Feminism by the numbers

New feminism, you have failed us all, says Charlotte Raven. What is “new feminism”? Something to do with cupcakes, Katie Price, bra tops and nail polish, according to the Graun essay by Raven: it’s not very well-defined, but it seems to cover the same sort of area that was labelled as “post-feminism” and “girl power” in the ’90s. “It isn’t difficult proving that women are more oppressed than ever,” she claims. Ever? Really? I have a bank account, a ballot and a contraceptive implant. I reckon Mary Wollstonecraft would trade eras with me in a heartbeat.

Where has it gone wrong? Again, it’s hard to tell from Raven’s essay exactly what injury has been done to the female population or how “new feminism” caused it, but there’s a vague definition in the opening paragraph: “Women’s belief in specialness and a concomitant sense of entitlement has inflated in line with [Jordan’s] most famous assets.” We’re all just too fierce for our own good, and it would be much better for everyone if women started treating sex as something dangerous and avoidable – or at least containable.

And it’s a problem of the monied and leisured, not one of those actual struggle-for-subsistence problems. “You can’t simply opt for power – power isn’t a fridge or an elliptical training machine,” she says, sagely. You can’t simply “opt” to consume, either, but Raven never notices (or mentions) the independent disposable income she’s assuming here.

Instead, she presents it as a problem afflicting women in general. So how has she diagnosed it? I checked. She cites about 40 sources – the rest of the evidence is spun out of her own anecdotes. (“I wore Chanel’s Night Sky at meetings with editors, aware that much was at stake,” she reveals. Oooh, take that, “new feminism”. Raven wore nail varnish. Pow!) And most of this evidence is from polemic feminist books and novels by journalists. Look, I’m not saying that she didn’t do her research, but she doesn’t seem to have looked much further than her own immediate peers.

Actually, I am saying that she didn’t do her research. And you can really tell when you get to the four bits of statistical information she throws into her theory. (Apparently, four statistics is the minimum threshold for demonstrating universal gender malaise. I think it’s in The Guardian’s style guide.)

The first stat she cites comes from a survey:

In a recent study of 1,000 British girls (admittedly by a mobile entertainment company), quoted in Walter’s book, 60% said glamour modelling was their preferred career.

It’s not recent – it was from 2005. And I’m buggered if I can find any reference to how the survey was actually phrased or conducted. The apologetically-mentioned “mobile entertainment company” doesn’t even exist anymore. (Update Dr Petra Boynton did a takedown on the “girls want to be glamour models” PR survey at the time. Read it here.)

The other figures are about the extent of the sex industry and the number of punters. “There are now an estimated 80,000 women involved in prostitution.” No there aren’t. In 1999, a researcher estimated that there were 80,000 working prostitutes in the UK. Early last year, she spoke to the Radio 4 program More Or Less about how her work had been endorsed and interpreted by the Home Office:

That figure – recently used by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in an interview about the proposed new law – comes from research done 10 years ago by Hilary Kinnell, when she was working for an organisation providing health services to sex workers.

Ms Kinnell contacted 29 projects that provided services for sex workers to ask how many prostitutes they were working with. She had 17 responses. The average number of prostitutes per project was 665. She then multiplied that figure by 120, the total number of projects on her mailing list, to get an estimation of the total number of prostitutes.

“That brought the total up to very close on 80,000, which is still being quoted,” Ms Kinnell says. “And I find that quite bizarre really. The figure was picked up by all kinds of people and quoted with great confidence but I was never myself at all confident about it. I felt it could be higher, but it also could have been lower.”

BBC News, 9 January 2009, “Is the number of trafficked call girls a myth?”

So everything Raven says about the number of prostitutes in the UK is true, except that 80,000 is probably wrong and the figure’s a decade old anyway, meaning it has nothing to do with the influence of Belle De Jour, Girl With A One Track Mind, Katie Price, Nigella Lawson or any of the other “new feminism” villainesses of the noughties on whom Raven is slapping the blame.

Raven’s got a solution to her made-up problem, anyway:

If awareness returned – if modern woman were no longer disassociating from her pain and victimhood – all her decisions would be different. The things that hurt us would never seem “potentially enjoyable”. We wouldn’t wear silly shoes, blog about our sex life, worry that our babies are upstaging us. Most importantly, we’d resist the temptation to caricature ourselves. We’d lose the Nigella-esque pinny, the Price-esque lash extensions; the Belle-esque pose of erotic empowerment would seem inhibiting. We’d recover our desire for the missionary position with the person lying next to us. In every sphere of existence we’d be free to choose normality.

“New-new feminism”, then: hunting out and rejecting the abnormal, accepting essentialist gender roles (don’t you even think about mocking the sacred pain of femininity by camping it up with a cupcake), and absolutely never forgetting that sex is an embarrassing necessity. No post-natal depression – that’s definitely not one of the “normal” things you can “choose”. Oh, and apparently learning to handle statistics reliably is a hopelessly masculinist tendency you’re best off jettisoning for the cause. Welcome to Raven’s new-new sisterhood, same as the old, old misogyny.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Bully for The Observer

The Observer did a good launch. The redesign is subtle, efficient and readable – and, as Jeremy Leslie says, it benefits from cutting away a lot of the excess sections. A Sunday paper that doesn’t leave me with a depressing jumble of unread newsprint to scrunch into the recycling come Monday? That’s something I might actually buy semi-regularly.

But it’s not just what The Observer team were selling: it’s how they sold it. Securing the Rawnsley extract for the relaunch meant that The Observer was dominating news coverage for the whole weekend. Anyone who was likely to buy a newspaper on Sunday would have known that The Observer was offering an agenda-setting story, and had to consider buying it.

A few people think it was wrong to print Rawnsley’s analysis of Brown. I don’t: The Observer isn’t the house journal of the Labour party, and “Prime Minister is a bully” is absolutely newsworthy. So, good for the paper, and probably not that bad for Brown. After all, it’s hardly a surprise if powerful men have volatile tempers. People who already thought that Brown was a cracked paranoiac will take this as confirmation; people who feel better disposed to him will see it as an unfairly exaggerated portrait, sweetened by Rawnsley account of Brown’s creditable reaction to the banking crisis in 2008.

Anyway, regardless of Rawnsley’s terribly civic minded editorial about how the voters have a right to know the character of their leaders, all the stabbing-a-chair-with-a-Biro, was-a-bit-rude-to-a-typist stuff is gossip and scandal. Interesting, but not exactly the stuff of poll booth conversions – general elections aren’t referendums on the sort of workplace environment the No 10 staff should enjoy, and if it was, we’d be a nation of vicious sadists to offer Andy Coulson to the Garden Girls instead of Brown.

Thanks to Christine Pratt and the mysterious intervention of the now-imploding National Bullying Helpline (ace exposé work done by Adam Bienkov), the bully-Brown story was too smudgy to leave an impression by dawn today anyway. It did its weekend work, and now it’s been sucked into the rolling narrative of unstable PM/aggrieved statesman (depending on where you stand) that’s pretty much guaranteed to continue until Brown steps aside to become a cheerful economics professor or whatever he has planned for afterwards. And if NBH is discredited off the back of this, the BBC has taken a hit too for its credulous reporting of a dubious source.

When the next round of polling comes out, I’d guess that Rawnsley’s revelations will have done relatively little to affect the relative standing of the Tories and Labour – and had a much, much bigger impression on his paper’s launch circulation. The Observer did a good launch. And that’s probably all the bullying story comes to.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Fundament of fashion

There’s quite an exciting tease on the latest Vogue cover. Under Alexa Chung’s lovely face, opposite the big sexy number hit,  the bottom right cover line promises that Vogue is going to tackle “The last taboo”. What could the last taboo in Vogue-land be? Maybe it’s being a size 12. Maybe it’s pedophilia. Maybe it’s acknowledging the existence of poverty (or at least, women who feel a bit sick at the idea of paying over 100 quid on a shirt).

Obviously, it’s not any of those things. Those things are worse than taboo – they’d be the undoing of Vogue’s special kingdom held together by dreams, where skinny teenage girls wear clothes you can only afford with an income that would serve half-a-dozen modest families. Anyway, I can’t wait around guessing any longer. Tell me, Vogue: what is the last taboo?

It’s poo. Poo, poo, poo, poo, poo, poo, poo (thank-you for chucking it all over the page, art editors). And because it’s so unspeakable, Christa D’Souza has written three astonishing pages on the subject. It’s a bit like the editorial team has had a momentary lapse of self-censorship and forgotten that an obsession with elimination is a symptom of eating disorders. (“Oh no, you’ve caught me being bulimic in the features section!”)

“So why, then, if it is such an integral, pleasurable part of our lives, are so many of us hung up about it?” wonders Christa, who then undertakes an odyssey of self-discovery in the lower bowel – which involves going to a Harley Street doctor who puts a balloon up her bottom and watches her excrete it, in order to assess her technique.

Because – and maybe you weren’t aware of this, what with this being the Last Taboo – there is a U and a non-U way to defecate. Yes there is. The fashionable shitter needs to consider “the shape and the colour” of her emissions. You see, without Vogue, you’d never understand all the very subtle ways in which your bodily functions can be shameful. And now you can go straining after the perfect movement. That, my stylish friends, is what aspiration is all about.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Death Ray and Filmstar fold

Blackfish logoDeath Ray and Filmstar magazines have closed, as Blackfish Publishing splits from their parent company Rebellion. According to a press release issued by managing director Matt Bielby, the current issues of both magazines (Death Ray issue 21, and Filmstar issue 5) will be their last.

I liked Blackfish’s magazines, and I wrote for Filmstar: even among strong competition, I felt that Filmstar was an impressive title, and it’s more than self-interest that makes me sad to see it go. The editors I worked with were great, and I’m proud of the pieces I wrote for them (I’ll be adding all my film reviews to the Paperhouse archive over the next few weeks).  There are plenty of reasons why a publishing venture might not work out, but for Blackfish, it definitely wasn’t a failure of quality. Over the fold, the press release in full: Continue reading

The Tories, the Mail and the homophobes

The Daily Mail would like its readers to consider homosexuality. In particular, the Ephraim Hardcastle column invites you to reflect on Iain Dale, prospective Tory candidate for Bracknell, in light of his sexuality – “overtly gay”, because in Mail-land the appropriate attitude for gayness is “closeted and depressed”. But there’s more! “Overtly gay” Iain has invited other gays to participate in the political process by giving an interview to PinkNews. “Isn’t it charming how homosexuals rally like-minded chaps to their cause?” sniffs Hardcastle, because the Mail just knows that these gays keep their politics in their jeans’ back pocket.

I hope Iain and his readers will be successful in registering their polite disgust with the newspaper’s editors. And maybe, having been roused to concern over the malign influence of homophobia in politics, they’ll also question their party’s associations in Europe and the alliances that have been formed with overtly gay-hating political groups – although Iain has seemed pretty sanguine about that so far. Maybe they’ll even decide that ad-hom attacks are off-limits, or that tabloid reporting is broken and unreliable. Maybe. But for now, good luck with those complaints.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

“I do not think it means what you think it means”: valuing comments

This is not a comment...

Google’s Sidewiki project shows that commenting is a valuable part of the online environment – but do the people who invite comment always understand how they should interpret this sort of feedback? A pseudonymous local freesheet editor (blogging as “Blunt”) puts on a triumphant display of error as he abuses his readers for commenting on all the wrong pages (the “chod” he refers to is an earlier assault on PRs):

I am both upset and disturbed for the fact my chod got more comments than a recent tale on my newspaper’s website (unique users = many 1,000s a month) about a scrote getting just three years for kicking someone to death outside a pub.

It got more comments than a story about a kid getting run over by a drink driver who walked free from court on a technicality.

More comments than a council’s decision to evict five OAPs from the homes their families grew up in. The homes they thought they would live in until they died.

More reaction than our campaign to save a kid dying from leukaemia.

In the last two days more than a quarter of the total readership of my blog has come on to read and comment on what is, in essence, a load of made-up shit written by a self righteous, opinionated idiot.

Is this what really gets us riled? Is this the future of news? Why do you really give a shit? You don’t even know who I am.

Welcome to the internet’s world of meaningless shat [sic] and massive indifference.

Play The Game, “Fact versus fiction”

The comments on the PR piece continue the argument that Blunt comes out with: some come from offended PRs, some from sympathetic hacks, others from people who agree with the sentiment but take issue with the extremity. It’s a discussion, in which each participant is addressing an individual – the author of the original post.

A news story doesn’t offer the same incentive for response. The reader might feel appalled, outraged or supportive – but none of those emotions are likely to inspire a debate about the piece of reporting. They all come under the category of “reinforcing” in Tom Ewing’s taxonomy of reactions to information: “praising it without adding to it, sharing it, ‘liking’ it on Facebook or Tumblr, recommending it, etc.”

The opinions on the PR blog post are generally “refining” or “rejecting” Blunt’s characterisation of the journo/PR condition. And the preference for commenters to contribute to an argumentative blog post rather than a news story is explained by Ewing, in a summary of what he considers the best vehicle for the different types of reaction he describes:

“If pushed I’d say that you should reinforce via networks (sharing stuff), refine at the original site of the information (commenting), and reject by creating a new site of information (your own blog post).”

Blackbeard Blog, “Reinforce, refine, reject”

In other words, it would be inappropriate for the readers of Blunt’s newspaper to comment when they have the option of sharing this information instead.

What’s slightly alarming is that this shows the way in which a newspaper editor can mistake both the nature of the information he’s supplying through his paper, and the reactions of his audience – whom he apparently holds in contempt on the basis of his own confusion. If he doesn’t understand online communications, how can he make his product work for online consumers? And is Blunt representative of editors generally assuming that comments on a story are a good measure of its value to readers? Given the eagerness of news portals to encourage people to have their say – he’s probably not alone.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by suburbanslice, used under Creative Commons.

Jon Snow: bring in privacy law, finish off the tabs

Channel  4 news anchor Jon Snow comes out in favour of privacy restrictions on reporting in this Guardian interview with Ann Widdecombe. And strongly in favour, too, even disallowing the public interest defence in cases of hypocrisy:

AW Would you welcome a privacy act, Jon Snow?

JS I would welcome a privacy act, yes.

AW We have the scoop! Jon Snow says, “Bring in a privacy act.”

JS I believe that the tabloid media, in particular, have so intruded into the private lives of public people that they have brought it upon themselves that there should indeed be a privacy act.

AW I think that is absolutely right. I think…

JS Damn me, Ann Widdecombe, I didn’t think we’d have to sit here and agree.

AW And I consider that quite a coup, to have got Jon Snow to agree with me that we need to curtail the rights of the media. Thank you, Jon Snow…

JS I am totally opposed to, and would go to the gallows to prevent, censorship. But needless intrusion into the private lives of anybody…

AW Let me ask you this. Let’s imagine a politician – I don’t care whether it’s male or female, Jon, but let’s imagine a politician. You’ve got a politician who has never made any pronouncements about morality, who has a mistress. Is that the public’s business?

JS Not at all.

AW You’ve just put a lot of the tabloids out of business.

JS Well, they’re going out of business anyway, so that won’t mean much…

The Guardian, “Politicians interview pundits: Ann Widdecombe and Jon Snow”

I think the hypocrisy exemption is valid, if only because in those cases the private behaviour becomes the counter-argument to the political statements of the public figure (it’s possible that this is only a sop to my own prurience). But I approve very much of what I see as the logical extension of Snow’s statement: the hope for a culture where private, consensual actions are off-limits for both the state and the press.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009