Holly considers how women are expected to respond to sexist culture and discusses a recent Guardian article featuring four women who have been involved in lads’ mags

Men's Interest and Women's Interest mags.jpg

It’s hard to find a satisfactory way to deal with the pressures that a sexist capitalist society puts us under. Last month’s guest post from Rosie about her feelings on her husband’s visit to a strip club seemed to me to be a good example of an area where our reactions are presumed, lampooned and potentially used against us by patriarchal culture. We’re expected to either object entirely to women being paid to strip or endorse it on dude-approved terms. Whatever we do, we’re likely to be told we’re wrong and far more strongly than we (indeed, anyone) might on other matters of opinion.

These criticisms and assumptions about how we react and feel, as women, seem to come from all angles. Patriarchy tells us we should hate strip clubs because we’re good, modest women and, perhaps, jealous and threatened. Some forms of feminism tell us we should accept them because we reject such conservative crap and respect strippers. Patriarchy tells us sexy modern women are cool about strip clubs because this pleases men. Some forms of feminism tell us the objectification of women is never okay and we aren’t real feminists if we accept that some of us are paid to take our clothes off. Patriarchy tries to co-opt these principles to pull us towards the conservatism that oppressed us in the first place. And so on.

Another example would be how we are expected to view lads’ mags and, subsequently, the women involved (whether as naked features or in positions of control over content, but particularly the latter for obvious reasons). There is an interesting article in Sunday’s Guardian perhaps hinting at this theme, along with wider questions about changing content in men’s magazines over the years. It gives accounts from four women who have been editorially involved in such publications, with the first and main feature coming from Terri White, the woman who edited Nuts magazine between December 2003 and July 2006.

There are certainly some alarm-bell moments in the article, such as White talking about putting the models on a pedestal and suggesting to readers that “if [they] were lucky and not completely hapless, they might one day get to be with a woman like that” but, interestingly, she also claims she wouldn’t do it all again. She also talks about being interviewed by Natasha Walter for Living Dolls, admitting to feeling very defensive and not entirely believing her own words about free choice.

White puts her personal choice argument to Anna van Heeswijk, who responds with a comment on how a culture that persistently objectifies women affects how we feel about ourselves and therefore those choices. White herself continues:

“While lads’ mags alone didn’t create this sexualised culture, they responded to it and reinforced it, helping it grow into a mass-market monster wearing a glossy mask of normality… We told a generation of young women that it wasn’t necessary to get an education or build a career to improve your life. Just be willing to bare your breasts and look what you could win! A pot of gold! And a footballer! And I was a part of that for entirely selfish reasons. I tossed any concerns out of the window in favour of the feel of the monthly payslip and the warm glow of success.

But I still feel awkward at the thought of telling women that they should not and could not participate in this culture. The dominant voices in this debate are still those from the middle class, who can only imagine what it’s like to walk in these women’s 5in heels. I remember what it’s like to feel that opportunities just don’t exist for your kind and that when they come along you need to cling on for dear life. And maybe, just maybe, some of the women who claim to do it and enjoy it really do mean it.”

It would be easy to dismiss such retrospective musings as a cover-all-bases attempt from White to placate critics now she’s got where she needs to be (or, as one CiF commenter puts it, making a buck and then philosophising away the contradictions). However, isn’t the point about opportunities for working class women significant in itself? Is it any wonder that yet another dehumanising big business (in this case lads’ mags and the selling of commodified “sexiness”) can end up seeming like a feasible route to success for women? And what about the point that some of the women who claim to enjoy it really do mean it? It’s an old question but isn’t it wrong (not to mention arguably unfeminist) to dismiss that woman as a dupe or a traitor?

Still, it’s clear that something very limiting has happened to men’s magazines over the years. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Loaded putting comedians like Kathy Burke and Vic Reeves on the cover these days, (as ex-fashion writer, Sali Hughes, and one commenter mention). According to Lili Harges, who was Picture Editor for Arena, the magazine used to major on arty, homoerotic fashion images but Loaded and FHM pushed that tendency out: “If we photographed a chef, he had to be surrounded by underdressed models.”

I’ll leave you with a quote from Indira Das-Gupta, who was News Editor at Zoo from its launch in 2003 but eventually forced out because management felt they needed a man to do the job:

“Working at Zoo was surreal, amusing and occasionally bordered on stomach churning. I was often the only woman in editorial meetings. My colleagues certainly didn’t temper their comments for my benefit. It sometimes felt like they were deliberately trying to see if they could provoke a reaction. On one occasion someone told a joke comparing biting into a rotten apple to being raped – oh how my sides ached.”

Picture by V’ron, shared under a creative commons licence.