Was Rear Of The Year sexist? RUTH GRAHAM and JOE BATES discuss.
Last week, the national press went ballistic over a rather dull story from Cambridge. Again.
Our female follow up to Rear Of The Year was, initially, contained in its reach. It got around the same readership as the male story and looked to recede into obscurity until it was picked up at the last minute by a news agency.
Whilst The Tab stands by its publication of the pieces, we should not have assumed our legal rights to protect the photographs would prevent them from being used illegally by the tabloid press. I unreservedly apologise to the models for any distress this has caused.
We took action against The Sun, The Mirror, The Daily Mail and The Mail Online for their publication of the photos. The Sun and The Mirror both apologised and removed the photos within an hour of notification. The Mirror offered to send its fee for the photos to a charity of our choice (Jimmy’s Shelter).
The Mail Online took a day and a half. They also sent investigative journalists down to Cambridge to unmask the women’s identities. Eventually The Mail removed the photos saying it ‘regrets the dispute’ and, ‘as a gesture of goodwill’, agreed to donate the fee for the photos to Jimmy’s Shelter.
In order to make this legal process easier, and because of the absurd readership the piece garnered, The Tab was forced to take the piece down. I apologise to any disappointed readers.
An issue separate, however, from these technical difficulties is the legitimacy of the piece itself and whether they were sexist or not. To debate the issue, Ruth Graham, CUSU Women’s Officer, and myself, The Tab’s editor, have both written pieces.
It is predictable and shameful that some national tabloids have decided to attack the women photographed for ‘Rear of the Year’.
It’s also irritating that some of the press respond to the photos with gleeful excitement, as though they aren’t the same kind of image we see in the media every day.
But as we all know, everything done by Cambridge students must be treated as though we are exotic, elitist monkeys, pretending to be normal in a bizarre deviation from day-to-day life, in which we wear tweed onesies and sweat mathematical formulas.
This isn’t about The Tab doing something unusual or different: this is just another replication of very typical images. The Tab’s decision to run with the ‘story’ is dull.
What’s much more interesting, and much more controversial, is the question of why the portrayal of women as sex objects is problematic.
As for The Tab’s male ‘Rear’ article, anyone being honest would accept that the images were not sexualised but instead comedic (I cite Ben from Fitz, urinating). But even if they were, it cannot be desirable to ‘balance’ the scales of inequality by objectifying men too – no-one wins in this scenario.
Sexual objectification means portraying people solely as de-personalised objects of desire. And The Tab adding a line underneath one of the photographs saying the woman is into frotteurism (by the way, you’ve advocated sexual-assault) doesn’t count as personalising. There is a huge weight of research showing that objectification happens more to women than it does to men.
This may not automatically seem problematic to some. Yet in research for the End Violence Against Women Coalition’s Integrated Strategy on Violence Against Women, every expert and organisation consulted asserted that “the sexualisation of popular culture and the ubiquity of sexualized imagery of women” are “conducive contexts for violence against women.”
The causes of violence against women are obviously complex, and are not just as a result of objectification. But when the experts in violence against women say it is a factor, shouldn’t we stop and take notice?
Reproducing sexualized images of women that are there simply for the viewers’ titillation also reinforces tired stereotypes about women’s value in society. The UK’s report to the UN’s CEDAW puts it succinctly: “stereotypical attitudes … and … the power imbalance between the sexes contribute to male violence against women.”
The photographs also unthinkingly illustrate an old-fashioned, harmful message, one replicated through images we are bombarded with every day: slim, white and able-bodied is the only way to be beautiful.
Oh, and it really matters to be beautiful. The American Psychological Association’s research (amongst others) demonstrates that the media’s portrayal of women as sex objects, rather than subjects with their own sexual desires, also harms women’s mental and physical health, leading to low self-esteem, as well as eating disorders.
We should consider the welfare of women in being constantly exposed to these images, but we should also consider the welfare of those photographed. The Daily Mail were literally waiting outside my office last week, demanding the contact details of those involved (obviously I told the journalist where to go).
Sadly, this is predictable given the media furore in 2009 over Tab Totty. Last time this went national, one of the women revealed that she had only done it “as a favour to a friend”, was “embarrassed”, and wanted the photographs to be removed from the public domain. Yet the pattern has been repeated: suddenly, predictably, The Tab is desperately trying to claw the photographs back from the public domain, and the media are out in full force snarling about the women involved.
In 1995 the UN’s World Conference on Women produced an international declaration of women’s rights, calling on governments to “encourage the media to refrain from presenting women as inferior … and exploiting them as sexual objects”. Seventeen years on I say it’s time we started demanding it ourselves.
Something is sexist if it treats people differently because of their sex. Rear Of The Year didn’t. Therefore Rear Of The Year is not sexist.
I feel like that’s the only argument I should need, but if dealing with the tabloids for a week has taught me anything, it’s that people will see what they want to see unless you yell at them loudly enough.
So this is me yelling: Ladies’ Rear Of The Year was an afterthought. The men’s one went well, the comments section was packed with requests for a follow-up and I thought ‘Why the hell not?’
The answers to that question have had me scratching my head for the last week. Here’s my attempt to answer a few of them.
The first thing that made me chuckle when leafing through the acres of newsprint dedicated to the sight of cantab bums was Ruth’s suggestion that the men’s poses featured such masculine stereotypes as ‘urinating and cooking’.
Now, I’m pretty sure cooking in an apron isn’t one of the best known males stereotypes. But more importantly: we didn’t choose the poses (or the models). The models sent in what they wanted, we published.
I think it’s definitely true that the women were, in general, shyer than the guys in their poses. But is that any surprise, given the absurd over-reaction that followed? The greater care taken by the women is just a recognition that we live in a sexist world.
But here in The Tab‘s more salacious wing, our motto is ‘equality of objectification’. We are conditioned to think that comparing people based on their bare assets alone is sexist, shameful, or as the Mail tutted, ‘unedifying’. The more thoughtful tell us that viewing sex purely physically is demeaning and reductive.
But all this this is only a problem if we are taking ourselves quite a lot too seriously. Judgement only hurts if it’s on something we care about or if we try to claim that the object of judgement is something of genuine importance. If I told most of my friends here that they sucked at football, I’d get a baffled ‘So-what-man-I’m-too-fucking-cool’ look. But at primary school, it was a deadly insult, likely to result in tears before bedtime.
The same goes for bums. The reason why our models were happy to be judged by you lot, The Tab‘s anonymous hate army, was because they correctly recognised that there was a lot more to them than their glutes. The piece reinforced this: it couldn’t have taken itself less seriously if it were written in Comic Sans.
And if this was genuinely the problem with the piece, why didn’t Ruth or our other complainant (all one of them) contact us after the first piece?
Because, unlike us, some people do actually have an instinctive problem with female sexuality. An instinctive reaction that says female bums are sexist, demeaning and rude, whilst men’s bums are just a laugh for the lads.
The problem is that whilst we continue to patronise brainy young women by telling them they lack the ability to take it as joke, we continue to stigmatise female sexuality, to view it as naughty, demeaning and wrong.
In reality, the story was only of the tiniest bit of interest because of the way the press exploded. And that happened because these were women from Cambridge. The subtext of the national press’s explosion of slut-shaming was that female sexuality is fine – so long as it’s not combined with intelligence (or anything else that gives women power).
‘Clever’, in the letchy eye of the Mail Online, must always mean ‘ugly prude’ just as ‘stupid’ must always mean ‘pretty slut’.
Anything else is sexist, right?