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 Eunuch, and 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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