Here’s what you learn

Funny how sexism never goes out of style, isn’t it. I used to think it was out of style at least among people who occasionally use their heads for something other than putting food into, but I’ve been disabused of that starry-eyed notion lately. Certainly people who don’t go in for multi-purpose heads seem to think sexism is both funny and truthful. Like the tabloid press in the UK, Laurie Penny says.

We are used to seeing this sort of story about women in the tabloids, the familiar narrative of vapid idealisation, followed by shame and sexual humiliation. What we are not used to is seeing a real woman in a smart suit telling us how these stories affected her life. Now a collection of liberal feminist groups has come forward to say what everyone knew already: that any investigation into media ethics would be incomplete without an acknowledgement that the British tabloid press is oozing with the very worst sort of malicious, heavy-breathing misogyny.

Sexism is so consistent a feature of the culture of media in Britain that it has become easy to overlook, like the whine of an alarm that has sounded for so long you’ve learned to ignore it. Until a few years ago, it was the modern “problem with no name”. However much it hurt to have to see slut-shaming, rape-apologism, victim-blaming and sexual objectification in the press every day over our cornflakes, women just had to ignore it, because challenging media misogyny in any way was next to impossible. It was just “the way things were”.

How familiar that is. (Atheists hear a lot of that, too – most people are religious, and that’s just how it is.) It may be next to impossible (or it may not), but that’s not actually a reason to submit to it.

But back to the tabloids.

Here’s what you learn, if you’re a woman and you grow up with British tabloid newspapers in the house: if you get raped or murdered, it’s your fault; if you are old, overweight or just having a bad hair day, you are disgusting. You must work to appear as sexually attractive and submissive as possible, at which point you will be called a slag, a disgrace and a “loose-knickered lady lout”, in the words of Quentin Letts. Women who have careers are miserable and pathetic. You were born to be a wife and mother, and succeeding at these things is the only thing that will fulfil you. Having a baby is the most valuable thing you can possibly do, unless you’re poor, or unmarried, in which case you’re society’s scum. If you complain about discrimination or sexual violence, you’re a shrill, jealous harpy.



  1. tamielavoie says

    Obviously, this is not limited to Britain. It’s a world-wide travesty.

    If any words, even seemingly reasonable ones, come out of the mouths of Nazis or KKK members or similarly afflicted folks, they are disregarded wholesale. I submit that we treat misogynists the same way. It’s not necessary to call for censorship or more politically correct new speak. If a speaker, as a pastor, professor or politician revealed himself to be a Nazi, would we not just get up and leave? If our favorite magazine was found to be a Nazi publication wouldn’t we cancel our subscriptions?

    Most people are subject to the crowd effect and will simply follow along.

  2. says

    I’m sorry, I wasn’t clear. I wouldn’t trust Laurie Penny if she said something uncontroversial like, say, ‘the sky is blue’ (not that we get blue skies very often in Blighty).

    The issue is this: Britain’s tabloids are awful along every dimension; sexism is but one. They are full of lies. They are full of errors. They have and do facilitate criminal behaviour on the part of their employees. They have been engaged in bribery of the police, the theft of private information, the blagging of medical records, perverting the course of justice, generating mistrials, promoting vigilantism, suborning Parliament, the stalking of persons from all walks of life (including, in a particularly egregious incident, J. K. Rowling’s children), the defamation of persons great and ordinary. They are shamelessly and disgustingly exploitative, of everyone and everything that comes within their grasp.

    Even Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who first broke the phone-hacking story acknowledged when he appeared before the Leveson inquiry that the tabloid press in Britain cannot be trusted to regulate itself. Which means we will get Ofcom, but for newsprint. And the people who are expected to staff and monitor regulators of this type, in Britain, are lawyers. And I must admit (because of the area of law in which I specialise — intellectual property) I am just the sort of person likely to be asked to do a stint on a media tribunal. Perhaps I should start printing business cards with ‘Platonic Guardian’ on them, in addition to my legal qualifications, position and firm name.

    The thought of being a Platonic Guardian fills me with dread, and yet addressing Laurie Penny’s claims in the last par you have quoted (among many other claims) is precisely what people will expect of the lawyers who will manage the new regulator when it comes into being. They have no idea of how mind-bendingly difficult this is, how hard it is to walk the line between not only censorship and freedom of the press, but also the wider problem of persons of very similar background (the thing to remember about lawyers is the fact that we are lawyers; this is far more important than our gender, our race, or our religion; law is a process of intellectual rewiring) making decisions on behalf of persons who are unlike us in almost every way.

    The greatest evil perpetrated by the tabloids is the arrogation to themselves of unelected power, when they claim to speak for the people but enjoy no mandate beyond sales figures. Clearly ‘something’ has to be done – I am with Nick Davies on that. However, I am worried that the Leveson inquiry will respond ‘here is something, let’s do that thing!’ and it will be members of my profession who are invited to arrogate to themselves vast amounts of unelected power.

    My apologies for going on rather, but this issue is very complex and fraught, and the more I think about it, the more depressed I get.

  3. Dave says

    Let us abandon the Great War Against Awfulness, because it gives lawyers a headache!

    We are probably doomed always to have ‘vast amounts of unelected power’ washing through society. I’d rather it was in the hands of people who gave a damn, than in those of reptiles who specialise in generating human misery to profit from.

    And which dictum did you have in mind? I presume it wasn’t ‘The Revolution is a bloc’.

  4. ewanmacdonald says

    Presumably the one “anyone under thirty who isn’t a socialist has no heart; anyone over thirty who is a socialist has no brains.” Because libertarians can’t let it go. (Believe me on that. I used to be one.)

  5. says

    Skep, I take it that “trustafarian” means one who possesses privilege while pretending not to. If that’s the case, then how do you justify using the label as a means of questioning the integrity of the interlocutor, considering that you also hold that

    I will have no truck with arguments that allege ‘privilege’ on the part of the interlocutor; it involves ascribing characteristics to all members of a group, inferring beliefs on the basis of that ascription, and then assuming that any individual member of that group will deploy those inferred beliefs in a particular way when arguing. That people who call themselves ‘skeptics’ cannot see the vacuous silliness of this exercise in attempted mind-reading is quite simply boggling… They may as well take up Tarot reading.

    If the crime of using the concept of ‘privilege’ is that it unfairly pigeonholes people on the basis of insufficient evidence, then ‘trustafarian’ is surely just as guilty of that crime, don’t you think?

  6. says

    Benjamin, think about what you’ve just said. I know enough about Laurie Penny to make a claim about her as an individual. (Among other things, we were at Oxford at the same time). I do not know enough about men, or women, or Martians, or any other group, to make claims about them as a group, or to assume without more that each individual member of that group enjoys privilege. I have no problem, once I have knowledge, making a claim about individual privilege (or the opposite thereof). Indeed, the essence of the tort of defamation turns on whether something said about a given individual is true or false, and if false, harmful. That is why an individual can be defamed, but not a group. If I make a nasty statement about a group, the reason it cannot be defamatory is because it may be true of some members of the group. Hence attempts to enact group defamation laws founder on the shoals of evidence, and why enacting racial, religious and sexual vilification laws are so fraught with danger (in those countries that have constitutions permitting them, of course).

    If I discover a person is wealthy, has a mansion in the shires, went to Oxford, and claims to speak for the poor, I will happily call them out, because it is true of that individual.

    What I cannot say is that all people who go to Oxford are wealthy, have a mansion in the shires and claim to speak for the poor. It is simply and obviously untrue. Likewise I cannot claim that men have automatic privilege by virtue of their maleness, because I do not know enough about men as a class OR the individual with whom I am speaking, without evidence; and it is in any case contradicted by simple statistics. Women in Britain’s South East earn, even after having children, on average more (considerably more, in fact) than men in Britain’s North East. Imagine an internet conversation where a man from the North East of England criticizes a woman from the South East because he disagrees with a feminist argument she is making. Presume (as is almost always the case) that the two know nothing more of each other than their respective sexes. Go further; make him an MRA or something silly (or have him making MRA arguments). Who, knowing nothing more, has privilege? Does he enjoy ‘male privilege’? The question is absurd, because neither of them knows enough about the other to make the claim, and if the claim were to be made with accuracy, it would then be a question of fact and evidence. He may have privilege. She may have privilege. But until we know about each of them as an individual, we cannot make claims that their membership of a group confers privilege on them.

    That is my problem with privilege arguments, for the avoidance of any doubt. They make assumptions about every member of a given group based on their possession of a single characteristic. They do not treat each case on its merits, and yet also not admit of enough factual information to allow like cases to be treated alike (this, too, requires a great deal of information).

    Also, Ophelia, I think there are a few spammy comments on this thread…

  7. says

    Hi Skep. Ah, I see. Gotcha.

    I still have worries.

    My first worry is that, when it comes to your first post, the reader couldn’t reasonably know that you personally know the author you’re criticizing on the basis of what you wrote. If you have a personal history with the subject of your claims, then that’s something reasonable people need to know in advance, so that they can judge your testimony in that light.

    The second thing — I take it from your remarks that this Laurie Penny person is 22, a socialist, has dreadlocks, a trust fund, and plays hackey sack with Oxford hippies. For these reasons, we’re meant to regard her testimony as unreliable when it comes to the subject of sexism in British media, and we’re meant to understand that she purports to be “speaking for” the poor (instead of, e.g., speaking against oppression). In this case, before I took your word for it, I’d need to hear more evidence that supports those allegations, and need to hear why you think any of these features raise doubts about the reliability of her testimony concerning sexism in Brit media (as opposed to the reliability of her knowledge when it comes to the blueness of the sky).

    That’s fair, right?

  8. Crommunist says

    Every time I go grocery shopping I am confronted by the fact that nobody seems to hate women more than the people who publish women’s magazines. There was one about how Pippa had been dating since her sister’s wedding but hadn’t found the right guy yet.

    Oh wait, I’m sorry that’s not what it said. It was about how Pippa, despite being pretty, couldn’t seem to land a man! The caption to the picture: “WHY AM I UNDATEABLE?” It also promised an article with helpful tips to make sure that you don’t end up young, rich, single and famous like poor Pippa.

  9. amhovgaard says

    Huh. I have never seen “privilege” used the way scepticlawyer seems to understand the term, except by people who insist it’s a silly concept. I wonder why?


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