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Page last updated at 16:41 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

Women on top

Mannequins in outfits worn by the pop singer Madonna
Are skimpy outfits actually empowering?


An exposed bra. Skimpy hotpants. Does dressing like a soft porn star actually empower a woman, or is she simply exploiting herself, asks Katharine Whitehorn.

Last week the National Union of Journalists, backed by Equity, the actors' union, held a conference in London about images of women in the media.

Corpus Christi team - with Gail second from right - on University Challenge
A lad mag courted University Challenge sensation Gail Trimble

Images which range from the depiction of Madonna's latest struggle with family life to women forced into Asian marriages.

But more typically reacting to Gail Trimble's University Challenge success by inviting her to do a "tasteful" photo shoot for the men's magazine Nuts. Tasteful meaning, I suppose, wearing a mortarboard as well as a casually opened academic gown. Unsurprisingly, she turned them down.

Inevitably, much of the discussion revolved around the presence, or sad lack of it, of female journalists, photographers, producers and editors, who control it all.

There were the usual depressing statistics, which included the small numbers of women on the national executive of the journalists' union, in spite of greater numbers of women coming into the profession (or should I say trade - don't answer that) - four out of 34. And on the subject of money, 29% of women journos were low paid but only 16% of men.

Some of the gloomy figures were provided by the Fawcett Society's Bristol group, where they've held Reclaim the Night rallies and such.

Rebekah Wade
Rebekah Wade, who has fought to retain Page Three girls

They're a vigorous bunch, it's good to know that feminism is alive and well and living in Bristol.

They - we - cling to this hope, springing eternal, that if there were far more women at the top, women's interests would be better served. Just the way we thought a woman prime minister would be less aggressive and a woman home secretary less likely to muddle her expenses.

There are now a few women editors, though there's been no noticeable outbreak of sober feminism in the Sun since Rebekah Wade took over. And the world of TV and radio has enough female high-ups and producers to annoy Jeremy Paxman, which has to be good.

Own worst enemy

You might say it doesn't matter that much who's actually in charge, if women can have decent jobs and a good time doing them. But when the bosses are always men, you have to come up with what they want.

Katharine Whitehorn

Young girls so often think that being as sexy and outrageous as the boys is "empowering" - they don't have any sense of being bamboozled or exploited

Some time ago, before Baroness Jean Denton went into politics, she was running the fleets and leasing part of Herondrive. Realising that it was often a woman in charge of such fleets, she co-operated with a car firm to stage a day at a stately home where they could show off their cars.

The press were invited, and Jean's staff were told to be charming and helpful to them.

One photographer immediately lined up several of the prettier ones gazing into the bonnet of a car. "Come on, dear, just hitch that skirt up a bit - yeah, thanks, that's grand." And the picture came out with a dismissive caption - that this was a day meant to interest women in the cars, but when something went wrong, they did what women always do - turn to a man.

We were all furious and I made a mental note that if the writer - Terry something - ever wanted a job on The Observer I'd do my best make sure he didn't get it. Only Terry turned out to be a woman. And you see the difficulty. If that's what the paper wanted and she didn't come up with it, the reaction would be that it's no good sending a girl, they never come back with the story you want.


Apart from our numbers in big jobs, though, what most concerned the conference was the near-pornographic portrayal of women in what were supposed to be mainstream magazines. (I gather the real top shelf is not doing too well commercially, because the most dedicated hard porn seekers can get it harder and dirtier on the net.)

Jodie Marsh with tongue out
Jodie Marsh empowers herself

"When we complained about it," one of the Bristol women said, "we were told that lads mags were part of a young man's growing up process, that we couldn't alter them."

Which makes no more moral sense, I'd have thought, than if you'd said in the 19th Century that you shouldn't worry about the ghastly conditions of girls in brothels because being taken by your uncle to your first prostitute was a rite of passage for young men.

It's not so much the lads, though, as the lasses that these women were really worried about, as sexy magazines are aimed at younger and younger markets.

Young girls so often see being able to behave badly as a right to be fought for; that being as sexy and outrageous as the boys is "empowering".

They don't have any sense of being bamboozled or exploited. And if anyone doubts it, look at the fact that girls think it's simply hilarious to "sext" their boyfriends - send a photo of themselves naked on their mobiles.

They don't know much about the darker side of sexploitation - tyrannical pimps, the near-slavery of the girls trafficked into this country for sex - let alone what lap dancing outings for businessmen do to any idea of a level playing field for females. Though when it comes to journalism, according to a high-up in the Murdoch empire, "journalists don't go to lap clubs. They're much too exhausted."


Of course there have been teen magazines since the 1960s, and even the Girls' Own Paper before the war, but they were very different. In fact the way women have figured in magazine pictures across the board has changed vastly over the years.

1950s model
A model then...

Fifty years ago women were all clean and bright-eyed and fresh looking - housewives and brides in Woman's Own, haughty and remote in Vogue.

Now they not only look far younger - Vogue used to have a feature showing clothes for mature women called Mrs Exeter, it's decades since they dropped it - but the girls are all too often like sulky schoolgirls, with that irritating cliche of the toes turned in to look deliberately gawky.

There's an interesting difference, though, between fashion pictures in magazines and those in mail order catalogues. Fashion pictures are there to give an impression of a style - they can be dark and moody and weird.

In catalogues the models all, without exception, have to look happy, as if they enjoyed wearing the clothes (one girl particularly good at looking delighted with life at all times is a born-again Christian; one of her employers said sourly "she suffers from chronic joy").

Model at London Fashion Week
... and now

And another big selling point in the catalogues, of course, is that it may say sizes 10-32, small, medium and enormous, but it will be shown on a size 12 at most - it simply wouldn't sell otherwise.

For the question is always whether you show women as they are, or as they would like to be: are pictures aspirational, do they actually affect how women think of themselves, look, behave?

I am always inclined to think that the media is a megaphone, rather than a starting gun; that we only blare out a louder version of what's happening anyway. It's arguable, though, that some groups are more easily influenced than others - hence our greater worry about teen mags than the filth that is always with us.

Women's page

It would be easy to be too depressed by raucous magazines and repellent pictures and the lack of women running the various bits of the media.

But as far as newspapers are concerned, it would be daft to forget that things are so incomparably better for women than they were 50 or 60 years ago. At that point there was a women's page that concerned itself with clothes, a spot of cooking, an occasional nod towards a bit of undemanding culture.

Fashion journalists, inc American Vogue and Harper's Bazaar editors
Fashion journalists in the 1950s

And there were a few specialist women writers, for example the great film critics CA Lejeune on the Observer, Dilys Powell on the Sunday Times. But otherwise newspapers were about hard news, sport, politics, foreign news and business - things worthy of the attention of busy men.

And then came Mary Stott of the Manchester Guardian as it then was, who, though an outstanding deputy chief sub-editor, was packed off to the women's page because "we have to train the next chief subeditor and that of course has to be a man".

She transformed women's pages completely, putting on them everything that figured in women's lives: not just clothes and cooking or even culture, but health matters, education, how the law affected them, human relationships.

And that, carried on by her disciple George Seddon on the Observer, was the start of a wave of what Felicity Green, marvellous deputy editor of the Daily Mirror (where she was doing a similar job of erasing the gulf between the women's stuff and "proper" journalism), called "the feminisation of Fleet Street".

Lad mags on sale
The pinnacle of achievement for some

Feature pages in all the papers now carry stacks of columns by women and features on all the subjects that Mary and George thought were important and interesting.

Maybe the media is an imperfect mirror of real life; though perhaps more realistic than when taboos were stronger and papers smaller. Only trouble is, we columnists now have our own faces at the top of the column - and we always hate our pictures. But perhaps it's like the woman in the AA Milne play who, needing an alias, chose Jennifer Bulger - because "if you're called Bulger you're always a pleasant surprise."

There may be something to be said for looking better, not worse, than your picture.

Below is a selection of your comments.

In seven years of living in the UK I was always utterly shocked by British newspapers and their Page Three girls. I wondered why we do not have Page Three girls in Canadian national newspapers. I realised that no one working within journalism would allow it. Why? As this article accurately predicts, women are everywhere in the work force, including, on top.
Shaw, Canada, ex-North West England

Did the conference come up with any practical ways to halt this rising tide of denigrating females? Did any of the journalists present make any kind of commitment to push for change? I agree that the media is more of a "'…megaphone, rather than a starting gun," but I wish it was instead a mirror on society - showing us what we are becoming and inspiring us to make adjustments. What we need is a true image; reporting, content and input which upholds a true view of what it is to be a good woman and the penalties of selling ourselves cheap. In the days of the Suffragettes, women put themselves on the line for their sisters, even suffered to help change society. Perhaps women journalists, broadcasters, designers, actresses, writers, directors and artists need to start taking a stand on these issues, no matter what the cost to their career or social standing. We need brave men and women to see the bigger picture - show us that picture - encouraging us all to act in a way which will transform society.
Melissa Hall, Wales

Feminism is alive and well and living in Bristol. I have not seen so many women, and young ones too, working together on feminist issues since the Women's Liberation movement in the 1970s. This gives me hope even if the magazines in the newsagents and MTV don't - traditional female concerns are now more mainstream and women have more choices. But the portrayal of women has definitely got less respectful and more pornographic. And girls are seduced by that as well as boys, natch.
Elisabeth Winkler, Bristol, UK

Katharine - many thanks for this, and especially for the mention of Mary Stott, a neglected heroine of the women's movement.
David Doughan, London, England

Sorry, ladies, but contorting your body into a male fantasy has really nothing to do with feminism. Admittedly, a tiny percentage of women, regardless of their actual talent, can make a lot of money by baring their boobs; but it really does nothing at all for the vast majority trying to juggle a career with child-care.
John Cahill, London, UK

One thing I find interesting is how few women's authors are read by men. There may be the odd book or two, but ask the next man you meet what books he has read by women and I bet they struggle to name more than a couple. The whole "chick lit" and "chick flick" thing is hugely annoying and invariably refers to where the protagonist is female. However, male protagonist-led stuff is not defined by this. Sigh.
Helen, Bristol

Oh dear. When given an opportunity to write an incisive piece about what is wrong with the portrayal of women in the media and their lack of representation in journalism, Katharine Whitehorn finishes with a comment about how she dislikes the picture at the top of her column. Could she do any more to reinforce the negative opinion male editors may have of women journalists?
Colin, Colchester

I love the quote, "the media is a megaphone, rather than a starting gun". This encapsulates the exact way I feel about the media, especially in American society. The media is given far too much credit, and people decide they no longer need to think. Bravo for calling them, and all young women, out on the matter.
Anna, Portland, Or, US

After leaving the RAF and working in the City I was surprised by what I saw. Men dressed in suits and women casual in the same office. I politely spoke to my boss (a women) and asked why women were not wearing suits (in the RAF everyone wears uniform). She said that women "did not have to but could wear anything". If I had to choose who I was doing business with, my first impression would be the suit, not the casually dressed individual. I had great respect for feminism, but this seems to have evolved into something else...
James, London

It has always bothered me that all the girls I know constantly feel the need to get completely drunk, go out half-naked and "pull" a guy. To some extent all that the men's rights movement did for us was to free us up to become more like man's ideal image of a woman. In many respects women's and men's rights are things that we need to constantly fight for - or we'll never get the balance right.
Amy Soyka, Leeds

Call me purist, but newspapers are for news, not titillation. I spent a number of years working in an industry where the Sun and its ilk were widely read and naked calendars were abundant. At the time it all washed over me. We are supposed to be a civilised society, and yet we belittle and degrade everyone at the drop of a hat. Politicians talk about the lack of respect we show each other and about the self-destruction of our society, and yet this flagrant put-down goes un-tethered. No-one cares any more because we're all made to believe that unless you live up to the perfect image, you're nothing.
TH, Lancshire

Women and girls are so blinded by this "new" empowering by means of sex, that they really do not understand just how much men are not changing their view of women. They are the ones who are still in control of how they prefer to view women and girls whether we like it or not. Just because there is the "look, but do not touch unless we are the ones who say yes or no", it is being confused visually by its message.
Seanne, Pueblo, CO, US

Perhaps the problem with women and the media is that there are too many women like you who write sentences such as "But otherwise newspapers were about hard news, sport, politics, foreign news and business - things worthy of the attention of busy men." And if these subjects genuinely don't interest sufficient women, is it any wonder that the men who are at the top of the media circles just see women as a bunch of air-heads only interested in recipes and Mills & Boon?
David L, Hertford

Girls and women who aspire to be strippers, Page Three girls etc are actually co-opting in their own degradation for social approval. They are socialised into sexist stereotypes and think that to be accepted or liked they have to act and dress like prostitutes - intelligence, humour or achievements are sidelined. This is not what gender equality is about whatsoever. It is so sad that they use a word like empower to justify their conformity to sexualised images that are owned by largely men. Our society is saturated with sexualised imagery in a way it simply was not in the 1980s when I was growing up. It is no surprise that girls emulate the false - sexist - idols elevated by the media.
A Taylor, Leamington Spa

A woman who chooses to walk down the road in a pair of hotpants or texts nude pictures is not comparable to the obscene exploitation that goes on in trafficking, brothels etc. Sadly these are down to pure greed on the part of the people running such operations. The same, although to a lesser degree, applies to the rampant commercialism in modern publishing that chooses to portray top shelf imagery in supposedly lower shelf fare. The thought of more women in senior roles altering this is naive: the same greed and pandering to commercial pressures applies.
Steve, London

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