Plenty of problems but no solutions in Kirsty Wark’s ‘Blurred Lines’

By Sarah Graham

Tonight Kirsty Wark promises to examine ‘a new culture’ of misogyny in Blurred Lines: The New Battle Of The Sexes on BBC2. I’m cynical. I can’t help but wonder how much more there is to say on the matter, as someone who spends a lot of time – professionally and socially – being both a woman and a feminist in the online world. Would Wark simply rehash what many of us have known for years, on issues that now even the mainstream media devotes much attention to? Would she offer up solutions, or simply remind us all yet again what we’re up against? Imagine my surprise then when what Wark presents is a far more useful overview and contextualisation of contemporary misogyny than we’ve seen to date in the mainstream media.

While the many examples of cultural misogyny Wark gives will come as no surprise to Feminist Times readers, placed alongside each other they do offer a compelling patchwork of evidence for those sexism skeptics out there; like the Everyday Sexism Project, incidents of 21st century cultural misogyny are harder to dismiss when seen together. From online abuse directed at high profile women, rape jokes by celebrated comedians, and sexism in music videos (featuring, of course, the inevitable clip from the programme’s namesake) to everyday experiences of sexism in school and online gaming, and the impact of lads mags and online pornography, Wark paints a depressing yet necessary picture of women’s position in UK society in 2014.

More helpfully, Wark goes beyond the ‘what’ to explore the ‘why’, placing Twitter abuse and Blurred Lines firmly in the historical context of a new wave in the anti-feminist backlash that has repeatedly shown its face, under ever evolving guises, over the past four decades. Speaking to students at Stirling University about the now notorious YouTube video of male sports stars singing a sexually degrading drinking song on a public bus, Wark reflects on her own time as a student at Stirling during the 70s. Whilst much has moved on for women since then, Wark comments that the sexism on show is now far less insidious than in her day, with obscene humour about rape now being casually passed off as ‘banter’.

Much time is devoted to this notion of ‘banter’, with Wark asking everyone from young people at a comedy show to ex-Loaded editor Martin Daubney where they draw the line between ‘banter’ and sexism. Since the obvious implication is that these lines are blurred, there are frustratingly few conclusions to this question, beyond subjectivity, as we’re shown women laughing at the same rape joke which has appalled their male friend, and (ever-helpful on the subject of women’s rights) Rod Liddle suggests victims of online abuse like Mary Beard should merely ‘man-up’.

On the subject of Liddle and Daubney – neither of whom Wark lets off lightly – Blurred Lines does provide an interesting look at the role the media has to play in both reflecting and perpetuating the misogyny that takes place online, with research showing how views like AA Gill’s on Mary Beard are amplified through social media, before coming full circle, as in Liddle’s Spectator piece “It’s not misogyny, Professor Beard. It’s you.” And, though Daubney remains laughably insistent that the 90s advent of lads mags and ‘laddism’ was about “celebrating women”, rather than a Britpop-era backlash against their increasing power, there’s little arguing with him that much of the pornography now freely available online is far more harmful and upfront in its hatred and degradation of women.

Tellingly, it’s also Daubney who refers to the so-called crisis of masculinity that appears to play such a key role in the increasing levels of public and cultural aggression towards women. Women have never had it so good and the poor men aren’t sure how to react so, like children on the playground, they resort to name calling and hair pulling – in the form of trolling feminists on Twitter and brutally murdering prostitutes on Grand Theft Auto. Meanwhile, on real playgrounds across the country, we’re told that slut-shaming and sexist remarks are an everyday occurrence for adolescent girls, and pornography is standing in for proper sex education, which teenage girls (including those behind the Campaign 4 Consent) tell Wark is hugely inadequate, if not altogether lacking.

While Germaine Greer paints a pretty bleak picture of life for women since the publication of The Female Eunuchand journalist Laurie Penny describes how social media has enabled existing misogyny to evolve a powerful new form, the young women of Campaign 4 Consent form part of Wark’s redemptive conclusion. They, and women like them, are part of the backlash to the backlash; misogyny has got louder, but women (and especially young women) are raising their voices to shout back. It doesn’t offer a solution, as such, but a reassuring reminder to the Thursday night audience of BBC2 that we cannot be so easily silenced.

Blurred Lines: The New Battle Of The Sexes airs tonight, Thursday 8 May, from 9.30pm on BBC 2.

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8 thoughts on “Plenty of problems but no solutions in Kirsty Wark’s ‘Blurred Lines’

  1. Vic Tanner Davy

    Kirsty Wark’s documentary was shocking and provocative but too short. It needed another hour or two to properly do justice to its subject. It needed another hour on whether misogyny really is on the rise or whether it is just more visible. We were told that it was but, equally, that men had always felt this way about women.

    It needed more evidence from the offline world that the online misogyny rampantly on display was making men treat women differently face-to-face. For example, is domestic violence on the rise and, if so, can it be linked to online misogyny?

    It needed to investigate how much women participate in online abuse. I’ve seen plenty of comments from men and women online that degrade the female subject of the comment in a misogynistic way. Why are women getting involved in this behaviour? Is it less about misogyny and more about the tolerance of bad (criminal) behaviour online in general?

    It needed an examination of the psychology of the abuser. Clearly, it’s a power thing, but those interviewed said the online abuse was harmless because it stayed online. They wouldn’t behave like that in the real world. Some of the women agreed that, because it was online, it could be shrugged off. Why? Is it something about the medium that enables this behaviour to be accepted whereas offline it would land the perpetrator in court?

    It needed an interview with law enforcement agencies to find out why more prosecutions weren’t being brought. Only one prosecution for the online threat to rape had been brought. Are the authorities therefore turning a blind eye to it or is it going unreported because people don’t take it seriously enough to report it?

    Germaine Greer’s two interview segments were too brief. Arguably, her most controversial statement that, because of her generation’s feminist advances, women are pushing their way into traditional male preserves and it is driving men nuts, needed more explanation. Was 1970s feminism wrong in its approach or was it right but feminism has been warped by subsequent generations into something more aggressive that diminishes men in the world?

    There was much talk about “geek” culture being responsible for the Internet’s misogyny. Created by geeks, used by geeks, they set the tone. Except that this strikes a jarring note. I know and have worked with lots of geeks from my days in the computer industry and they aren’t like that. Most are more interested in Star Trek and gadgets than women. One of the gamers interviewed said as much. He found the ability to murder prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto distracted from the game play. The documentary needed to examine the motivations of the “geeks” that built the Internet because it certainly wasn’t about creating a male-only space to share abusive images of women. The misogyny came after the architects had opened the space up to the rest of the world.

    Ultimately, the documentary was a parade of more and more vile examples of abuse through the impersonal medium of the Internet. Eye-opening though this was, it didn’t get you very far. Wark ended the documentary with a plea that she didn’t want her son or daughter growing up in a world where this was acceptable but I’m still not sure from what she presented what she thinks anyone can do about it. Perhaps, by raising the issue in a high profile and shocking way, Internet users (let’s not just say women as there are men who will feel sickened by this, too) will feel angry enough to take action, but don’t hold your breath that this is going to change any time soon or without government intervention, and that’s a whole other can of worms…

    1. Sarah Graham Post author

      I definitely agree that an hour wasn’t long enough to go into much depth – she could have made an entire series on issues like the ones you mention!

  2. Frances

    AS an oldie feminist from the 70s who is very well aware of some of the appalling hatred shown to women, I still found this programme distressing and powerful. Distressing because women are STILL being subjected to this same misogyny as then but with new finesse due to the speed of online communication. I really admire the younger women and girls who are taking up these issues so actively. I suggest that women who get involved in online abuse are trying to get male approval , or are afraid of refusing. I hope that women will think twice before going to so called comedy performances or go to make noisy protests to disrupt the performances. Women must learn to stick together over these issues and get rid of the men in their lives who find rape jokes etc funny.
    Yes the programme could have Benin more extensive, and Germaine given more time…I had forgotten how strong she was all those years ago. More on the campaigns running at the moment would have been great.
    It was clear that there is a violent war going on against women. Time to move and act.

  3. mmhaut

    If Mary Beard can be urged to “man up” why shouldn’t men be cajoled to “woman down”? I wouldn’t resent being put in a lower position if I thought it might reduce the mountainous male ego. And I most certainly feel no desire to join it up there. Nor to beat it! Yuk! mm

  4. Frank

    I just watched the repeat of blurred lines the new battle of the sexes.. I didn’t see what’s new. It’s the same old battle with internet, social media, gaming and standup (the new rock,n,roll) . I still find it strange that even Kirsty can’t offer a view on why …just exposing how bad it is and how shocking it is. Well here’s my two cents.. Misogyny is fear and the more equal the world becomes the more fear men (and boys) will experience. The less men have for themselves the more they will fear. The truth is life is not equal and never was, as legislation and society enshrines equality, any personal weaknesses are exposed, whether it be social, professional or physical. Misogynists don’t feel equal and that’s the issue. Imagine homosexuals were 49% of the population and got preferential treatment for all feminine related activities, jobs, shops, lifestyle, insurance, social situations, How would women feel? Would they make jokes about it? until things are truly equal (which they can never be) this is continue..over the internet or whatever comes next.

  5. Ellesar

    The documentary was well done, but for me was no surprise whatsoever. For some years now I have been very glad to have had sons and not daughters because of the rise of appalling misogynist attitudes, esp amongst the younger generation. I would have never thought, as a young woman in the 80s, that 30 years later there would be more violence and hatred projected onto women, and that other women would participate in it so enthusiastically.

  6. Derrington

    Most young women have been brought up in a society that says that calling a black person a n*gger is dangerous and bad, but calling a women a whore is freedom of speech. More women are killed a year by a significant male in their lives, be it father, son, brother, partner or ex than servicemen were killed in Afghanistan or Iraq but sexism is still portrayed in the media as an equal pay issue rather than linking male on female violence in the home with gender supremacy. Wonder why the men that run society dont want to join up the dots?


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