Every time you go into a supermarket or newsagent to buy a magazine, you are likely to be confronted with the following:
- A women's section, which contains magazines on, mainly, celebrity froth, sewing, cooking and child-rearing;
- Everything remotely interesting,like current affairs, photography, fishing, sport, computers and science fiction being displayed elsewhere;
- Magazines with pictures of half naked women prominently displayed in a way that you can't miss.
What does this tell children about the world in which they are growing up? The message seems to be that women are there to keep everyone else fed (while keeping themselves unrealistically thin, of course), that they aren't or shouldn't be interested in the issues of the day, and they are there to be men's sexual playthings if they are pretty enough. If they ever watch the news, they will see that it's mostly middle aged white men in suits who are making most of the decisions that affect our lives. Of course, they will also see good stuff from ministers like Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson, but there should be more women at higher levels of industry, politics, and the legal profession.
This unequal treatment of women is surely inconsistent with our vision of a liberal society in which "none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity." The range of things which need to be done to redress that balance is wide, and no single campaign alone will achieve it. The shared parental leave arrangements championed by Nick Clegg and Jo Swinson will help alleviate discrimination against women of childbearing age in the workplace. The Body Confidence campaign is already showing results - what would have been acceptable in terms of airbrushing 2 years ago is now not so.
A new campaign launches today aimed at getting supermarkets to remove lads' mags which have on their front covers pictures of scantily clad women. Lose the Lads' Mags, run by UK Feminista and Object Update, warns retailers that by displaying these images, they could be in breach of the Equality Act by failing to protect their employees from sexual harassment. A group of lawyers have written to the Guardian arguing that:
Every mainstream retailer which stocks lads' mags is vulnerable to legal action by staff and, where those publications are visibly on display, by customers. There are, in particular, examples of staff successfully suing employers in respect of exposure to pornographic material at work. Such exposure is actionable where it violates the dignity of individual employees or customers, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. We therefore call on such retailers to urgently heed the call to Lose the Lads' Mags.
I wrote a post last year asking why men thought it appropriate to get their Nuts out in public, after a flight where the man next to me was reading one of these magazines saying:
When men ostentatiously read stuff like this in public, it's like they're making a huge statement that they see women as simply being there as window dressing, as decoration, as pleasure enhancers rather than their equals. They clearly feel that they have a right to own all the public space. I felt it was so rude of him and it made me feel uncomfortable. Now, I don't have the right to be protected from being offended, and nor am I asking for it, but I think I have every right to express my displeasure at such insensitive and crude behaviour.
We need to look no further than the Government's own Sexualisation of young people review to see that this stuff causes actual harm:
The evidence gathered in the review suggests a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm. Both the images we consume and the way we consume them are lending credence to the idea that women are there to be used and that men are there to use them.
I doubt that we are going to see a flood of female employees on the minimum wage sue supermarket giants under the Equality Act. However, if this campaign convinces those retailers that they could be vulnerable to legal action, they in turn might convince the publishers to ensure that the front covers of these magazines do not portray women in a demeaning way. At the very least, it will spark a discussion about the effect on society of the way women are so routinely portrayed and reassure women that, actually, the law is on their side.
The prevalence of these magazines is a symptom of a culture that treats women unfairly. We need to tackle the attitudes which enable such a culture to operate. But, if I have recurrent headaches, I don't wait for the outcome of tests to determine and treat the cause before I take a painkiller. In the same way, there is a place for tackling symptoms of sexism, one at a time, whether that's toy retailers selling doctors' sets for boys and nurses' outfits for girls or Disney turning Merida from Brave from active girl to glamorous, curvy, groomed model. These campaigns have been successful. We can but hope that over time we can lose the demeaning images from lads' mags too.