Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Grazia beats down Rihanna

I was absolutely incensed not by the news of the (clearly staged for promo purposes and to give slavering journalists a juicy bone) reunion between Chris Brown and Rihanna, but by the way that the mainstream media seems to think it fit to assign Rihanna the post of Patron Saint of Domestic Violence Victims without any consultation, then has the audacity to abuse her for going against said title. She's already a victim of abuse, can you not make her a victim of unfounded press hatred? I get that you have to peddle your magazines somehow and I applaud your sensationalist headline, but by beating down the victims like Rihanna you are undermining the incredible complexities of women trapped in abusive relationships with men that they love. Maybe if the press stopped demonising Rihanna for taking back Chris, and started actually giving Chris a little stick, then we might see a reduction in violent crimes of this nature. The power to change that perception is in your hands. So use it properly.

(This post was copied word for word from an email I sent to Grazia on the subject. I'm guessing my 'Letter of the Week' freebies days are over.)

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

'Dear women - we hate you. Now please buy our magazine.'

If you want to upset your eardrums and fire up your spirit with a little light debate, you can't do worse than today's edition of Woman's Hour on the BBC, which today was all about one woman: the editor of Cosmopolitan.
Louise Court has helmed the magazine since 2007, a magazine built upon the foundation of being for 'fun, fearless females' realising, with Cosmo's help, their full potential to be 'the best they can be', a line peddled by Court in the debate. Set to prove her wrong was the co-editor of the latest hot blog on the block The Vagenda, designed to lampoon the dens of hypocrisy and low self esteem that are womens' magazines and set to encourage a new generation of internet-literate feminists. Internet being the key here - Court's starting shot was that Cosmo's readership was in six figures. A pretty weak and pretty shot to fire at a blog that is three weeks old. Yes, that's right. The Vagenda team are making a splash, thanks to their hilarious content that in turns tickles the funny bone and touches a nerve. 
Court, in an article for the Guardian back in 2007, where she responded to a Daily Mail article wondering about whether it was time to kill off her publication. Court chose to see this not as a serious (albeit by the Mail) yet hypocritical (given the Mail's love of hating on women too) question about the value of her magazine, but rather picked up on what wonderful PR it did for her magazine's mission to shock, awe and get free PR. Very slick. 
Now, five years later, Court is back in the saddle of her high horse, riding a new campaign trail of Cosmo's new attempt to push a 'feminism' campaign. Oh yes. The magazine that thinks the most important thing we need to know about Christina Hendricks - actress, body image champion and alternative beauty goddess - is how she chased and got her husband, is trying to galvanise us into feminism. 
After I've finished choking on my own hand at the irony of this effort, I tuned in to listen to the co-editor of The Vagenda (and the presenter of Woman's Hour) undermine this goal by pointing out how heavily Court's magazine leans on the idea that by fixing her body a woman fixes all her problems. The perfect beach body will get your everything in life (if what you want is a pervy male boss and a husband who only cares about your looks), whereas a secure mental state is less desireable, and a happy relationship means more to you than financial security independent from a man. Ironic again that Christina Hendricks, whose most famous role is of a '60s housewife, is Cosmo's cover girl. Court, in the course of the interview, doesn't make any effort to bring us round to her or her way of thinking, instead leaning on extensive consumer research, suggesting that women who don't like her agenda should shut up, and, most significantly, talking about the age range of her readership. 
This is a key one with me,  and has been talked about before in my run-in with the editor of Company magazine. Compare the cover of this month's Cosmo with the cover of the most recent edition of Nuts. 
(Images via Google)
That's a lot of cleavage for a magazine that's supposedly about empowering women to be the best they can be. But hey, at least Christina's not naked. That would totally conflict with Cosmo's other message - style, fashion and looking good enough in clothes to convince some luckless sod to get you out of them.
But fashion aside, that's a heck of a lot of boobs for a non-top shelf magazine. And inside it just gets worse - the amount of sex tips in a magazine like Cosmo or its hornier little sister, More, is on a par with that of their lad counterparts, yet the idea of putting womens' magazines on the top shelf is preposterous. True, Cosmo hasn't made a habit of putting this much chest on its cover in a good while, but it's no lie that in recent months there has been a lot more, well, 'club-wear' and 'come hither' poses. Just who is this cover, and others like it, meant to attract? And just what is a cover like this saying to the girls outside of Cosmo's intended age range?
Court rightly notes that the age range of her magazine's readership veers from teens to menopausal, going through everything from puberty to divorce, and thus their content is intended to appeal to women at all stages of life. But one thing they seem to have missed is this - whatever stage of life they're at, women have confidence issues. From young women with body hangups to older women sad about relationship breakdowns, the idea that, as Court claims from a showreel of letters she received from grateful readers, women still come to Cosmo for comfort is a scary thought. If I was a recent divorce and saw this month's Cosmo cover, I'd spend the night binge-eating, bawling that I don't have a rack like Christina as that would definitely help me keep a man, and reminiscing in between trips to the bathroom to dry heave my feelings up how good sex in the office used to be before I got a) fired and b) dumped. 
If I was a teenage girl flipping through Cosmo, I'd no doubt be bulk-buying Veet wax strips, fake tan and condoms, while wondering how best I can sneak into an office to do some flirting, or into a bar to attempt the same. Caitlin Moran notes the ridiculous pointlessness of a 13-year-old girl taking advice on grooming from a magazine aimed at sexually active twentysomethings; when girls should be spending their money on sweets, paperbacks and glittery nail varnish if they're feeling daring, they are instead doing upkeep and maintenance on a body that, for a good while (we hope) only they will see naked. They should be focusing first on coming to terms with it, accepting it and appreciating it, before they expect someone else to do that for them.
Court would no doubt sniff at this and dismiss the idea on the grounds that it's not her and her team's job to sell to teens and boost their self-esteem. But they are the ones who are buying your magazines, love. I stopped buying Cosmo, More, Glamour and their ilk when I grew half a brain cell and realised I'd far rather read something that doesn't treat my life like some sort of glossy, trivial joke. Nuts' tagline is all about fun, as is Cosmo's, but Nuts is pitching adult fun to lads, while Cosmo is pitching the same fun to anyone tall enough to reach the second shelf. Besides, even if you aren't selling to the fragile teen market, there's something deeply, deeply wrong about a health and beauty page pushing positive body image juxtaposed with an ad for plastic surgery
So, aside from the excessive use of exclamation marks, what's my issue with Cosmo? Aside from the fact that Court will no doubt laugh in my face if I ever quote Savage Garden ('I believe that beauty magazines promote low self esteem') and wave a back issue in her face, I hate the fact that it seems to think that, because it has a niche position in womens' lives, whether they love or hate the magazine, it is entitled to its position. I get that there's a recession on, and I get that it's a tough time for print. But what I don't get is why a magazine that has gained such power from its readers' adoration has so little consideration for enticing more of them, respecting the ones they have, or remembering that the little girls reading their magazines will grow into the massively insecure self-abusers that need their help now. Far from being fun and fearless, these females are now afraid of being overlooked by men, and sneered at by women like Court.
So listen up, Cosmo. You're right - you have a niche position in womens' lives as one of the cornerstones of the female media contribution. You have a dedicated, loving readership who more than outnumber your critics. And you have impressive celebrity backing for your campaign. So now I urge you to stop pushing the worldwide agenda that has resulted in women like Katie Price becoming feminist icons. Stop publishing content about loving your body just the way it is next to adverts for plastic surgery. Stop beginning every sex advice section with a 'him first' mentality. And acknowledge that when, in an argument you find the best defence is a good offence, perhaps consider that some things you do are pretty indefensible. 

Monday, 27 February 2012

Red-carpet rundown - The Oscars 2012

So, last night was the night for all fans of films, fashion and seeing Ryan Seacrest get covered in the supposed ashes of Kim Jong-Il. Yes, the 84th Academy Awards. Predictable in terms of prizewinners, The Artist winning all the big'uns while the dunderheaded sops who thought War Horse, Hugo and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close were contenders (a 2012 update of Ricky Gervais' observation 'do a film about the Holocaust, get an Oscar') and a few nice surprises including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo getting Best Actress Editing. Of course, Meryl Streep snatched a third award (after a 20-year wait) from under the nose of my beloved Rooney Mara and the talented Michelle Williams and Viola Davis (but more on this later), and Jean Dujardin (who, as some cloth-headed womens' mag pointed out, has a surname meaning 'in the garden') toppled Judi Dench off the podium named 'Fewest Lines Ever Said By An Oscar-Winning Actor'. 
But we all know you didn't come to me for a subtle, nuanced breakdown of who won what and why this is good/bad. You came for my sardonic sartorial insights! Well, wait no more. 
You will note that I didn't bother with the BAFTAs due to the fact that, by and large, the looks were duller than the list of winners. As much as I'm a fan of black, I doubt even I'D wear it to the most glamourous event of the year. 
So it's joyous to note that there was so little of the shade on this year's red carpet. 
Well, with one notable exception. 

With a pose and cheesy smile better reserved for Jessica Chastain's character in The Help, Angelina certainly made an impression. Gorgeous Atelier Versace gown and doing well to put the whispers of excessive weight loss to rest, and the nicely tousled hair looks glossy, touchable and youthful. Can't get over the pose, though.
Now that's a red carpet pose - another fan of the red lippie, Mila Jovovich looks like a kick-ass Grecian goddess (a look that was big on the red carpet this year.)
Talking of goddesses...
She's come a long way from sobbing in pink tulle - in a regal, majestic and simply flawless Tom Ford gown, Gwyneth steals the show. 
Simple white gown + red lippie is made even cooler by Rooney Mara, who could have made a bin bag look chic, but instead takes a simple Givenchy gown and lets it do all the talking. She may not have walked away with the award, but she's the best dressed Best Actress nominee, hands down. 
Former Best Actress winner Sandra Bullock looked demure, regal and flawless in a drop-waisted gown by Marchessa. 
Taking to red carpet fashion like Hallie Steinfield did before her, The Descendants star Shailene Woodley  plays it simple and safe in Valentino.
While Jessica Chastain proves, finally, that she has some fashion kudos and that she's MADE for McQueen.
Penelope Cruz looks fit to waltz into a fairytale in Armani...
...while Viola Davis seems to have escaped from someone's nightmares in Vera Wang. Sure, it's a great cut and lovely colour, but something about the severe hair and the strange frond-like details just make me think of an aquatic Doctor Who villain.
Talking of strange green dresses and ill-advised hair...another Oscar hopeful Benerice Bejo foregoes the '20s beauty she is adept at in The Artist for a lighter hair colour and a pretty yet dull dress by Ellie Saab.
Similarly, comedy darling Kristen Wiig swaps her blonde locks for brunette, with mixed results, with a nonetheless inoffensive dress by J. Mendel. 
J-Lo, however, is resolutely sticking to her personal style mantra of 'if I've got it, I'll flaunt it' in a Zuhair Murad dress which, weirdly, I rather like. 
Cameron Diaz does sun-kissed surf-girl chic in Gucci.
Natalie Portman does vintage Dior, looks decidedly mumsy but definitely MILF-like.
Meryl Streep may or may not have chosen this Lanvin gown to coordinate with the award she was inevitably going to win. Very smooth, Ms Streep.
Michelle Williams looked cute and inoffensive, for a change, in Louis Vuitton.
And Emma Stone just looks amazing in Giambattista Valli. In my next life, I'd quite like to come back as her. THEN I'd have a pocket full o' sunshine.  
(All images via Harpers Bazaar and The Guardian.)

Monday, 20 February 2012

Girl on Fire

I am slightly addicted to OPI nail varnishes, and The Hunger Games. So my latest polish of choice combined nicely with Katniss' affiliation with fire. Plus, it matches my hair, and I am a fire starsign. 

Thursday, 16 February 2012

PETA - knocking their agenda into you

Now I know that by writing this I am buying to what is the utterly flawless PR operation of morally dubious and generally confused animal cruelty charity PETA, and giving them some free press, but...

I recently wrote a piece for the excellent new blog The Vagenda (a must-read if you love How To Be A Woman and hate Cosmopolitan) on how violence has become intrinsic to our daily language, and it seems to have become so acceptable that it's being used in advertising. PETA's latest ad explains the phenomenon of BWVAKTBOOM, a trivial contraction which essentially implies that men who go vegan can suddenly 'bring it like a tantric porn star'. In the ad, we see the traditionally nondescript woman (most commonly found on a French catwalk) limping painfully back to the house of her wimpy little boyfriend (your typical male vegan, apparently) with a neck brace on due to the violent sex he subjected her to due to his now Casanova-like status. Yes, boys, meat might make you look like a real man, but only giving the stuff up makes you perform like one. 

So, in the eyes of PETA, the ideal man should perform through violence, exerting his dominance like the king of the animal kingdom. The exact kind of violence the fur and meat industries are subjecting to animals, PETA is encouraging its viewers to put their own bodies through some serious paces. Will we then understand what the animals go through? (Not unless flaying is your thing) Will the idea that a simple thing such as giving up steak really make every man a sexual dynamo? (Keep dreaming, Cosmo) Will women really be able to sell this ad to their boyfriends with straight faces? (Jog on, PETA)

So what is the thinking behind this ad? Shot in a style better reserved for fashion magazines or virals spoofing hipsters, PETA is clearly hoping, with their social media messaging pushing us to 'make it viral', that shock tactics will once again push this ad global, and they're probably right - the video on PETA's official channel has already had over 1.5 million views. But if anything, it's gone viral for its ability to shock, the jaw-dropped faces of actual vegans, and the sheer bonkers nature of it. Brand managers will use PETA as an example of a brand that has no idea of what its message is any more, and more importantly, who the animal they are trying to protect even is. Sex sells to the Neanderthal male, so an animalistic advert featuring two people copulating, rabbit-like, so violently that one ends up in hospital is so twisted that you wouldn't be too surprised if PETA was actually run by animals. It's a strange mirror on society and upsetting on those grounds alone. 

It's quite clear that PETA has no objection objectifying womens' bodies rather like their enemies do (and that's the fashionistas, who judge womens' bodies while decked out in fur). But it's one thing to objectify it, and another to promote damaging it. In their quest to protect animals, they appear to have betrayed their own species. 

Saturday, 11 February 2012

UniLad - a quick follow-up

I've been a fan for my university's meme page for a week or so now, and so far the majority of the memes have related to the humorous side of university life. 
But recently, the page has become a place to trivialise what is currently a contentious feminist issue on campus. An external company is introducing 'Miss Undergraduate' - from what I understand this is not affiliated directly with the university, but is only taking place on the specific university's campus. There is no swimwear round, but I believe that there is an equivalent. Unsurprisingly, this has riled groups on campus, yet, at a university that is basing the majority of its memes on how it is more intelligent than another university in the same city, they are chosing to respond to this in an unintelligent way. 
The line being peddled by this Russell Group university's bright young minds? 'Anyone protesting against Miss Undergrad just needs to get laid'. 
Here's one of the memes. We see the tradition Exhibit A - angry-looking feminist types, and Exhibit B - the hot girls who, apparently, have no problem with being objectified. 
I'd like to introduce Exhibit C - women. Fat, thin, models, mortals, smart, stupid, old, young. And I'd like Exhibit C to pound down anyone who tries to put us until Exhibit A or B boxes again.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Pity the lad

It can't be easy, being a university student, or more specifically, a male university student. With the pain of lectures and studying, the absence of a reliable diet and stable home life, the option and the burden to have to solve all your own problems, and, of course, the dreaded student loan-imposed budget, all culminate in an environment that, were it not for the fun that uni offers these young men, would be overwhelming. Indeed, a study by Adrienne Katz of Youthworks Consulting has found that the male-dominated cultures at university are breeding grounds for depression and suicide 

Thank God, then, for 'banter'. The popular term given to harmless fun, often related to alcohol consumption, that makes an early lecture the morning after and a late night in the library before more bearable. 'Banter' became a popular term from my final years of school (in the now-immortalised manner of the 'Gap Yah' video) and was intended purely to indicate a good time, worthy of laughs. Maybe someone's housemate threw up outside Tesco. Maybe someone exposed themself. Maybe, even, someone ended up in gaol for the night. ULTIMATE BANTER. I know a bloke who went out for his 21st birthday, starting the night in a bar in Birmingham. He woke up in Durham. BANTER OVERLOAD. 

It seems that the more daring, dangerous and often illegal the act, the more banter it generates and the more prestige gained. This banter seems to be some sort of legendary lad currency that earns endless respect (rather like the moment in She's The Man when a character publically humiliates his girlfriend, and then dumps her, to the cheers and unending respect of his friends who declare him 'their idol'). Naturally the alpha lads are all now trying to out-banter eachother by suggesting even more ridiculous things to generate banter about. And in steps UniLad. Having previously 'joked' about sexual violence, womens' appearance, homophobia and disability, they unwisely chose to joke about the biggest buzzword of the day - rape. And that's where the banter went too far.

You know the story - you don't need me to tell you what they've just done in the name of banter - but in case you don't, read all about it here.

The backlash has led to the short-term closure of UniLad, in a bid to wait for the storm to die down before they can resume, in theory with a more stringent and sensitive editorial team, who will turn the tide on their current attitudes - summed up, I think, by a popular mantra that perpetuated my teenage male friends: 'football, drinking, girls'. 

This slogan, when weaponised, can go one of two ways. I was a victim of the teenage version; sidelined by a boyfriend in favour of the former two. I was fortunate, because at that stage they hadn't yet grasped the true implication of that statement - that women, like football and drinking, are passtimes, objects for their entertainment. This is something that UniLad, the bigger, pushier counterparts of my teenage self's male contemporaries, have grasped to astonishing effect. I am told that their site abounds with content regarding this attitude, towards women young and old, contemporaries, figures of authority. In my internet trawlings for more information for this piece, I came across mention of an unnamed Oxford fraternity which requires wannabe members to rape a woman. These are the sort of men who will eventually end up in the Tory party.

Of course, UniLad writers don't seem to see the problem with their jokes, because while they have physically matured, they are emotionally backward. A combination of drip-fed sexism from the media and a lack of good sex education on anything other than how to put a condom on a banana, plus a set of highly undesirable celebrity role models have led to a seething cesspit of nightmarish thinking that has manifested itself online in the form of UniLad and its deeply unsavoury Facebook group. 
My aim with this piece was NOT to come across as angry/desperate/lesbian/feminst, or a member of the so-called Banter Police, as most of the UniLad Facebook fans would no doubt name anyone who dares question their banter. The vast difference between our attitude and theirs is that we are taking their comments seriously. By joking about it, they have unconsciously highlighted our culture's crippling lack of awareness and sensitivity of the issue, and they are now being made accountable for something that most of them are too stupid to be aware of doing. There's no telling whether, in real life, the editor and his braying cohorts have this attitude to rape. Do they have younger sisters? Girlfriends? Female friends at all? How would they feel if these women fell prey to the attitudes of the 'lad'? I'm guessing that they haven't even considered it, placing the jokes they are making online in a completely different part of their mind from the fear that every person has of something terrible happening to their loved ones.

But, of course, by joking about it, we are supposedly finding a way to cope with it, but what we are really doing is desensitising it. A writer on Comment Is Free wrote a damning piece about UniLads before confessing that she herself would advocate a rape joke if told by her favourite comedian. I don't think it makes me an angry feminist lesbian type if I call out this double standard. If we've decided that rape is wrong, and should NEVER be desentised by anyone other than a victim finding a coping strategy, then how is it acceptable in any form?

Because this is about violence, and violence is wrong. We've accepted that violence against another human being is a terrible thing. And that's what rape is; violence, and a violation. And it's not just women that suffer, of course - rape is being used in warfare even today as a humilation and dominance assertion tactic by aggressive military. Rape is used to subdue and silence. The UniLads have made the mistake to think that it is about personal gratification. Is there any real sexual pleasure to be derived from a woman resisting and saying no? 

The case of UniLad makes me wonder how far we've actually come from the days of Mad Men, which featured a famous incident of what is called 'grey rape' - Joan Harris raped by her husband. Joan, like women of the day, put up and shut up, and carried on. Nowadays, women put up and shut up (as UnILad pointed out, 85% of cases go unreported) but more down to submission, fear and stigma, not because they have no-one to talk to. Later in the series, a character calls her up on her appearance, wondering why, if she wishes to be taken seriously in the workplace as a worker, she walks around looking like she's trying to get raped. An irony, of course, since she already has been. A woman is judged on her appearance in a way that a man never is, or has not been, because of the way society has been founded. Women who appear beautiful, and appear fertile, are the fortunate prospects for the family. Fertility has now been replaced by 'fitness', and family prospects have now been replaced by the right to be leered over by Loaded-reading, Stella-swilling juveniles. And women are told is proper by magazines like Cosmo (which are more damaging to the feminist movement than any number of Page 3 girls) that a woman is placed on earth to please a man, and should perform accordingly. In place of the lady, we have the 'ladette', supposedly a positive reaction to the empowerment of women but what is really a protection measure by women tired of being objectified. We don't know if, as the name suggests, their 'female lad' attitude extends so far as the objectification of their sex. Though, if the one female writer at UniLad is anything to go by, this is up for debate.

The 'lad' culture, however, has values -  arising from the '90s in a reaction to the rise of the 'new man', who respected women and was an upstanding member of society. A perfect demonstration of the '90s-style lad is popular youth tv antihero James Cook, from Skins. Beer-swilling public menace that he is, with the words 'Jack the Lad' tattooed proudly on one bicep, his free-living, hard-partying attitude is no doubt the blueprint for laddish activity promoted by UniLad and their ilk. But, as anyone who watches Skins knows, Cook is a damaged individual with a terrible background, but also, thankfully, has morals, principles and values when they count. 

This is why, in a strange way, I feel sorry for the UniLads, and I also have hope for them. When I first read their tweets, blogs and 'apologies', I was initially outraged at their brushing off of the serious accusations with derogatory comments. But now, when I re-read them, I see their surliness, their sulkiness, and their absolute refusal to understand what they did wrong, for fear of having to do that one thing teenage boys hate to do - own up. (Also, from reading the personal blog of one of the UniLads and finding him refer to the act of '[raping] on a girl', I can only conclude that they aren't the brightest sparks, either) They have messed up. They potentially face exclusion from their universities, their employability and credibility has been dented. Their parents are having to read about them in The Sun. Every person in the country knows them as people who hate women, who think rape is funny, who think disability is funny. And, as yet, they haven't done anything to convince us otherwise. They've effectively ruined their own lives, without even realising it yet. The girl included. I'd be more inclined to liken these lads to Jay from The Inbetweeners than Cook - lewd, rude and crude, prepared to talk the talk for the benefit of his compadres, but terrified of real life, utterly clueless with women, socially awkward and, in the crucial moments, sweet and caring.

I happen to know a male student who is fond of the phrases 'lad' and 'banter', considering 'lad' to be the highest form of praise that he can offer. Of course, I know full well that he doesn't hold with the more extreme views of UniLad. He is a caring young man; considerate, gentlemanly, and respectful of views and of women. He has done what, for all their banter, the lewd Peter Pan-types at UniLad don't want to do - mature. When the UniLads  eventually emerge from their primordial ooze of old curries and soggy copies of Nuts, they may take a look at the storm they created from a different light. 

Or, of course, they may end up in the City, on the editorial team at Loaded, or in government. Fingers crossed that they don't. 

(For further reading on the UniLad fallout, I recommend these pieces by The QuietusA Storm In A Teacup, We Mixed Our Drinks and AWOT.  I'll add more as I find them.)


Disclaimer - a few people have commented that I appear to indicate that coming across as an angry/lesbian/feminist type is a bad thing. My reasoning behind this is as follows - as I state in the piece, the UniLad team use these insults as buzzwords by which to dismiss a woman's argument. By presenting a piece that not only avoids too much anger but essentially feels sorry for the lads, I was hoping that they might find it harder to dismiss. I do not believe that this type of woman exists, but they seem to, and I am attempting to do my bit to demonstrate this as fallacy.