the article I so unfortunately happened upon while looking into Carole Malone’s repertoire of moralistic musings is probably not alone in its abhorrent levels of ignorance, but it was the most relevant to discuss on this blog. It concerns the recent rape allegations made against Blue Peter presenter of yesteryear, John Leslie. Clearly a topic of this sensitive nature should be afforded the resource that it deserves and the objectivity it requires, a safe pair of hands, right? Wrong. In the eyes of The News of the Word, this is apparently a brief for a columnist seemingly oblivious to the representation of fact, one who has a clear gripe (or just plain can’t be bothered) with research. Enter Carole Malone. I gave up highlighting contentious paragraphs of this article — entitled 'There's no point crying rape now' (29.6.08) — when it became clear that I would be left with little to show in the way of white paper. The whole thing is an fine example of appalling attitudes towards rape victims that not only still exist in the social consciousness but are widely accepted, nestling between last night’s TV and ads for timeshares in Britain’s “biggest selling newspaper”.

Among her many qualms, Malone has taken most offence to the fact that the alleged incident involving Leslie and an anonymous woman has only now been reported, 13 years after the event. Without a shred of empathy, Malone says: “[the girl] had the chance to come forward after the alleged rape in 1995. Why didn’t she?” And later “She had another chance in 2003 when Leslie was big news—being publicly pilloried as a sex attacker, named as the alleged rapist of Ulrika Jonsson and hauled before the courts (and later cleared) of two charges of indecent assault. If ever there was a time to come forward that was it.” Nice. Setting aside the fact that Malone clearly believes that the justice system is an unquestionable authority, these are the most ridiculous grounds for assuming Leslie’s innocence, which Malone clearly does. The likelihood of a rape actually having taken place being directly related to the speed at which it is reported is a ludicrous idea, and cannot possibly be based on any fact. A recent report in The Guardian outlines the problems faced by rape victims when reporting the crime as well as during the conviction process, citing views such as Malone’s as the major factor in why so many rapes are unreported and conviction rates are still only 6.1% (in some areas in the country they dip as low as 2.3%). Police were blamed for “too often greeting complaints with scepticism and intertia”. Juries need to be warned that “victims are often slow to report the attack…and may appear surprisingly unemotional while in the witness box.”

Malone also comments on the fact that after the alleged incident, the woman went on to marry, have a child and live a relatively normal life, bleating “It’s hard to understand how, despite her supposed pain, her devastation, she very quickly met and fell in love with a wealthy businessman, had his child and moved abroad to start a new life with him.” Why is it? What does Malone want, to see rape victims forever marred by their trauma, to see their lives ruined or stopped in their tracks? Does she want to put a caveat on the recovery process as well as a time limit on reporting attacks? Why should a woman who has been unfortunate enough to have gone through a rape NOT have a happy ending? And on the flipside, when did someone getting married and having a child and being depressed about something become an unfeasible possibility? Could it not be that this woman held onto her devastation, but also got married and had a baby? Malone clearly believes that this woman’s personal problems and the alleged rape are unrelated, citing her “sad life” and pondering whether her alcohol dependency could have arisen from “the fact the big career she dreamed of never materialised? Failed romances? A predisposition to alcohol?” Not once is it recognised that alcohol – as unfortunate as it is true – is a crutch leaned upon by the victims of crime on a daily basis, not just those affected by rape, and the other failings this woman has experienced would be well recognised as symptoms of post traumatic stress.

It is absolutely astonishing that not one statistic— not one quote or example— is drawn upon to back up Malone’s pig-headed repartee. In fact, she uses the most basic of adolescent justifications: “I don’t know her, but…” There are several occasions on which she uses this unsophisticated device, as if to say “I don’t know what I’m talking about, so I couldn’t possibly be held responsible for my words if they happen to offend.” Since when was openly admitting that you know nothing about your subject matter and that you are basing an entire piece of work on assumption an admirable quality in current affairs journalism? Of course, a columnist is employed for their unique take on the varied interests of their readership, but disregarding evidence that may be in opposition to their own agenda— particularly on issues such as this— is irresponsible, and dangerous to boot. That Malone assumes herself to be any kind of authority on how the ‘average’ rape victim would behave if they had been attacked by John Leslie is beyond comprehension or explanation. “I know most women who’ve been raped wouldn’t—couldn’t—leave it 13 years to do something about it”. How exactly she’s come across this invaluable piece of knowledge is unclear. The Metropolitan Police’s assistant commissioner John Yates recently recognised "we've got to get a better understanding of how victims react: don't expect consistency, don't expect victims to report right away, and don't expect victims to scream and shout." He is advising mainly police and juries here, but these are words that Malone could do with looking over. The myths surrounding rape, its perpetrators, and its victims are the biggest hindrance to rightful prosecution of rapists and the resolution to the nightmare that follows reporting a rape for a victim. That these myths are perpetuated by the media in this way, and by a woman atop of that, is absolutely despicable.

Perhaps the most misguided comment in this piece is when Malone claims that “we live in an age where rape accusations are taken extremely seriously, where our rape laws are stacked in favour of women, and those women are guaranteed anonymity if they want it, which is why there’s absolutely no reason for ANY woman who has been raped NOT to come forward.” I wonder if Malone is aware that (according to the most in depth statistics available at The Campaign to End Rape website), 1 in 4 women in the UK have been the victim of rape or sexual assault, that over two thirds of cases are dropped at police level, that one quarter of crimes originally logged as rapes by police are later ‘no-crimed’, and of those ‘crimed’, half are later dropped. Well, aren’t we lucky? I wonder if Malone is aware of the fact that despite 34 rapes being reported to police every minute, only a quarter of UK local authorities provide services for rape victims. Yes, Carole, we are ever so lucky. The Fawcett Society is an excellent source of information on how the justice system treats women (both offenders and victims) and a quick scan of their website quickly dispels Malone’s skewed vision of women as the abusers of the justice system, charting the progress of campaigns designed to overturn outdated attitudes such as hers.

I guess it’s a bit too much to ask that Carole Malone might display some sort of feminist solidarity, but what dismays me most about this whole unsavoury piece is that she actively supports the notion that the sexual objectification and resulting abuse of women’s bodies is the harmless sport of males, referring to John Leslie as a ‘sleazeball’ and ‘a pest with women’, as if these qualities are an annoying yet inevitable presence in the male sex. Employing euphemistic phraseology with such cowardice, she uses this as an argument for his innocence – why? When does one cease to be a ‘pest’ and become a rapist? Why should women have to put up with either scenario? It’s unclear why Malone is so sure that Leslie didn’t commit the offence in question – maybe she’s a believer in the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ manifesto, although her complete judgement of the woman involved would suggest otherwise. She’s also inexplicably bothered by rape victims’ right to anonymity, and while this is far too obvious a point for me to labour, I can’t help thinking that its people like her and the attitudes she perpetrates – more so the courts and the legal system – that these laws protect women from. I can only imagine how a rape victim would feel reading this most poisonous and ill-informed piece of writing, and I will leave it at that, I will not speculate. Maybe Malone should have done the same.

Friday, 4 July 2008

"We Cannot Direct The Wind, But We Can Adjust The Sails"

This is my first post, as is probably obvious if you are reading it: hang in there! I decided to start a blog for a number of reasons. One, I assume I will find some sort of enjoyment in it. Having spent three years studying English only to find myself working in marketing, scrutinising spreadsheets and crunching numbers, I feel like this could be my private emancipation from the constraints of my two least favourite things: capitalism and basic maths. Secondly, I've reached the age where I no longer feel I have tailor my opinions to suit those who I may be talking to at one particular time. This is a liberating notion indeed, but I've found it has its draw-backs. I now find that sometimes people (shock, horror) disagree with my views - thats OK I suppose, I'm only really looking for validation in small doses. What's not so OK is when people don't want to hear my opinions. The laws of probability dictate that there must be at least a small proportion of the population of the world wide web that will hear what I'm saying, in all senses of the phrase. It would be good to find these people. The last reason is the one which is perhaps the most important and the one which I feel will compell most of you to either continue or stop reading. I don't know yet what form the blog will assume, I'm just intending to write about things that interest me, what I've learned and what I hope to learn but I will mainly be writing about feminist issues. The name of this blog comes from a quote by that ubiquitous creature and country music legend, Dolly Parton. She once said: "We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails". This sums up my general feeling on what I would hope (although would never presume) this blog could be for myself and the few who may stumble upon it. Despite society's relative progress and the fact that a lot of us think that women have "got it pretty good now", I think there is still work to be done. Whether or not I can contribute is another matter, but if I do I look on it as a tiny adjustment of the sails of a vessell, one which represents for me an opinion, individual or collective. Here goes!