Fancy Little Problems?

Watching the reaction to Marks & Spencers’ #fancylittleknickers adverts has been illuminating. Women in Nottingham complained that the juxtaposition of “MUST HAVE outfits to impress” with fully clothed male mannequins and “MUST HAVE fancy little knickers” on female mannequins was reflective of a wider problem with objectification of women, including in advertising, and was in poor taste given the recent Irish case in which a seventeen year old girl’s fancy little knickers were held up in front of a jury as evidence that she might have been out on the razzle, and therefore presumably up for it with any older man in the mud on a lane.

After the story was picked up by national media, numerous men have taken to Twitter to rail, sometimes angrily, against feminists who - yet again - are charged with being easily offended first world snowflakes who fiddle with adverts while Rome burns in the form of global violence against women. (Those men, naturally, don’t seem to think much about global violence against women unless it is to instruct feminists on what they should deal with before they threaten to undermine a chap’s right to pant at the scanties display.)

Not only that, but we are also charged with undermining women’s empowerment. Real feminists, we are loftily lectured, fought for women’s right to be oppressively objectified in a society which values only their sexuality and reproductive labour. [spoiler: they didn’t] It’s liberating, if only we prudish old husks could see it.

So what is the problem?

Objectification of women is not something which occurs in a vacuum. It occurs in a society where men are expected to be powerful, successful leaders, and women their attractive, subservient helpmeets. From being ‘beach body ready’ to fancy little knickers, women are bombarded with messages that they should be thin (but still have boobs!), sexy (but not slutty!), attractive to men (but not too many!), plucked, shaven, curled, painted, in a set of unattainable paradoxes neatly packaged in glitter and sold back to women as “empowerment.” To quote Naomi Wolf,

“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

Where women are on the one hand expected to wear “must have” fancy little knickers, and on the other conscious that if they are raped while wearing them, they will be passed around a jury as evidence she was intent on sex, women are neither liberated nor empowered. Nice pants can feel good, but let’s not mistake individuals feeling good for the liberation of women as a class, which will not be achieved through objectification.

That M&S also have a display of “outfits to impress” for women doesn’t detract from the central difficulty with gendered expectations of dress and behaviour. The issue is not the sale of knickers - everyone needs underwear - but the connotations of the juxtaposition. In pornography the “clothed male / naked female” or “clothed female / naked male” denotes the dominance or submission of each party. This is not a coincidence.

Ultimately, there is no high street retailer who is holding out the male body as a sexual plaything for Christmas, and there is no equivalence in objectification of men leading to greater social injustice. There is no man who has ever had his rape account disbelieved while his underwear was passed around a court room. It isn’t possible to see objectification of women in advertising as separate, and separable, from objectification of women in the court room, the board room, or in the street, and all have significant consequences on women’s participation in public life: the same attitudes which lead certain retailers to have a 12.3% pay gap, for example, or a 70% male board.

But what about the….

“What about the bigger problems” is just a variation on “what about the men.” Whataboutery of any form is an unimpressive swerve from the issue at hand. However, it is undeniably true that shop windows attract far more media coverage than any of our more global campaigns. That doesn’t mean that feminists are not working on those issues. Numerous people have wanted to know what we are doing about oppression within religion: at our annual conference we have had five sessions on religious fundamentalism in five years. That most people don’t know about this is not for want of trying to attract the attention of the press.

As well as that, we have campaigned on FGM, forced marriage, women in prison, justice for women in rape trials, and dozens more issues affecting women around the world. We have built networks globally, particularly in South America and Palestine. At the moment we are working on refugee rights, trafficking, modern slavery and the sex industry (two of our trustees spoke at the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation’s inaugural conference last week), non-state torture (another is speaking tomorrow at the Lords about violence against women), and in collaboration with other groups. None of this is trivial. As an aside, if these seem like laudable aims, we also have a donate button.

Male fragility

The response of anti-feminists to criticism of the window display has been unsurprisingly disproportionate. This is just the latest in a proud feminist history of being accused, indignantly, of “going too far” for pointing out some inequality or other.

In 1908, for example, at the National Women’s Anti-Suffrage League meeting, Mary Ward maintained that ‘all sorts of powers are lying unused under the hands of women…meanwhile good brains and skilled hands are being diverted from women’s real tasks to this barren agitation for equal rights with men.' That is: women had “real tasks” to do to advance their cause, aside from this “barren agitation” for, er, the vote.

Clare Short was denounced by the Sun in early 2004 as “jealous, fat and ugly” for her suggestion that photographs of topless teenage girls did not amount to news.

Is there much of a difference, 110 years on in the one case and nearly a quarter of a century in the next, aside from the particular cause being attacked as unnecessary to women’s advancement? Sexism in marketing, we say, reflects and encourages sexism in society, which in turn leads to wider inequality between the sexes. M&S, if you’re reading, and would like to make FiLiA a must-have Christmas gift of the end to sexualised or objectifying advertising in your stores? That would be lovely. We wouldn’t even need a fancy little bow.