The way we look at women is worrying, even when it’s women doing the looking
Why are women’s magazines just as hung up on portraying only young females as men’s magazines are?
How should women be looked at? It’s a question that is constantly debated but never really gets anywhere. No wonder. It’s a weird question. Yet there’s no denying it’s also fundamental. For some, the answer is that women simply should not be looked at.
The solution is the burqa, or the veil. Muslim feminists can be persuasive when they insist it’s a liberation for women, the hiding of their faces and bodies. They will point to the mass of highly sexualised images in the western media, and ask if that’s really such a wonderful thing.
Lucy Kirkwood, in her Royal Court play NSFW, explores that territory, too. The first half of the play is set in an office where the work consists of creating images that are Not Suitable for Work. Doghouse is a fictional version of Nuts or Zoo, a magazine whose raison d’etre is publishing photographs of their readers’ topless girlfriends. No one who works there bothers to hide their contempt for the readers or the girlfriends. But it’s a free country, and if men want to ogle and women want to be ogled, why should they not facilitate the activity? It pays the rent, while these ambitious yet rudderless young people wait for better jobs in better publications to come along.
Sure, there’s a bit of a crisis, when their readers’ girlfriend of the year turns out to be 14. The staff all agree this is indefensible (and also that they too are the victims, because they were lied to). But the point is made. If the production and consumption of sexual images really is such harmless fun, why is there such strong consensus around the idea that some people are too young, too vulnerable, to take part in it? The visceral conviction in our culture that minors need protecting from this sort of exploitation is prima facie evidence that it is indeed exploitation, and that taking part in it is an important decision, not a trivial or casual one.
Later in NSFW, the action moves to Electra, a fashion magazine, where the young man who got fired over 14gate is seeking a job. It’s made clear to him that here it’s important for him to inspect women’s bodies, too – this time for flaws and imperfections, however tiny, not “sexiness”. Is a woman too fat? Too thin? Does she have blemishes on her skin? Is her hair too dry, or her outfit too tasteless? Has she had some “work” done? At Electra, there is a very particular belief about how women should be looked at: critically, mercilessly and contemptuously. Why?
Because that’s what the readers – women – want.
Again, it’s well rehearsed, the debate around the impossible images of women that the media promotes, the crazy idealisations of extreme slenderness and airbrushed grooming, the constant monitoring of women in the public eye. Does it cause women to be insecure about their looks? Or is it insecurity about their looks that makes women subject each other to this scrutiny?
What does more harm? The stereotypical ways in which men look at women? Or the stereotypical ways in which women look at women? One thing is for certain – clothed or unclothed, it’s how women look, not what they do, that is most obsessed about by the media.
There’s no great mystery about the relentless focus on personal presentation in women’s media. It attracts advertising, and lots of it. There’s no profit in persuading women they look fine without makeup, or that being “on trend” is of no practical value in a piece of clothing. There’s no profit, and there’s not terribly much enthusiasm. The dressing-up box in countless family homes, the joy with which kids embrace fancy dress, tells us a simple truth: clothes, makeup, hair, nails – it all really is harmless fun. Or should be.
Because there’s a disconnect here, too. There is certainly consensus around the idea that a photograph of a topless 14-year-old should not be published. But a 14-year-old in fancy dress? That’s different. When the child actor Elle Fanning posted a snap of herself on Instagram, dressed up for Hallowe’en, the Daily Mail bagged the picture and ran some copy alongside it, suggesting that Fanning “wasn’t afraid to flaunt her curves for the camera.” In the post-Savile climate, it’s hard to see why it’s acceptable to assume that any young woman wearing clothes that don’t hide the shape of her body could only be doing it to “flaunt her curves” and appear sexually attractive.
Britain is currently engulfed in scandal about abusive paedophilia. Everyone understands what paedophilia is and why it is dangerous and perverse. But this might also be a good time to ask whether more generally pervasive ideas that link attractiveness to sex and sex to youth are a bit dangerous and perverse as well.
Certainly, all that flaw-seeking in women’s magazines is rooted in female fear of ageing. Because a funny thing happens to women as they age: how we should be looked at stops being an issue at all. If you don’t look young, you don’t look sexually attractive, so you’re not worth looking at. It’s ridiculous. It’s reductive. It’s shallow. It’s stupid. But it’s something women live with and dread. Quite unnecessarily.
The truth is that if women wore beautiful clothes because that pleased men, then Vogue would be read by men, not women. Women like lovely clothes and makeup in much the same way as they like nice furniture and good interior decoration. It’s not about sex. It’s not about youth. It’s about craft and beauty.
So why are women’s magazines just as hung up on portraying only young females as men’s magazines are? It makes young women insecure because they know they are subject to harsh scrutiny. It makes older women insecure because they understand that the scrutiny only gets harsher, until, most harshly of all, it is rendered obsolete. And it’s all bound up in the idea that attractive means sexually attractive, which means young.
How should women be looked at? Not as if they are calendars made of sex-flesh, with their acceptable era beginning towards the end of February and ending in May. It’s bad enough that men are encouraged to regard women in this way. That we so enthusiastically accept invitation to do it to ourselves is just woeful.