The British press do like their hardy perennials, don’t they? Every year when the A-level results come out, the Daily Telegraph has a big photo feature on the front page. And every year, Private Eye runs a spoof item where the Telegraph reports the shocking news that attractive young blondes are doing well in their exams. While the Eye‘s humour is a bit frayed at the edges these days, that one works because of its deadly accuracy.
Well, the season for A-level results is long past, and Liz Hurley seems to have been keeping a low profile of late. But a picture editor’s work is never done, nor is that of the jobbing journalist whose job it is to write up a flimsy story as an excuse to run said pictures. For instance, the reason why the Daily Mail has more traffic on its website than any other British newspaper is its boundless enthusiasm for photos of celebutante Kim Kardashian, who is virtually unknown in Britain but attracts loads of online traffic from the States. The right sort of image is a godsend for generating traffic – Chris knows that, and so do I.
Presumably, this is why the Telegraph has chosen to leave the sixth-formers behind for the moment, having made the startling discovery that there are also lots of fruity young women at university. The tag for this story is the setting up at Cambridge University of The Tab, a web-based tabloid that’s supposed to provide a populist counterpoint to the established student papers. And indeed, it seems to have a healthy hit rate, not least due to its willingness to flash the flesh:
But a section where students pose in their underwear has caused controversy and led to calls for the scantily clad students to be covered up.
The Cambridge student union women’s officer, Natalie Szarek, said that they should be removed because they “reproduce and reinforce harmful attitudes towards women”.
Miss Szarek complained that “semi-naked women in provocative positions are being shoved in freshers’ faces”, adding: “We can do better as a university”.
Hmm. Well, at least Ms Szarek is educated enough not to claim that saucy photos are literally being shoved in people’s faces. Being a webzine, you would have to actually look it up on t’internet to see it. From my brief perusal, it doesn’t look horrendous – mostly campus news, film and gig reviews, a bit of humour, and guides to which pubs to go to in Cambridge. Normal student fare, then. These two or three features with mildly suggestive pictures are a fairly small proportion of the content – though no doubt they account for a lot of the traffic, we’re not talking Nuts here. And I didn’t spot anything nearly as offensive as what used to appear in PTQ.
Of course, the Telegraph doesn’t miss the opportunity to paint things as much saucier than they really are:
Meanwhile one of the student models, who posed on a punt in a small pink bikini and high heels, requested her photos removed from the site.
Becky Adams was said to have been “embarrassed” by the fall out of appearing in the tabloid and said she had only done it “as a favour for a friend”.
Female student does something for a laugh, regrets it later. It’s about as newsworthy as male students being a bit tasteless and vaguely sexist.
Until yesterday a picture of her accompanied an article headlined “Bra-vo” – a piece about a study which found that Cambridge women have on average the ninth largest bra sizes in the UK.
This was one of those self-serving commercial surveys, from Debenhams in this case. It was all over the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago, so it’s not as if this was particularly outrageous.
“There’s a huge amount of intellectual snobbery around, mainly from those who haven’t read the site,” [Tab co-founder Taymoor Atighetchi] said.
“We do not think what we are doing is sexist. It was always the intention to have a debate about these issues. The website is a tongue-in-cheek version of the tabloid newspaper – we are not just emulating it.”
At this point, Taymoor sort of loses my sympathy. All he had to do was say it was a tongue-in-cheek tabloid format, and leave it there. All this “we want to stimulate a debate on these issues” business is just a pseudo-intellectual equivalent of the Daily Telegraph saying “This is outrageous! And here are the pics to prove it!” One recalls the old Russ Meyer movie poster showing one of the great man’s top-heavy starlets in profile, with the tagline “Stacked with redeeming social significance”. But, while Meyer may have been a sexist reprobate, at least he was funny.
The female photographer who took the “Totty” photos also defended the website and said that six senior women staff are all proud to work for The Tab”.
“As a female who works on the Tab editorial team and a feminist, I’m delighted that so much debate has been generated over the Tab Totty section,” she said. “The main aim of The Tab was always to stimulate debate, and I feel we have truly succeeded when it comes to the issue of Page Three modelling.”
Ditto. We’re not talking here about a sociological treatise on the subject of young women in their skivvies, with necessary illustrations. We’re talking about something that is basically light-hearted, tabloid and populist – and justifiable in its own terms, however little it may appeal to the sort of people it isn’t aimed at. But then, intellectuals doing tabloid is a path fraught with dangers. Back in the 1980s, Guardian journalists produced a one-off version of a Sun-type tabloid and handed it out to bemused estate dwellers. It didn’t work, largely because the Graun journos treated the product as basically a comic – whereas Sun journalists, or indeed staff on comics, take their product very seriously indeed. The Sun isn’t a dumbed-down Guardian with shorter sentences, tits and bingo; it’s a thing in itself. Not to my taste, but lots of people like it.
The correct argument is not that this student silliness is some earnest project to get people talking about images of women. The correct argument is that this is just a bit of throwaway fun, and while you may or may not like this sort of image, there are many more concrete problems young women – even those at Cambridge – have to deal with.
Featured model Heidi says in her Tab piece:
In recent debates within the university, the impression generated by the CUSU Women’s Council and others is that prior to a few girls getting their kit off, the university was a sexism-free zone. Whilst totally misleading, this nonetheless demonstrates precisely a pernicious concealment of sexist attitudes that are in evidence throughout the university. There is a 21% wage inequality between male and female academics; the first female head porter was appointed in the institution’s 800th year; women’s boxing and rugby do not earn the same full blue status granted to their male counterparts.
There is a culture of sexism in Cambridge that needs addressing. That it took photos of girls in underwear to make people think so is bizarre; that the photos have become a sole target for all that is degrading and objectifying to the university’s women is just ridiculous. CUSU’s recent focus is totally misdirected, and fails to deal with far more worrying, entrenched gender problems. To equate ‘smashing sexism’ merely with stigmatizing nudity completely skews any argument about latent gender inequality in Cambridge…
Quite so, and this is why I don’t have much patience for that brand of feminism that’s mainly centred around speech codes. It’s not that I don’t think there’s an argument to had around images or language and how they reflect power in society, but we’re talking about the difference between image and actuality. See also, Andrew Pierce for a reflection on the kind of protection the gay community needs – that is, protection from the rise in homophobic assaults, not some half-baked legislative action to prevent ignorant glipes like Chris Moyles or Jan Moir from hurting their feelings.