Skirts were recently banned at a secondary school in Stoke-on-Trent because the head teacher believes they are distracting to male teachers and other pupils when hitched up. This caused an inevitable media furore and the country began debating the issue.

So firstly, what is the issue? Well, one aspect is the suggestion that girls are inherent sexual objects for the male gaze. The idea that dressing in a certain way is ‘provocative’ feeds the outdated notion that men can behave and dress as they like but women must cover up and behave appropriately so as not to titillate men.

And why are male teachers distracted by young girls in short skirts? Perhaps it’s because society tells us that youth and flesh are sexually appealing. Porn plays a part. The film industry plays a part. Ads on billboards, TV and in magazines play a part. A broader choice for what constitutes ‘sexy’ (age, size, colour, dress) would be helpful.

Another issue is the reason the girls want to hitch up their skirts. I questioned this a couple of years ago in this blog post and concluded that women wear mini skirts because they have become the norm; they are welcome at work, weddings – they don’t garner the same response they might have back in the 60s when they first came into fashion.

But what about girls in short skirts? As a 30-year-old woman, I still have vivid memories of my rebellious teenage years, dressing in stupidly short skirts with platform heels. I’d dress like this at school because we didn’t have a uniform and it wasn’t so that male teachers, or male pupils, would find me sexy but because I was simply a teenager pushing the boundaries.  

I get the pros of uniform but it does limit young people who are exploring their identity and who don’t necessarily want to conform and look exactly the same as fellow pupils. My school seems very liberal when I look back: we dyed our hair all the colours of the rainbow, a boy in my year had a leopard print pattern dyed onto his nearly-shaved head, we wore whatever we wanted (ripped tights, fishnet, polkadot).

Teenagers will continue to experiment with fashion – uniform or no uniform – and they should be able to do so without being told they’re putting themselves at risk or luring older men. Instead, older men should check themselves – the real concern is that they are viewing young girls as sex objects.

So what’s the solution? Well how about rather than banning girls from wearing certain clothes, which has a worryingly religious resonance, we address the objectification and sexualisation of girls in schools. Boys (and male teachers, apparently) need to be taught that there is more to a girl than the way she looks.

Equally, girls need to be reminded that there is more to life than the way they look. There was certainly huge pressure to look – rather than to think – a certain way when I was growing up (there still is). A less narrow beauty ideal and greater emphasis on intelligence over appearance would be useful – within the wider context of freedom to express yourself however you choose.

As usual, with any feminist issue, education is key. As a society, we need to change the way we view women and girls – and those formative school years are key in determining our general outlook. A class on sexuality, equality, the freedom to choose, liberating not repressing females and identity would be a lot more useful than, once again, blaming girls for the way they are viewed by men.

 

 

 

Bare Reality

 Great book, great woman – Laura Dodsworth’s book Bare Reality, featuring 100 topless women and their stories, is out today. I interviewed her for Motherland (read it here). What i’ve loved most is having this book out in my sitting-room, as it recieves an array of reactions, from laddish “yeah, tits!” to a woman saying she’d always wanted to look at loads of pictures of women’s breasts. But it’s the stories accompanying the photos that make it so wonderful: honest, tender, funny, enlightening.  

Visit the website here

See the photographs exhibited at The Canvas, 42 Hanbury Street, London E1 5JL from 5-11 June

But first: read this interview.

No More Nipples on Page 3

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So, it seems Lucy-Anne Holmes’ ‘No More Page 3′ campaign has at last paid off – following three years of activism and 200,000+ signatures on the petition. The Sun, with its new feminist; women-loving hat on, has stopped printing images of topless babes on page three. They are instead printing a daily image of a woman in her underwear. Hurrah? Not quite.

However, Holmes’ hard work deserves recognition and this – albeit small – step should be celebrated as one that’s at least moving in the right direction. If a little step like this could be taken in other areas of sexual inequality it might look like this:

– The gender pay gap reducing from 19.7% to 10%, so that women earn £90 for every £100 earned by a man, rather than £80.30. For doing EXACTLY THE SAME JOB.

– Adopting the Swedish prostitution laws so that punters, not sex workers, are criminalised. Currently in the UK women can sell their bodies legally; the only illegal aspect is brothels, pimps and soliciting. It wouldn’t make prostitution illegal per se but it would shift society’s attitude from denigrating the prostitute to questioning the john.

– According to Women’s Aid, one incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute. So a baby-step forward might mean one report every two minutes. That would mean the suffering had halved – 720 women a day, rather than 1440. Or 262974.383 a year, rather than twice that very big number.

– Currently just over one in five Members of Parliament are women. Let’s work towards making this two in five initially, and eventually it might even go up to 2.5 in five. That would be half. Or, as there are slightly more women in the UK than men, maybe three in five would make it a more equal representation.

Who knows, maybe one day The Sun will stop posting images of scantily-clad women entirely. They may even post stories about women’s intellectual achievements. But it’s unlikely. So instead, let’s work on educating people – young and old – about the benefits and importance of sexual equality. That will lead to people becoming less tolerant of objectification, exploitation and all other forms of repression. And then they might just stop reading The Sun altogether. And that would deserve a ‘hurrah!’.

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Pop artist Allen Jones graduated from the Royal Academy in the 60s, along with Hockney and Patrick Caulfield, and has now returned for a retrospective – displaying his painting, sculptures and those ridiculous pieces of sculpted furniture that he claims are not sexist.

If his work is about so much more than just these sculptures, as Richard Dorment suggests in this article, why did the curator – Edith Devaney – decide to whack two of them in Room 1, so that the first view visitors have of Jones’s work is two female figures, bent over, arse cheeks parted, with a pane of glass on their backs acting as a table top?

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Both clad in lace-up knee high boots; one donning a lycra gimp suit and the other a corset, the female models have fake tits, peachy arses and tiny waists. Just like the women depicted in every other sculpture and painting in this exhibition. It’s not so much that I have a problem with the female form being presented in this way, it’s more the fact the Jones claims to be a feminist.

He defends his decision to dress the women like this by explaining that everyday clothes might have made them look like mannequins (because all us wimmin walking around in normal clothes are basically a bunch of walking mannequins, durrr.) Fetish clothing, on the other hand, ‘achieved his aim of accentuating the shape of the body’. Oh yes, of course! Now it makes sense.

I wonder why Jones also chooses to dress the female figures in his paintings and photographs in such a limited wardrobe of clothes and shoes – always painfully high heels, often in tight-fitting; restrictive materials and suspenders, sometimes actually trapped in a cast, like in this famous image of Kate Moss:

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Maybe it’s because he’s concerned that otherwise they might wind up looking like mannequins too?

A stab in the dark here. Perhaps despite his best efforts to persuade us otherwise, Jones is actually a sexist, misogynist artist who is desperate to provoke a reaction from the same people he is portraying as nothing more than objects: women. But he continues to defend his work, assuming that us walking mannequins won’t pipe up because our brains are made of fibreglass.

Another room displays a series of sculptures showing the curves of a woman and man as they dance together. It’s as if they blur into one; she becomes his to lead wherever and however he pleases. This is also apparent in his painting Sin-Derella, where the man’s belt is wrapped around both bodies; trapping the woman he is dancing with. Her leg pushes between his, seductively, because Jones sees women as inherently seductive and provocative, but the man still owns her body. Jones has taken the innocent fairytale slave Cinderella and made her a sinner:

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It’s always inspiring to walk around an art exhibition that elicits such a strong reaction, as it gives you the opportunity to readdress your values and understanding of people, art and the relationship between the two. So i’m grateful for that. But when men pretend their art is presenting an existing social construct rather than being outright sexist, I do get a little peeved.

green party

Growing up, we had ‘Vote Labour’ posters blu-tacked to the sitting room window, so i’ve always known that to be my parents’ political party of choice. When I was of voting age and the general elections came round I decided that I would also vote Labour. Mostly because I thought my views were probably in line with my folks’. I didn’t read up on any policies.

Then I went to university and became very interested in feminism. This made me look at the parties from a female stance – but I wasn’t yet affected by unequal pay, or fewer women in boardrooms (well, so I thought). I cared about women in crisis – victims of domestic violence, rape survivors, those seeking abortions – and Labour seemed to be looking out for these women. This became particularly apparent when the coalition government was elected and funding that the Labour party had allocated to these services was cut so brutally. See here and here.

Just prior to the 2010 General Election, I went up to Cardiff to canvas with a friend’s mum who was running for MP. I think we successfully turned a few voters back to Labour, who’d been influenced by the Sun switching its allegiance from red to blue. We also went to her fundraising dinner and sat with Ed Miliband, who I liked a lot. I felt comfortable with Labour.

And then I had a conversation with my sister who’s a supporter of the Green Party and keen to recruit new members. She asked why I vote Labour and I told her it was because women’s rights and sexual equality were my biggest concerns and that I feel Labour tackles these issues in the right way. She told me she votes Green because she’s worried about the future of the planet and feels this is best dealt with by the Green Party. We concluded that i’m more concerned about the present and she’s more concerned about the future. But I also explained that sexual equality would improve the economy and reduce poverty, as well as meaning greater access to education – and this would all work towards a more environmentally-savvy society.

Anyway. After our conversation I started looking in to Green Party policies on women and was pleased with what I read here. I like their stance on access to abortion, funding for rape crisis centres and domestic violence centres and equal pay.

I also know how important it is to protect our planet and lead more environmentally-friendly lives but I wonder if, like me, too many people are put off by the name? ‘Green Party’ says to me: we care about the environment above all. It’s an issue that needs to continue to be addressed but – for me – it’s not the most pressing issue. I wonder if families living in poverty will see this as the biggest, most immediate priority? Although living a greener life is, in some respects, the cheaper way to live: reduce energy consumption in the home, travel by foot or bike, eat organic vegetables instead of meat, shop locally – when you can’t afford food, clothes or to heat your house, being kind to the planet might not be of paramount importance.

Another problem is that the green debate is often inaccessible and intellectual, so lots of people are left out. This leaves them unaware of what’s happening to the planet and where we’re headed if we don’t take better care of it. I know that schools teach children about caring for the planet, recycling, where our food comes from, healthy eating – and that’s great – but they aren’t voting. Yet. And so it’s the adults who need to be taught.

Articles like this one, which asks Russell Brand to reconsider his suggestion that we should all abstain from voting, as his ‘revolutionary’ ideas are actually encompassed in Green Party policies, do a lot of good for the greens. It highlights a load of the issues that you don’t otherwise hear much about (I don’t, anyway). So this could sway some voters – and it’s once they’ve been won over that they can start learning about the environmental side of things. That should come second. Because, in my opinion, the present needs to be improved before we can start working on a greener future.

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Obvious Child – a witty, touching romcom written and directed by Gillian Robespierre – has been nicknamed the ‘abortion romcom’. But this isn’t quite accurate. It’s a comedy, yes, but the jokes revolve around the seemingly doomed love life of a twentysomething woman and materialise in her self-deprecating one-liners. There are very few jokes about the actual act of terminating a pregnancy.

The narrative arc begins with stand-up comic and book shop assistant Donna’s discovery of an unwanted pregnancy, followed by the ‘will she/won’t she’ conflict and the resolution is an abortion. Comedy does weave in and out of the dialogue but to dub the film ‘abortion comedy’ makes light of Robespierre’s courageous decision to tackle one of the most taboo feminist issues of today.

According to Guttmacher Institute, ‘half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion’. So it’s fairly common. Why, then, does this remain such a touchy topic, and one that is most often excluded from contemporary arts? Perhaps it’s because acknowledging a woman’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy means giving women power and in patriarchal Hollywood, this doesn’t sit comfortably.

That’s why it’s such a triumph that the film, which made it to Sundance following a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign, has been a resounding box office hit. You see, people are ready to talk about feminist issues – and they’re ready to admit that women are funny too. Well, some of them are.

I found the film sensitive, endearing and empowering to watch. The writing is intelligent, the acting is great – particularly Jenny Slate’s portrayal of Donna – and it is genuinely funny. But most importantly: it makes you think. It takes you on Donna’s journey and challenges you to put yourself in her shoes – what would you do if you found yourself pregnant from a one-night-stand?

While abortion may be legal, common and perfectly reasonable subject matter for a film – let’s not forget that it’s a difficult, painful decision to make; and it’s rarely taken lightly. But we all respond differently to traumatic situations. Some might cry, others will become introspective and withdrawn – and others make jokes to ease their inner turmoil.

What makes Obvious Child so realistic is that it cleverly depicts the complex emotions Donna is experiencing. It doesn’t trivialise abortion; it documents how one woman deals with it – and that happens to be by turning it into a big joke.

Thankfully, Robespierre didn’t opt for a trite Sex and the City-esque monologue, detailing every last thought flying through Donna’s mind, to demonstrate her inner distress – instead she found clever, alternative ways to hint at it. Like the single tear that wells up in each eye as Donna lies in surgery, waiting for the anaesthetic to kick in before the procedure. Whoops – spoiler alert. But you may as well go in knowing that the outcome won’t necessarily be everyone’s idea of a happy ending. For me, it is the perfect ending because women should absolutely have the right to terminate or to go through with a pregnancy – and Obvious Child simply documents one example of the former.

Following her termination, Donna sits in the recovery room surrounded by other young women in gowns. This scene is poignant, as it addresses the fact that abortion really is commonplace. It’s happening every day. And the patriarchy, Hollywood and the anti-choice brigade ought to get used to it.

As Paul Simon says in the song that the film title is derived from, The Obvious Child: ‘I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more’. We’re hearing you Paul – and neither do us laydees. We’ve had enough of being told what to do with our bodies and we’ve had enough of being dictated to about which subject matter is appropriate to discuss. Good on Robespierre for going with her heart and creating such a compelling piece of art.

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Feminist activist and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez was on Woman’s Hour this morning discussing her latest campaign: to change the antiquated laws which dictate that both the bride and groom must state their fathers’ occupations on the wedding certificate (listen here).

Fortunately for Criado-Perez, this was brought to her attention before the wedding she’s planning. When I got married in June 2011, I had no idea that I’d be forced to scribe my dad’s job on this official document – and ignore my mum’s – until 20 minutes before I was due to walk down the aisle.

We were sat with the registrar in Bridgwater Registry Office, palms sweating, when she told us we’d need to just go through a couple of things. She then asked us what our fathers did for a living.

“Why do you need to know that?” I asked. And she told me it was for the wedding certificate. I asked if I could give my mum’s job instead and she said no.

Now, I’m a feminist through-and-through – but to jilt Rich at the altar because I wasn’t allowed to list my mum’s job instead of my dad’s would have been taking it a step too far, so I (begrudgingly) obliged.

Some people see marriage as a sexist, misogynist institution anyway, so might be wondering why I cared. Let me explain.

Marriage, to me, is about celebrating your love and making a lifelong commitment. It acknowledges the obstacles that you might come across and makes you work just a little bit harder to overcome them, because getting divorced is more complicated than a non-marital break up (financially and logistically – not necessarily emotionally).

And so I wanted to marry Rich. But I chose not to be ‘given away’ by my dad, as I’m no more his to give away than I am my mum’s. I decided to take Rich’s name, as we liked the idea of sharing a surname (particularly as we planned to have children) and his was less common than my own. There was already a published journalist with my ‘maiden’ name – so I took Ridout in order to be the only published Annie Ridout on the web. And I still am.

At one point I considered boycotting white dresses because of the insinuation of virginity and purity (neither of which applied to me) but I like white. And I like dresses. And I decided this was a personal preference – not part of the feminist debate around marriage and weddings.

That wedding certificate stipulation, however, is very much part of the feminist debate because it suggests that 1. only fathers (men) work 2. all fathers work 3. everyone has a father 4. mums’ (women’s) jobs are irrelevant. And that’s not even touching on the topic of gay parents. When there are two mums or two dads, whose job do you put down then?

When I was travelling around India with my friend Lizzie, aged 19, we’d laugh when men on public buses sat down next to us and asked: Name? Father’s occupation? It was always those questions, in that order. We found it funny because this wasn’t something we’d ever be asked at home – in order to determine our worth.

But for many families in India it’s only the father who works. And the father who matters. And so his job determines the status of the family, in the warped caste system that exists. Many women don’t – and aren’t allowed to – work. And there are major campaigns working to change this.

In the UK, we assume that there is something more akin to gender equality, so when we’re made to feel as if it’s only our dads who matter – it’s a bit of a shocker.

So good on you, Caroline Criado-Perez. I have every faith that this campaign will be just as successful as the women on banknotes campaign. And I fully support it.