An apology from OK! - why it was never just about Kate

Friday, 26 July 2013

OK! has apologised for its spectacularly misjudged cover that saw the magazine focusing on the Duchess of Cambridge's 'post-baby weight loss regime' in an edition that hit newsstands less than a day after she gave birth earlier this week.

The cover prompted a call to boycott the magazine by Katy Hill, and as outrage mounted, OK! attempted to avert what was clearly becoming a major PR disaster. The following statement was issued by the magazine's parent company Northern & Shell:

"Kate is one of the great beauties of our age and OK! readers love her. Like the rest of the world, we were very moved by her radiance as she and William introduced the Prince of Cambridge to the world. We would not dream of being critical of her appearance. If that was misunderstood on our cover it was not intended."

What the magazine has failed to understand is that everyone who saw that cover knows full well that the issue here is not about a perceived insult to Kate's appearance. You've got to be a pretty sad individual to take potshots at the looks of a woman who's just spent the best part of the last day in labour (and yes, screenshots of the musings of said sad individuals can be found on Twitter if you care to look), but that's not what OK! was doing. What was going on was, for women's magazines, the next logical step in the reader's "journey" through Kate's pregnancy and its connection to the way we're expected to control and scrutinise our own bodies.

Before she became pregnant, the focus was on her weight. As a woman who would obviously be looking to get pregnant in the near future, wasn't she a bit too thin? We saw headlines about "fears" for her fertility. As she was snapped with her stomach showing a slight bulge one day, it was speculated whether she was indeed pregnant or whether she'd just been pigging out on carbs. Did she look a bit rounder in the face or were we just imagining it? During her pregnancy, numerous stories about the size of her bump appeared. Was it "worryingly small"?

As Kate gave birth, the message to the reader was clear. How IS she planning to return to her pre-pregnancy shape? How can YOU emulate her? It's one of our priorities, as evidenced by the mileage women's magazines get out of celebrity baby weight stories every year. A focus on appearance, exercise and shedding weight at the time when what women need most is to rest, make sure they're getting enough food, and heal from the process of giving birth, is ridiculous, but it's not one that all women can ignore and brush off, as I hope Kate will be doing this week.

OK! magazine doesn't care that it's churning out this stuff - not to the extent of worrying about the impact on its readers. No doubt there's some concern that one of its biggest advertisers is reassessing its relationship with the magazine.No doubt there was also concern about another celebrity encouraging people to boycott the title. That's where priorities lie, and that's unsurprising, but depressing.

Possibly worse, however, than its cover, is a (now deleted) Tweet from the magazine, posted around the time that Kate left hospital.

One of the more bizarre things to come out of the birth of the Royal baby is the extent to which people - including newsreaders - seem unaware that when a woman gives birth, her abdomen doesn't ping back to its pre-pregnancy state immediately. Kate's being hailed as a heroine for busting the "last taboo" of pregnancy - simply for stepping out in public with a one-day postpartum stomach visible under her dress. They way women look as they walk out of maternity units across the land every day of the year is now, apparently, "being brave" and worthy of a pat on the head.

It's a sad thing that magazines are stooping to the level of the sort of people who take to Twitter to say "lol omg she still looks soooo fat". The fact that this particular magazine is one with a readership of 331,000 is possibly even sadder, because it shows that somewhere, somehow, people are buying into the sort of messages it gives out and the culture it's helped to create.

Three concerns about Cameron's porn plans

Monday, 22 July 2013

The announcement today that the government is to take action on a number of issues surrounding pornography have, predictably, caused an enormous backlash. The news that internet providers will block UK households from accessing pornography (introducing an "opt-in" system), that possessing pornography that depicts rape will become a criminal offence in England and Wales (as is currently the case for that depicting bestiality, necrophilia, and life-threatening injury), and that search engines will return no results for certain terms associated with pornography depicting the abuse of children, has prompted more discussion about censorship, free speech, and morality.

I started my life as a feminist speaking out against porn. Very quickly, I found out that people don't like it when you do that. I know a lot more now than I did then, and those debates might pan out differently. It's actually something I don't write about much now, because it often prompts so much anger from both sides of the debate and that's more than I can be bothered to get involved in. What I've seen today, however, is a lot of really great discussion and engagement between people holding a variety of opinions - and that's quite heartening. That's not to say that I haven't found some of the backlash against the government's plans unpleasant and some opinions from both sides dismissive of the concerns of all involved. But considering that my last blog post was actually quite down on the state of internet feminism, it could have been worse.

Many people have highlighted many valid concerns about today's announcement. I want to write about three of mine.

Forgive the corporate-speak, but I'm not convinced that today's announcement constitutes "joined-up thinking".
Cameron wants a Britain "where children are allowed to be children" and I'm not going to disagree with him (let that be noted) that children don't need to be seeing pornographic depictions of rape. Unfortunately, "children being allowed to be children" is all very well until you consider the wealth of ways in which they can also receive potentially harmful and also deeply misogynist messages about sex, relationships, and women in general. The Prime Minister has already received criticism for his refusal to support a ban on topless women appearing on Page 3 of the Sun. The screenshot below shows the story as reported by the Daily Mail today - a sight, as was noted by plenty of people, that is "beyond parody". Note three women in bikinis (one "barely-there", one "skimpy"), one mention of a sex tape, a story about one young woman's midriff, one about a "topless Instagram snap", and one Daily Mail Special - a story about a 16-year-old girl looking "Older than her years".

Some criticisms of the No More Page 3 campaign have focused on the fact that the sort of media and messages it's speaking out against also appear in abundance in women's magazines and in the fashion industry. Why focus on Page 3 when it's just one page in a newspaper? Why not cast the net wider and take issue with it all? This is an important question and in the same way, you have to consider the fact that today's announcements focus only on one aspect of a range of unpleasant aspects of culture, media, and material that's available. Our culture may condemn content depicting child abuse, but the abuse of women, along with unhealthy attitudes about sex and relationships, are practically mainstream. And all this contributes to childhood being "corroded", as Cameron put it earlier today.

This brings me onto my second concern about today's announcements: if the government wants to take action to stop children seeing unhealthy and abusive depictions of sex and relationships, is it going to ensure that they receive more helpful messages through comprehensive sex and relationships education? Last month, MPs voted against an amendment to the Children and Families Bill proposing that SRE be made a compulsory part of the National Curriculum.

There is a need for young people to learn more about what constitutes a healthy relationship and how they can recognise - and deal with - an unhealthy one. There is a need for them to learn more about what constitutes sexual exploitation. Consent is such a huge issue and it is clearly one that, for many people, needs clarifying. But without fail, such proposals are usually met with noises about "protecting innocence" - or as I like to think of it, keeping young people in the dark and doing nothing to remedy the widespread problem of abuse in teenage relationships. In the same way, blocking people from accessing problematic material doesn't solve anything. It's not going to "get rid" of such content - it's going to brush it under the carpet. It's up to the consumer to decide whether they "opt in" to seeing it - which was incidentally Cameron's comment about why he does not support action against Page 3. There is also concern that educational material and sites completely unrelated to pornography could end up becoming inaccessible, stopping children and teenagers from finding important information.

Thirdly, although I do, in theory, support what Cameron's plans are hoping to achieve, I don't believe that his government truly have the interests of children, of women, and of the most vulnerable people in society at heart. This year, a report from the End Violence Against Women coalition gave the government "2.5 out of 10" for its preventative work against domestic violence and called current efforts to combat VAWG "virtually meaningless". To talk about all the ways in which the cuts and changes to benefits have affected women and children is another blog post (or perhaps a series of posts). Talking about "tackling the sexualisation of children" sounds good, and these plans to stop young people accessing explicit material may be helpful in some ways, but there's a long way to go before we make any headway with the issues that "sexualisation" is so intertwined with.

Further reading:
Salt and Caramel - Porn and posturing politicians

Evil Twitter Feminism 2.0

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Warning: this is a post about Twitter. And blogging. It's really, really meta.

At the beginning of the year I wrote a post imploring people not to let the stereotype of the ‘Evil Twitter Feminist’ put them off being interested in gender equality. I think a lot of people identified with it because the increasing prominence of debates about intersectionality, inclusivity and language were causing people a lot of bother. There was quite a bit of reassessment of the actions and motives of well-known women and writers happening. Things were getting fraught. I hoped that people who felt unsure could see past the drama and continue to find community. I didn’t believe in the Evil Twitter Feminist, this increasingly bandied-about stereotype that was allegedly to blame for why young women wanted nothing to do with it all any more.

Here we all are six months later. I’ve refrained from blogging about any of this for a long time because a) it has all become a bit tedious and b) things have been so fraught, at times, and I don’t want to be the subject of a pile-on. But let’s be honest here, things are a bit of a mess.

Some of these women who were being discussed and having their actions raked over at the beginning of the year – I don’t see their tweets any more. A lot of people have unfollowed them. They don’t retweet them. Mention of their names is met with derision. This is often the start of it. You’ve got to know who’s in and who’s out. You might unwittingly retweet something because you agree with it, and only discover when the pile-on begins that you’ve associated yourself and your beliefs with someone who’s not ‘in’. They might be friends with someone who’s beyond the pale. They might support a campaign that’s really divisive. But you’ve gone there, and you might well have to endure hours of ‘engagement’ from whoever first takes umbrage with you, all their friends, and whatever hangers-on are up for some drama, until no-one even knows what they’re arguing about any more and probably about three people have deleted their accounts, while everyone subtweets everyone else, and people self-impose social media breaks for the good of their mental health.

Much of this centres on campaigns, of which there are at least three high-profile ones associated with feminists happening at present, each one of them a huge source of division. You take a side, and find out immediately who your friends are (or more likely, aren’t). If you don’t want in, you might spot people saying “we don’t want you [in the movement]”. You might spot people asking when you’ve ever set up and run a successful campaign, thank you very much. You might even spot people saying you’re anti-women, as they all tweet each other saying how much they love each other because they agree on stuff. And if you sign up, people will start asking you if you haven’t got more important concerns. What about the recession? What about welfare? What about violence against women? As if you don’t care, which isn’t fair, because you do. You just thought this one petition was a good idea, and let’s be honest, not everyone is super-invested in every single issue (a lot of people who get so angry about so many things fail to be at all bothered, or even slightly intrigued, by campaigns about maternal health and pregnancy-related issues. Just throwing that out there).

There’s always a dominant viewpoint on a subject, even if it’s going against the grain. This means that you struggle to blog about the reasons you support some aspects of a campaign, because what’s ‘in’ is to be totally against it, and you can see why, but at the end of the day, you just don’t agree. And at the end of the day, you don’t want someone tweeting “LOOK AT THIS POST; I AM SO ANGRY!” with a link to your blog, do you?

People have always said that Twitter is full of people going round in circles getting riled about stuff, whipping up Twitterstorms and organising Twittermobs full of fury until the drama dies down and no-one cares any more. That’s not what it’s about. Recent campaigns, and the way that many people have found support, new friends, formed groups, and taken action against things serves to counter that claim. But this year, I’ve seen a move towards these circles among groups that weren’t like that previously. No-resolution argument and massive fall-out, a lot of capital letters and a lot of expletives, until it dies down and people wait to see what’s going to happen next, what’s going to set off the next bust-up. Drama llamas back in the enclosure but sniffing the air expectantly, if you like.

Over the past couple of weeks, things have started to happen. Many people have already distanced themselves from a lot of this. But now others are creating new accounts, unfollowing swathes of people they’d have previously considered their friends, bowing out of certain types of discussion, not bothering to engage. It’s got too much. The tribes, the sniping, the subtweets. The whole set of people we’ve blocked because they think x about y. The voices that consistently go unchallenged because people are too nervous or too jaded to bother. The same issues that have killed off forums with a more precarious existence than Twitter (Livejournal feminism communities, I’m thinking of you). The same issues that have dogged the US online social justice community (Tumblr is renowned for it) for at least a few more years and that used to make me think “Damn, I’m glad I’m from the UK”.

I don’t even know what the solution is. At this point in time, what’s probably needed is for people to take a step back and reassess their priorities. What’s the point? Are you building up or tearing down? Helping people find community or making sure they know they’re not welcome? Criticising constructively or living for the drama? More concerned about being one of the in-crowd than speaking your mind? Celebrating success or making it clear that you couldn’t care less even though you’re broadly down with the same cause?

Come on. Don’t sacrifice debate. Not everyone has to agree about everything. You don’t even have to like everyone. But passionate activists (myself included, even though things are kind of quiet on the activism front at present) are tuning out of the conversation, calling it fatigue, calling it self-care, saying they're done, retreating into smaller communities of friends that feel safe and free from unpleasantness. Alarm bells should be ringing. Are you intent on campaigns being all about the arguments because you're fighting for what little bit of positive media coverage the movement actually gets and want it to best reflect your personal views? I will never say a movement doesn't need or shouldn't have diversity of opinion, but you also need perspective, and we need to learn from the history of the movement when it comes to trashing.

This is not a post that's directed at everyone I know, or an incitement to more fighting. It's a response to what I've seen developing over several months, a call for reflection. It's a post I've hesitated to write because I'm too tired and too busy. I want to say "too disillusioned" but maybe that's too strong - or maybe it isn't. It's not a call to "Pipe down ladies, what WILL people think of us?!" or a call to stop discussing certain issues. It's just my opinion.

But how do we move forward?


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