Flash-in-the-pan feminism: back to normal for the media?
Tuesday, 21 June 2011
At the beginning of the year, when I wrote a feature on the way feminism was portrayed in the media last year for The F Word, I wondered what the media would do with its coverage of our activism and concerns in 2011. In 2010, the publication of several books and the prominence of certain issues forced newspapers and magazines to take a closer look at the movement, interview some of its more well-known names and faces and concede that yes, the end of the 'Noughties' had seen the 'return of feminism'.
Things were going well, I thought. Some things were getting a bit more coverage - the impact of the cuts on women, FGM, trafficking, International Women's Day, the diversity of the movement. The backlash was still the same, but that was to be expected. However I think we're increasingly seeing the situation, yet again, where the movement is being defined not by its diversity and its engagement with so many different issues affecting society, but by whatever seems provocative, gets broadcasters talking about sex and gives the impression that we're interested in little more than policing other women's lives.
Take the coverage of Slutwalks. Before the march in London a week and a half ago, the papers were full of debate about what this 'new' kind of activism (never mind about Reclaim the Night, right?) means for women. On and on it went, focusing mainly on the clothing choices of women who had taken part in earlier marches (such as the one in Toronto) and on the connotations of the word 'slut'. There was comparatively little discussion of the main aim of the march and when it was mentioned, it was never long before people weighed in with their opinions that 'If you left your valuables lying around they would get stolen, if you know what I mean'.
Now despite supporting its overall aim, I think there are some really valid criticisms of the Slutwalk movement, whether we're talking about white privilege, unexamined power dynamics or reclaiming a word which has never been positive. What valid criticism isn't is 'Is this what feminism is nowadays - campaigning for the right to act like sluts?'
Unfortunately, due to the media obsession with the attire and quotes of individuals, this is what happened. And when thousands of men and women took to the streets of London on June 11th, marched through the capital and had a thoroughly positive and inspiring day, where was the coverage we'd seen in the weeks leading up to it? Well, it wasn't particularly evident. Because musing on women's clothing choices and judgmental opinion pieces about the silliness of young women today is more newsworthy than whatever happened on the actual day of the march and the rousing speeches given at the rally.
"It's become very confused," said one commentator, talking about the aims of the movement. Personally I don't think people would have been half as confused about the issues Slutwalks hope to address if the mainstream media hadn't insisted on twisting them in the hope of a good argument or two, reports of 'catfights' and a chance to snigger at the women involved. I watched a segment about the London march on BBC Breakfast where any discussion about rape was immediately derailed as the presenters attempted to tie the 'clothing' issue in with everyone's latest obsession, 'sexualisation' - and ended up with a debate on what sort of clothing was 'appropriate' for parents to allow their teenage daughters to wear out of the house. It was frustrating to say the least.
The problem with the 'sexualisation' issue is that it's getting focus for the wrong reasons. As I said last week, people are incredibly keen to point out its nefarious effects, newspapers are running stories about it so they can show yet more screenshots of Rihanna videos and tut about kids doing pole dancing classes - but they're not offering solutions or taking a long hard look at the way they portray women. The helpful suggestions of people who don't go along with this futile performance of horror are largely ignored outside of the blogosphere - that is until someone like Charlie Brooker says something about it.
And then there's Playboy. You want a prime example of the trivialization and misinterpretation of feminist activism? This is it. No longer a protest against the way Hugh Hefner runs his business and his treatment of women over the years, Eff Off Hef! became, at the hands of the tabloids, an outdated protest by prudish 'bunny boilers' against the women who work at the club, their right to do whatever job they please and the fact that they're attractive. We saw several opinion pieces outraged at these bitter women, these humourless hags seeking to take away real, liberated women's rights to be sexy and do whatever they want.
In the wake of these distortions, manufactured drama and straw feminists, come the articles telling feminists to stop being so silly, ladies - and concentrate on the feminist issues which really matter. The economy. Poverty. Violence against women. Said Victoria Coren in the Guardian last weekend:
"Mostly, I am sad that feminism is suddenly all about clothing. Maybe that's the answer to what I find rum, what makes me suspicious: it feels like just another way to chat about fashion. The only piece of clothing which is relevant for modern feminists to debate – the only one with a complex argument, counter-argument and serious social implications either way – is the burqa. Shorts, bras, bunny ears? Meh, leave that to Sex and the City. None of it matters. None of it means anything."
All that's happening in the world of feminist activism this year isn't a 'way to chat about fashion'. Or at least it wasn't until the media started focusing on a couple of issues above all else, insinuating therefore that they represent the extent of the women's movement. Giving column inches to the other issues, yes, but putting them nearer the back of the paper or hidden away on the website because they can't be accompanied by pictures of women in 'provocative' clothing and debates about sex. It's because of this that those critical articles are full of straw feminists, it's because of this that people want to know why we have to hear yet another discussion about skimpy clothes and vajazzling on a news programme.
It's because every other issue is being pushed off the agenda and the result, as ever, is people being dismissive about feminism, no matter how well women acquit themselves when they go on the radio or on television to talk about Slutwalks or the Playboy Club, the reaction from many remains dismissive. We're being pigeonholed with increasing frequency by media outlets which should know better, while so much dedicated work and activism goes ignored.
Photo via Ben Ponton's Flickr