…it’s a girl thing

Sorry to bang on about sexual politics, but here’s something that really annoys me: form filling. Filling in another of the buggers  the other day (phone company) and they asked my sex (which isn’t relevant in any case, I was buying phone credit not a dildo) and then presented the options in the usual order – male or female.

Of course by now, I have filled in millions of forms and it’s not unusual for these options to be presented in this order, indeed I think that it’s pretty standard. It’s not alphabetical, it’s set out in the web masters idea of priority: men first, women second.

If you’re a certain type of troll you’ll be reading that and preparing some scathing comment that suggests that with the world going to hell in a hand cart there are more things to worry about other than feminist power struggles and much more significant issues than option order on an internet form, but it is important because if you are a woman it’s often the small drip drip of prejudice that eventually drives you mad rather than the big issues. The abiding message that you are second to men is so all pervasive that you almost don’t notice it, until you do. Think about 5 Live sport radio coverage: it’s almost entirely by men about men with an occasional woman allowed in to talk about …well, men.

Politics, business and media is so dominated by men that if you were an alien you’d imagine that these areas of life are barred to women by law, perhaps with an occasional exemption made on appeal. If women are allowed near the media they need to have the looks of a model and the body of a young girl. If they do well they need to expect shocked expressions of delight or consternation that a man wouldn’t tolerate. Why should the shape of your genitalia effect your ability to read the news, run a company or shout the odds across the floor of the House of Commons. Science seems to indicate that the differences between male and female brains are tiny, and may well be a consequence of the the ongoing re-wiring caused by differing experiences in life. And yet women and men are invariable treated as if they are radically different – and different in status too.

And that is why it is normal and not remotely noteworthy if on internet forms a man’s identity is more important than the woman’s. But it’s still wrong.

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Ghosts

The Guardian published an article (a crap one btw…but the CIS/below the line crew already pointed that out for me) about older women and their disappearing sexuality in the media (here, if you must http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/16/women-not-allowed-grow-old-erotically). It kind of missed the point to my mind, because it’s not older women and sex that has disappeared from the media, but just older women…. full stop.

In film you can certainly be in your 40’s and get a job, but you had better look in your 30’s. In advertising, make sure that you don’t look much older than 20. In the print media? Well, unless you get your perky young breasts out, or you’ve sung on Xfactor you won’t be seen at all. News reading is largely the job of younger women, although Newsnight commendably has journos who are of a similar age to the men. Women my age – i.e. in our 50’s, just don’t get seen at all. We don’t have the ageing glam thing – Helen Mirren on this side of the pond (Meryl Streep/ Barbra Streisand on the other) we’re just not old enough to have become a national treasure like Judi Dench.

Fashion for women my age isn’t too fancy either: you can find stuff in M&S if you’re happy with the ‘jeans and….’combo (and acres of bland workwear) and maybe pick up the odd thing that might ‘do’, but they really want you to step into the Per Una or Classics range.  Which frankly I don’t like at all – it’s frumpy and middle aged. I might technically be in the middle of my adulthood but I don’t feel ready for frou-frou and a nice scarf just yet.  Other high street fashion ranges are really all about the youth. Next does bits and bobs, everywhere else it’s disposable fashion and clothes for the young and thin.

But to be honest, I think that socially we vanish anyway: I find that as I walk along pavements I end up giving way to the young as they march, fully confident down the streets. Women with buggies casually barge me aside. The only group that give way are the very young, who see my grey hair and give me the benefit of seniority. If nothing else.

Women are the second sex, older women are not even that. We’re ghosts.

Young women in advertising

Some of my co-workers are very concerned at the moment about the use of images of very young women in advertising. They work in local government and are in a position to make changes to how these images are deployed around the borough. And in many respects I support their stance.

Where I part company with the argument, is that there is a tang of misplaced “paedophiles in the bushes” about all of this. These women look young but most models are very young. The women have scanty breasts, skinny legs and are photographed looking sulky or pouting. These are all taken as markers of young girls and therefore the adverts are hastily labelled as dangerous to children and appealing to paedophiles.

But let’s unpack all of this before having a knee jerk response: young girls may well be damaged by these images but I would argue that girls are constantly bombarded by images of sexualised women wherever they look, and it is this that is the problem, not the youth or otherwise.

Kids ‘know’ from an early age that “looking sexy” is what women do (being sexy, having enjoyable sex, not so much) – and parents who dress their kids in adult-style, gendered clothing buy into this, literally and metaphorically. Paedophiles are certainly a cause for concern, but we should be telling our daughters and sons about good, appropriate, safe sex and proper consent, rather than keeping sex from them. Sex is not bad, nudity is not always sexualised, we need to keep a sense of proportion.

This is an argument that largely mis-reads the really big problem and that is that women are objectified and used to sell more or less everything, and in our culture very young, very slim women are the ideal.  This is something we need to tackle and we are being distracted by confusing this with clearly transgressive sexual practices: paedophiles have sex with children, sometimes very small children and consent is not given because it’s legally impossible. That is not to be confused with images of very young women who may or may not be 16 being used to sell knicker sets.

We need to have a discussion about the role of women in our society and the continuing difficulty in ensuring that women are valued and treated as equal to men: if you use a semi-naked female body to sell cars or Christmas, but not a young man’s, you are not doing that. If you put semi-naked women in a video and the men are fully clothed you are not doing that. If you comment on a woman’s clothing or age when she appears in court, but you do not do the same with a male witness, you are not valuing women as much as men. It’s really that simple. You don’t need to be a ‘Feminist’ to get it, and it’s possible to be concerned about women, and economic inequality and racism and …well, you get the picture. Just because you worry about women being the second sex doesn’t mean that you don’t worry about poverty and xenophobia. 

I suggest that if you want to have a go at Tesco’s for its knicker adverts, have a go at them because they think that female semi-nudity is appropriate for street side advertising, and that they didn’t balance that with a similar ad with a young man on it. If you think that French Connection’s use of very young, childlike women sucks, get real, because they’re hardly the only ones to do it, but still get mad because even if they used an older nude female model that would still be more of the damn same, and quite frankly women are getting fed up of it.