The Space Between

A man sits in a cluttered room. Tasks of infinite consequence lie, shimmering, before him. With a few clicks and drags he creates work of unparalleled importance, work that bristles and crackles with the shock of the new*. This man has toiled and striven relentlessly to bring to the world truth, justice and a photoshopped picture of the space between a woman’s legs.

So the Sunday Sport, purveyors of gratuitous nudity, breezily delivered objectification and slumbering reportage have been called out again. This – oh, how it catches in the throat! – ‘newspaper’ previously superimposed Holly Willoughby’s head onto a naked female body. Last Sunday they decided that only one thing could supersede such an act of necessary, integral journalism: a photo of her thong bedecked bottom, taken from a ground-level vantage point. Like the journalistic equivalent of waving a sexual conquest’s pants in the air the Sport seemed to claim they now somehow owned Willoughby, and freely owned the right to share this stolen intimacy; to share her private space, her body. Only it wasn’t, apparently, her bottom. Like some kind of virulent, stalkerish, mass wish fulfilment the Sport photoshopped the image and emblazoned it across their front page. On Monday it was revealed that Holly Willoughby has reported this nattily titled ‘fake up the skirt’ incident to the Press Complaints Commission.

I like Holly Willoughby. She has a lovely smile and a juvenile appreciation of the double entendre. She makes me like Phillip Schofield more. I felt, in part, violated on her behalf, even if that violation was only simulated, only created electronically. And, no, I don’t think the fact she allows herself to be referred to as ‘Holly Willoboobie’ and laughs at sex jokes means she is fair game. The same as I don’t think short skirts or a lack of street lighting can be held up as credible ’causes’ of rape. The same as I don’t think answering back causes domestic violence. This narrative of blaming the subject, and in this horribly constructed context the object, of predatory, violent or harmful sexual behaviour (real or imagined) is far too prevalent.

The ickiness of our press is, of course, a hot topic right now and if Leveson hasn’t suffocated under the weight of testimony and expectation we will soon hear the results of his inquiry. I have spoken before of my respect for the submissions made by Object and Turn Your Back on Page Three to this inquiry. These groups tirelessly campaign against the routine, almost institutionalised, sexualisation and objectification of women in the popular press. And we’re not talking here of only the most obvious, salient examples; the page threes and the whisper thin stories centred around the presence of a semi naked woman. We are also talking of the more insidious, of the trivialising and eroticising of violence against women. Object and Turn You Back On Page 3’s submission included this headline from the Sport: “party girls thumped for having lesbo sex”. Incidences of violence against women  filtered through the lens of a Carry on Film. It is insulting, degrading and symptomatic of a larger malaise. The popular tabloids project antipathy, if not hostility, through their utilisation of the female form in a merely decorative manner, limiting female importance to a selection of chosen body parts. And there is certainly no space for you – apart from in their ire – if you are of a certain age.

These ‘newspapers’ have been an abrasive presence in my life for a while. But, what first began as a gentle niggling and scratching ended with excoriation, ended with me tearing my skin off: big gaping wounds of anger and defiance. For I do believe that the derogatory treatment of women in the popular press is so prevalent, so commonplace, so all-consuming that it appears innocuous. An involuntary shift in your brain means you forget that there is something more than a little off with the fact that Geoff and Brian from accounts are gawping, bug-eyed at a naked woman whilst you try to quietly sip your coffee and keep your mind on your novel. You forget that there is something very definitely not OK with the concept of young children seeing boobs in daddy’s newspaper and thinking that maybe this is what women do, that this is all women are. The reality is that the tactics and lexicon of such ‘newspapers’ are in themselves a hostile act. The cutting and the pasting, the superimposing, contorting and lying, feels like some sort of misogynistic art class. There is something viscerally sinister about our press electronically decapitating and disarticulating women and then creating something else out of the parts. The accusation that the Sun and the Sport see women as a construction of limbs and glands, or a constellation of erogenous zones, and nothing else finds it’s starkest manifestation in the recent treatment of Holly Willoughby. Cutting off a woman’s head and placing it upon the body of another feels like sexualised vandalism. It feels like the kind of thing you do to someone you don’t like, to ridicule and to humiliate them. It feels like the journalistic equivalent, the public dissemination, of defacing a photo in a jealous rage. It reminds me of my pre-teen anger and jealousy towards the partner of whoever was my latest crush. It reminds me of drawing a ‘tache and demon eyes on the woman currently dating Dexter Fletcher (I apologise profusely to Julia Sawalha, and to anyone who did not grow up in the ’80s). Yet this is our press.

I know that the Sport is like the spotty, nose-picking, marginally less intelligent younger brother of the Sun. I know that it is an easy target and, arguably, makes no pretensions to be anything other than a skin mag cut from cheaper cloth. I also know that a blessedly small amount of people actually buy it. Yet it operates as a newspaper, and is shelved at eye and hand level of children.  However the Sun, which shares more than a few genes with the Sunday Sport, is Britain’s most popular newspaper. It uses women as decoration. It diminishes them by reducing any achievement to the shape of their thighs or the size of their breasts. It objectifies the female from with page three. But not only this. It then ridicules these women by placing giant pearl necklaces around their neck (the hillarity), or concocting ridiculously erudite quotes and attributing them to the woman who couldn’t possibly know who Satre is, because she has her boobs out.

I know that there will be some who will level the accusation that I have a problem with page three because I have small breasts, or am puritanical, or uptight. Just think of the treatment of Claire Short when she tried to stand up to all of this way back in the 1980s. She was coerced by puerile bullshit until she gave in. But think on this, and see if it makes sense. You cannot show breasts on TV until after the watershed, yet you can pick up the Sun from a newspaper shelf any time of day. The wonderful triad of anti page three activists Object, Turn Your Back on Page Three and No More Page 3 staged a protest outside of News International last Saturday to mark the 42nd anniversary of page 3. A huge birthday card had been made, a ‘spot the difference’ card showing the differing representations of the male and female form in the Sun. This obviously featured a lot of breasts. Object put this onto Facebook, and it was subsequently removed. So lets recap. Facebook took down photos from page three yet groups on Facebook like one celebrating the space between a woman’s thighs or mocking domestic violence and rape victims somehow turn themselves sideways and glide through the decency standard by waving the caveat ‘controversial humour’. Images from page three were censored at the Levenson Inquiry yet they are OK for public consumption in a national newspaper.

I genuinely believe that the representation of women in newspapers such as the Sun is damaging and limiting to women. Page three is only a part of the problem but probably the largest visual signifier of the need for things to change. I do have small breasts but I also have a pretty large intellect. You see, breasts and smarts can coexist and women are more than the sum of their body parts. And yes, I know there are acts of devastating atrocity occurring in the world. I know this.  But what I’m saying here is important, funnily enough because women’s breasts are so unimportant, so usual, natural and unremarkable that their presence in a newspaper is entirely unnecessary. Night follows day. Women have breasts. The sky is blue and the pope is catholic. Please, The Sun, find something useful to say.

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*Apologies, in memoriam, to Robert Hughes.

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Where For Art Thou, Geoffrey? Or, the Perils of Safe Seat Complacency

There was once a fairly sizeable list of phrases I imagined would remain forever unutterable. Forever unarticulated. “I do” for one“Oh yes darling, we simply MUST fly with Easyjet again” for another. And if I flipped through a few pages, down to the section marked ‘too preposterous a scenario to even contemplate’, I’m sure I would have discovered this:

 “Geoffrey Robinson is ignoring me” 

But that was back then. Then: before I made my first electronic, and admittedly largely formulaic, overture to my MP. Then: before I wrote a more lengthy, personalised and impassioned entreaty. Then: before I followed the object of my unrequited attention to Wesminster – in pinching shoes – and stood about for longer than I should have wondering if he would eventually emerge, satyr-like, from within the corridors of power.

A bit of background will probably help. On October 24th UK Feminista orgainsed a mass lobby of parliament in an attempt to increase the political will and engagement necessary to tackle gender inequality and discrimination. Hundreds of constituents met with their MPs inside the Houses of Parliament, calling on them to take urgent action on a range of issues affecting women and girls. I had decided to take part as a logical extension of my burgeoning activism and of my long term interest in issues surrounding gendered violence and the exploitation and objectification of women. I had wanted to focus on the evidence submitted to the Leveson Inquiry by Object and Turn Your Back on Page 3 (jointly),  Equality Now, Eaves and the End Violence Against Women Coalition. These submissions powerfully highlight the routine discrimination and objectification of women in the press and the way violence against women is trivialised, minimised and even sexualised. Seeing page after page of examples, printed in bare black font is haunting (Give them a read and then echo the words: How they hell do they get away with this? How on earth can this seem normal?) I had wanted to ask my MP if he would support any proposals that would ensure regulations are put in place to end the routinely harmful representation of women. And, indeed, if Levenson omits any proposals, to request further action. I had also wanted to discuss the increasing violence, sexual bullying and harassment suffered by young women and the increasing levels of acceptance of such violence in teenage relationships. I would have asked him to take an interest in raising awareness of such issues in local schools, and of working with some of Coventry’s wonderfully committed charities in order to achieve this.

I wrote to my MP twice detailing my concerns and requested a meeting. I heard nothing in response.

So, when I travelled to London on an excruciatingly early train, those two ignored emails and a watery cappuccino clinging – stinging – inside me, something else travelled with me. This was, unfortunately, the gnawing feeling that my efforts would be in vain. Actually, it was less of a gnawing and more of a knowing. So this is where we turn to Geoffrey the man, and the perennial issue of whether the greatest battles are the hardest fought or the ones that create the biggest show. You see, my MP is not already a committed feminist with a substantial knowledge of the issues at hand, ready and able to forcefully articulate these to the House. My MP is not fresh, new, sound-bitingly youthful and endearingly eager to please. My MP is a 76 year old male with a somewhat checkered history and, so legend goes, a predilection for sweeping up all concerns and questions into nice, comfy empty sentiments. If I could get him to attend to my concerns, he who routinely speaks of transport, of industry, of finance, then surely this would send a more powerful message than someone with a more ‘expected’ adherence to gender equality. I don’t think, for example, that many MPs would fall, open mouthed, off those uber-polished House of Commons benches at the sight of Harriet Harman decrying the shocking underfunding of rape crisis centres. What a coup it would be to have Geoffrey Robinson MP listen to my concerns on the safety of young girls, and to work with me on setting this right. According to www.theyworkforyou.com Mr Robinson – bizarrely – uses a high content of alliterative three word phrases in his speeches. Hey, Geoffrey, why don’t you try ‘stop sexualisation in schools’ or ‘prostitution, pornography, power’ for size?

As it turned out, my initial assumption was accurate. I queued in the central lobby of parliament and filled out a green card, requesting the presence of my MP. I then waited. And waited. Admittedly I did not wait vacantly. I nattered away to some stunningly bright women, some just about young enough to be my daughters, many certainly old enough to be my grandparents. I listened in on meetings taking place in corridors with other activists and MPs and, shamelessly, indulged in some political celeb spotting (I stared too long at Simon Hughes. Long enough for him to look mildly perturbed). They tried to get Geoffrey’s office for me but there was no answer. I was told, as per procedure, that he would write to me upon receiving the green card.

As I write this, it is over two months since I wrote my first email, and three weeks since I left my green card. I am bereft of a response. I would have thought politeness and sense of obligation would dictate some form of acknowledgement for my troubles. A simple and polite ‘I can’t help you but I appreciate the issues’ although disappointing would have been accepted – and expected – by me. To be completely ignored speaks volumes about his regard for his female constituents. Perhaps if I sexed up a pothole story and threw in something about a factory – maybe massive potholes outside a factory – I’d have more success at turning his head.

Yet I will not turn to bitterness, or defend my principles by attacking his. I will only give the vaguest reference to the flat in Mayfair, the villa in Tuscany (holiday home of preference for Tony Blair), the drink driving incident, the loan to Mandelson and the alleged dalliance with Robert Maxwell. In fact none of this would matter if I were able to at least say that he listens to his constituents; that he, in the least hackneyed sense possible, cares. The salient point is this: Geoffrey Robinson has represented Coventry North West for thirty six years. Despite comparatively dwindling support for Labour, he still retained his seat with a 42.6% share of the vote. People in Coventry vote Labour. A forklift truck couldn’t move our dear old incumbent and therein lies the problem. He could probably do nothing, literally nothing but fester away in his plush apartment over 90 miles from Coventry, and still get re-elected. Because people in Coventry vote Labour. Labour MPs retain large majorities. But, if you have that sense of inevitability, that cosy knowledge that your seat is safe, where is your motivation to reach ALL sectors of your electorate, to really work to win new votes, and to tackle new issues?

At the time of his comparatively smidgeon-like loan to Peter Mandelson, Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson was worth around £30 million. Thirty. Million. I am not saying substantial wealth precludes you from having left leaning principles. Indeed, if this were the case my-mates-the-Milibands would be, as per the Newsnight fiasco(s) adjective du jour, toast. What I am saying is that all of this makes him feel that bit more unreachable. I do not think Geoffrey Robinson represents me, or the vast majority of his constituents. I think he represents the perils of safe seat complacency.

Maybe he doesn’t check his emails. Or pick up his green cards. Or open his letters. Maybe he is so overwhelmingly busy doing stuff and moaning about how shitty Coventry looks these days that he hasn’t got round to it. I will nobble him the next time he deigns to attend a constituency meeting and call him out on this. Because, Geoffrey, I am not an hysterical, hyperbolic harpy. I am not trying to find weight and substance in the trivial. I am a smart young woman with something to say.

In the meantime, I think he looks a little something like this:

So, If you see him before I do, please tell him that I’ve been looking for him.