3 Jul 2008

The Smaller Battles

One of the easiest and laziest accusations to throw at feminists is that they're ugly and bitter because they can't get a man, and as a result, are anti-men and anti-sex. This is a tricky one to circumnavigate. If I correct my critics and inform them that I'm happily co-habiting with a most grabbable male, they usually change tack to demand 'what are you complaining about then?'. As if gratitude that one non-sexist man who treats me well exists should somehow erase every grievance wrought upon women by misogynist men and other self-defeating women. Never mind. Trying to prove that I'm fiercely attractive and getting IT regularly would be sinking to the depressing level of a society that can only speak the language of tits, arse, shiny hair and white teeth, with the implication of some heterosexual humping going on in the background. My god, only the other day did I see an ad using the idea of 'seduction' to sell fabric softener. And most days I can shrug off this kind of BS as a sad sign of the times - in a ruthlessly capitalist society, selling is the name of the game, and sex sells. Usually white, middle class straight sex, but occasionally the advertisers get smart and wander into the foray of hunky gays (anyone remember that Impulse ad where the girl thinks she's being flirted with until she looks around, realises she's in a very San Franciscan looking area, and the guy's boyfriend pitches up to lead him away? Class.). By now we're all able to toss our never-quite-as-shiny-as-the-ad-said-it-was-gonna-be hair and brush off the endless hijacking of human sexuality to sell shampoo, cars and computers as laughably predictable.

But there are times when it still gets right up my already turned-up nose, especially when it starts invading a place where I have no choice but to see it. In the kitchen of the office where I work, magazines occasionally get left on the windowsill. Heat, Woman, Property Abroad, so far so mediocre. Yesterday someone added a technology magazine to the fold. Did it have a computer, a plasma screen TV, or a gilded piece of shimmering new gadgetry on the cover? Did it hell. It had a full body shot of a waif-like brunette model who looked all of 17, in a skimpy white string bikini. Try as you might, attempting to discover the relevance of this cover picture to the contents of the magazine is like trying to eat doughnuts without licking your lips - you're just not going to get anywhere, so don't even start. That's the crux of it though - we all know this mindlessly smiling young nymph has got absolutely nothing to do with the overpriced male toys inside.

The media are becoming so comfortable and protected in the knowledge that their use of the female body as window dressing to the whole of existence will never be challenged, that they don't even have to pretend that they're trying to use it as anything but irrelevant frippery any more. Even The Sun give their Page 3 girls a comment and a bit of blurb about their interests ("Jasmine is a keen horse rider and loves her dog, Smudge"). Am I the only person who thought that practices such as draping wimmin over cars and motorbikes - the juxtaposition of the fluffy female with a MANLY item - was already crushingly embarrassing when it was done in the 60s and 70s, and has only got worse as those responsible no longer have the claim of ignorance to fall back on? The idea that, because time has passed, it's somehow less offensive to persist in this sleazy behaviour, is about as convincing as the idea that it's now OK to be racist, because, hey the civil rights movement was 40 years ago, you got your equality so stop being so uptight now, sweetheart!

I suppose what bothers me most is that I don't have the guts to just pick up the mag and slap it into the bin (yet), probably more because petty office politics mean even moving someone's sandwich in the communal fridge can result in ostracisation for a month, than because I'm embarrassed to be seen as objecting to its sexism and aesthetic slavery. I've entertained the idea of bringing in a magazine with an equally objectifying image of a man on the cover, but to achieve that I'd have to bring in Attitude, a gay mag which would probably cause offence for different reasons, or something like Men's Health, which would probably be of interest to most of the young men in the office, and hence cause everyone to totally miss the point. Unfortunately I just don't feel comfortable going around the office asking 'whose magazine is this? Do you mind if I throw it away because I find the cover offensive?', again more because I'm a bottom-level dogsbody who hasn't even been with the company a year, and know the importance of not rocking the boat or being seen to be a whinger or a trouble-maker, than because I mind people knowing that I'm a feminist. But, there is still that twinge of shame that makes you feel obliged to explain yourself when you object to items such as the casually placed piece of vacuous time-killing lying on the office kitchen table. You feel that the first thing people are thinking is 'you're just jealous because you don't look like that'.

Well, let's analyse that a bit. Yes, I think women do find images of emaciated, fake-tanned, young (ALWAYS young) females with parts of their bodies at angles that only army rifles should ever be set at humiliating. It is, to my mind, a fairly obvious smack in the face. Hey, Uggo! YOU don't look like this! SHE does! Your boyfriend wants to read a magazine with HER on! Better go buy a magazine that tells you how to look more like HER! And whilst you're at it, buy a load of products with the fake promise that they'll shave off your spare tire, smooth out your cottage-cheese legs, iron your laughter lines, gloss your hair and give you breasts like two grapefruits strapped to your ribcage! Even if the magazine in question isn't attempting to sell anything to women, and indeed is aiming at a male audience, the effect it has on women isn't going to be lessened. We still have to see this sexist garbage every time we walk into the BP petrol garage for £30 worth of overpriced fuel and a bag of maltesers, or pop into a newsagents to buy Private Eye because it may be the last bastion of common sense amongst the media of this country. Unless you can exist in a vacuum free of TV, film, newspaper and magazine gloss - and on this overcrowded, media-saturated little island, it ain't likely, this direct attempt to undermine women and make them feel inadequate in every way will shoot its arrows straight at your psychic armour, and by god you'd better have some good self-esteem to fight the bastards off.

As I said to my partner last night, how would men feel if every time they went to fill up the car, they were confronted with images of muscular, sleek, chiselled men with full heads of hair, stunning skin, powerful bodies as if carved from oak, and of course, ridiculously huge, erect penises peeking out from under the tiny loincloth which is of course, all they are wearing? Pretty shit, I think we can unanimously agree. Yet women are expected to titter, roll their eyes and pretend they don't feel offended, attacked and obnoxiously shown up by the colonising of the female body to sell items that are going to roll off the shelves regardless of whether you use a 17 year old girl or a 70 year old piece of cheese to advertise them. So why is it shameful to say 'yeah, actually, that magazine/advert/film makes me feel ugly and shit, and I refuse to have that inflicted upon me'? Men clearly have plenty of insecurities of their own, else why would Viagra, Rogain, and those godawful bulking-up milkshakes have such healthy markets to sell to? They wouldn't like to have full hairlines, buff bods and impressive genitalia shoved in their faces, so to speak, from dusk til dawn all the livelong day, and we don't like the equivalent war waged on female self-esteem.

Maybe, as it's Friday tomorrow, I'll chuck it in the bin at the end of the work day and hope it'll be long forgotten by Monday. Maybe I'll just tear the cover off. Maybe I should dispense with all the magazines, as Heat is surely as bad a proponent of body fascism and hyper-critical attitudes to women's appearances? Giving a shit about these things is such a tiring job sometimes - and I have to do it in addition to a real one. POST SCRIPT: I walked into the office kitchen this morning, asked the three male managers who were having coffee in there if I could remove the magazine, and when they asked 'Is it the cover that bothers you?' and I replied in the affirmative, was encouraged to rip the front cover off. Gotta love those old white guys sometimes.

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