Friday, 7 March 2008

The Hardman and the Page 3 Girl.

Over at Bitch PhD, there is a fascinating discussion on whether the US is more sexist (or perhaps more misogynist) than Europe. Now, because I spend my life trawling US feminist blogs that tend to display the rampant misogyny found in the US, I tend to have a very narrow experience of what it’s like to be a woman there. Whereas, as I live in the UK, I can see the misogyny and sexism, but I also know about all the good stuff too, so I have a more balanced perspective on the situation here. But more than this, I am increasingly coming to realise that, despite a shared language and television, the nature of sexism and misogyny in each country is actually very different and, furthermore, because it is so different, I weight US examples of sexism more heavily than UK examples.

For example, in the US, abortion is a much more contested and heated topic that over here. While I have pointed to the anti-abortion discussions that arise in UK culture, they are not yet mainstream and they are often quite far from influencing government. Part of why they are so frightening to me is, I suspect, because they seem so regressive and so unusual. In the US, it is the government’s restrictions on abortion that feminists are fighting against. To me this is mind-boggling and quite scary. Commenters at Bitch PhD, however, pointed to the fact the page 3 girls are so common in British newspapers as evidence of how much more misogynist we are in the UK. I thought this was interesting as I see this as a really complicated issue, rather than simply a wildly misogynist act.

The appearance of highly sexualised, naked women in the press is, of course, hugely problematic. It perpetuates the sexual slavery of all women and condemns women to being seen as sexual beings for the pleasure of men and little more, rather than fully rounded, complex individuals for whom sexuality may or may not be important. As it perpetuates the idea of women as only sexual beings, it leads to differentiations between pure and sinful women, commodifies women, holds women to a very narrow standard of beauty, encourages a rape culture, sees women as only on earth for the benefit of men, and has a tendency to closely associate women with their biology. I absolutely see the problem.

So why, you may ask, do I not campaign against these images? I think that the reasons for this are multiple and complex. First, while I think these images are problematic, I don’t find them any more problematic than how women are presented on television or in the mainstream press. I don’t think this is any worse than the models of femininity presented in Cosmo, in the Daily Mail or Guardian, or on numerous television shows. They are more overtly sexual, or more directly aimed at men as wank material, but ultimately they are just a slightly less subtle part of the pressure on women to conform to particular models of beauty and behaviour. You may argue that the nature of such work is more exploitative of the women models, in the same manner that any porn is more exploitative than mainstream acting, and this may be true. But this is complicated by the fact that nudity is not of itself wrong or demeaning. It is not the nude women that is itself the problem, but the context in which her image is read. Objectification is in the eye of the beholder. And in our culture any visual representation of a woman can be used to objectify her.

Second, and this is where the ‘hardman’ comes in, women in the UK are expected not to care about such images. Now, as a feminist, I recognise that this is a problematic response, but I think that is why page 3 images are not shocking to me, in the way they are to Americans unfamiliar with our culture. One of the commentators over at Bitch PhD alluded to the hardman culture that is prevalent, at least in some, communities in the UK. And I think there is also a ‘hardwoman’ culture. In many ways, when women entered the public sphere in Britain, as workers in male industries and as readers and makers of the press, there was an expectation that we needed to learn to live in a male culture and those who could not were too weak to succeed. Some of those issues have been addressed through sexual harassment lawsuits and maternity leave, but if you, as a man or a woman, want to succeed in most work cultures you are expected to work long hours, learn to drink ‘like a man’, learn to swear and to not be walked over.

Part of this hardening is learning to immunise yourself to jibes and put-downs and to accept the common sexism, racism and classism that is part of that culture. Teasing and jibing are a really important part of UK culture, perhaps especially in Scotland, where being teased shows your acceptance and knowing how to respond shows your awareness of the norms of the social group. This is not especially problematic except that the focus of such teasing can be closely related to issues of disability, class, gender and race. Being able to look at naked women without cringing at their exploitation, to listen to sexist jokes, to overlook the boy’s mags lying on the toilet floor, is part of demonstrating your ability to survive in the public sphere. It shows that you are not just a man, but a hardman.

Now I do not believe that women are delicate flowers that must be protected or that the hardman culture must change to protect them, because I see everyday that women are capable of living and working in that world. This culture must change because it is unhealthy for men and women, and because such a culture perpetuates a world-view that sees women as less than men. This is bad for women, but it is also bad for society. Unfortunately, it is far more ingrained in our culture than we like to admit and banning page 3 wank material would have only a minimal impact, as long as we continue to view such images in that way.

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