Burning bras and caricatures: the difficult relationship between women’s magazines and feminism

Feminist fist on wall.jpg

I was waiting for a bus from Victoria coach station a couple of weeks ago when I spotted an interesting looking headline on the cover of the April edition of Company magazine. It read Saturday Night sexism: don’t let a stranger in a bar ruin your weekend. Open talk of sexism on the cover of a mainstream women’s magazine in 2010? In an apparently post-feminist climate, where it seems to be fashionable to take the stance that equality has now been achieved? It certainly looked promising.

And I wasn’t disappointed because, inside, I discovered the four page article in this “Bloggers Takeover” issue was written by F-worder Abby O’Reilly! There was even a campaign proposed, inviting readers to log on to the website and talk about experiences of sexual harrassment. (Again, this is surely promising if you bear in mind how many responses -and counting- Laura had for the Hands up if you’ve experienced street harassment post.)

Unfortunately, my sense of hope was short-lived because, this week, I learnt from @BookElfLeeds that the Company magazine website was showcasing a “What Kind of Feminist are You?” quiz. This followed the usual “mostly As, Bs or Cs?” format, with the choice of being either a Stepfordesque traditionalist, an irrational and misrepresentitive caricature of a feminist or a rather bland and equally predictable balance between the two. (It isn’t on the Company website anymore but there’s an excellent critique of it over at Feminazery and I’m aware it originates from Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism book.)

It seems Company are continuing to run with a feminist theme by asking the question “are you a feminist?” in association with the May edition. I haven’t seen the issue itself yet but I can’t say I have much faith when the website has got a picture of a burning bra next to the headline. Yes, that old classic.

This is all very tedious but, on the basis of some of the content in the April issue of Company (for example, Abby’s piece) and the fact they’ve taken the quiz in question down in response to all the criticism on Twitter (without going into whether or not they should have), I’d tentatively suggest they might mean well. Perhaps they actually want to get feminists on-side but are so caught up in the image-centred “don’t be too extreme” bullshit that women’s magazines are under pressure to adopt that they’re bound to mess up?

Certainly, the ridiculous bra-burning icon is a fail but, in my opinion, it does seem to constitute an attempt to engage with feminism . Also, one has to ask why they still want to to do that when the image is clearly so revolting to them that they feel the need to hold up a man-hating stereotype in a quiz in order to reassure readers “Hey! We know (hope!) that’s not you!” Could it possibly be because they know women -including their readers and writers- need feminism? Could it be because they know feminism has more work to do?

Image added retrospectively and shows a feminist fist spray-painted onto a wall. Shared by Eva the Weaver under a Creative Commons license.

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