Friday, 13 November 2009

Resurrected blog. Hell, yeah.

I abandoned the Lowbrow Feminist for a couple of years because - oh! the irony - I didn't have time to write it. Now my needy baby is two and a half, he doesn't need me so much.

And then I read this by Penelope Trunk, on why she tweeted about her miscarriage. Then I read her tips for bloggers, which urges people not to abandon theirs. She's shockingly perky, but she's probably right.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Quiet riot: how UK Riot Grrrls missed the point

Refusing to talk to journalists is always a risky strategy, as any
Old Labour heavyweight will confirm.

Withholding the official line as “punishment” to newspapers for inconvenient stories may be tempting, but it’s always best to get your point across. The alternative - assuming that “no comment” will mean no story - is laughable. Like it or not, if the subject is newsworthy enough, journalists will write about it, with or without you. You lose.

The long-forgotten Riot Grrrl movement of the early 1990s made this mistake, at least in the UK. It was hopeful and admirable, albeit shambolic. It was useful if only as a means of enabling women to go to gigs without getting squashed. It wasn’t afraid to label itself as feminist. The D-I-Y music was of questionable quality, but was spiky and good-natured enough to be passable, which was OK because the message, rather than the music, was the point.

But the bands took themselves too seriously. Grrrls’ favourite Huggy Bear refused to talk to the music press and even took the totalitarian step of trying to ban journalists from gigs. For all their sloganeering and posturing, the band’s silence made them (and in turn, the entire Riot Grrrl movement) appear paranoid, humourless and inarticulate.

Women of a more outward bent, though initially receptive to Riot Grrrl, soon lost patience. The Grrrls suffered the indignity of Courtney Love dismissing them as them as “a little pack of oestrogen lemmings”.

Niki from Huggy Bear eventually offered this explanation for the band’s self-imposed silence, in a 1994 interview to journalist Amy Raphael: “We recognised early on that the journalist/popstar dialogue is a complex system of mythologies and identifications to do with fake hierarchies which connect preferences of desirability via the kinds of photos which are used to represent you or how much space is given to each member of a band in an interview”.

Well that explains it, then. Or at least, it demonstrates why non-journalists need journalists. It also explains why the Spice Girls didn’t bother getting to grips with Riot Grrrls’ weighty philosophy before getting started on their big adventure.

Towards the end of 2007, Black Dog published what it hoped would be the definitive history of Riot Grrrl. In journalistic terms, the movement is ripe for re-examination, not least because its original members are coming up to comfortable middle age. The book’s arrival should have seen a flurry of features about Riot Grrrl in the broadsheets and the music press – a mini retrospective – but it was met with a deafening silence.

Riot Grrrl was feminism’s greatest missed opportunity. Thanks, Grrrls, for nothing.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Not that bright

When I want nostalgia I reach for reissued Look-in or Jackie annuals in hard-back, “best-of” format. Only a cold-hearted monster could mock such blameless fun.

But one old, familiar title is missing among the proliferation of reissued 60s, 70s and 80s comics on the first table through the door at Waterstones. Where is the wry, ironic, bumper reissue of Twinkle?

This snub might seem like an oversight on publisher DC Thompson’s part. The Twinkle comic of the 1970s and 80s, for girls under the age of 8, was Thompson’s best-selling annual in 1975, outselling even the Beano. But a flick through an old copy of the annual reveals why - its eponymous, gnome-like, dead-behind-the-eyes heroine and her friends are all mini-drudges. Slap-bang in the middle of feminism’s second wave, they spend their time do-gooding, ballet dancing and entertaining baby siblings.

Girls in the 70s were force-fed Nancy the Little Nurse, a blank, smug child in a dolls’ hospital. Then there were The Three Pennys, a pointless trio who devoted their lives to a puppy called Binky. Liberated characters are like hens’ teeth, and are bludgeoned into submission when they do appear. Jenny Wren, for example, is an independent, helpful character that likes to find a practical purpose to fashionable clothes, but in 1975’s episode, she makes use of a safari jacket to rescue baby chicks. And that’s, er, it.

Unlike Jackie, with its do-it-yourself, punky fashion tips, or the dynamic and resourceful Judy, Twinkle and her chums are dull. Which might explain why DC Thomson didn’t bother to reissue her.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Because you're worthless

L'Oreal is all over the press with a particularly cruel ad. "If you think it's just wrinkles that age you, think again," nags the nameless, faceless "science" voice from deep inside its Parisian laboratories.

Two images of the same woman's face appear side by side. One has dark wrinkles drawn all over it but is otherwise taut; the other is without wrinkles but does have sagging jowls , jaw and eyes. The first face is flushed with a pinkish hue, while the second is noticeably yellow - a classic ageing technique - but concentrate, because colouring is not relevant.

The grave voice continues: "In the image on the right, the woman looks older. Why? Because loss of skin contour definition can age you, just as wrinkles can". So presumably all that Andie-McDowell-wrinkly stuff L'Oreal has been pumping out for years was a only ever of limited use.

From my old job scrutinising advertising claims, I know nothing will make existing wrinkles and sags disappear forever, except perhaps surgery. Anti-ageing creams "work" in the sense that they create an optical illusion for as long as they are applied. Wrinkles can be temporarily plumped out (by adding irritants), and sags can be tightened by stretching skin (by adding plastic films), but the minute a woman stops applying cream, or it slides off during the day, the effect is gone. In other words, they don't "work" at all, but they do appear to work for the short times in the day that women are looking in mirrors.

L'Oreal is always careful to frame its product claims to reflect the truth. For example, Revitalift will "reduce the appearance of wrinkles and make the skin feel firmer". What L'Oreal means by "reduce the appearance" is "make wrinkles look smaller/fewer in number to the naked eye" (and then only for as long as Revitalift is slathered over the skin). What it doesn't mean, but what could be easily interpreted from the ads, is Revitalift will make wrinkles disappear, or stop appearing at all.

But back to sagging. To tackle the problem, L'Oreal has invented Collagen Skin Remodeller, a "re-defining day cream" for face and neck, recommended for women over 35 (L'Oreal loves age-brackets - it recommends girls make a start at age 15 with its Anti Re-greasing Moisturiser). Ther is even an accompanying online "morphing tool", which sees an 18 year-old hurtling through time to demonstrates the "14 signs of ageing" on her face. But whether L'Oreal intends "re-defining" in this context to mean tautening saggy jowls, or simply its own genius at revolutionising skin care, is not clear.

So what effect does L'Oreal claim Collagen Skin Remodeller will have on our shamefully saggy skin? "Skin looks more defined," says the ad.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Women's mag drivel: part 1 in an occasional series.

Readers of last week’s Grazia magazine learned that one of four exciting things to do that are SO NOW is“drunk shopping”. No really. “Shoes are just so much prettier and credit card bills far less scary after a few glasses of vino!” it slurred.

Elsewhere, the useless rag gave up on personal finance and tackled the weighty world of politics. Laura Craik knocked off a crashingly sycophantic profile of Tory wife Samantha Cameron. “David might be getting excited about the inheritance tax threshold,” she twittered, “but the naughty truth is that women aren’t half as interested in party policy as they are in Samantha’s clothes.”

Probably fair. Given that any legacies Grazia readers get their mits on will go straight towards paying off those un-scary credit card bills, how much they inherit is probably neither here nor there.

But Craik presses on: “If he (David) wants to swing the female vote, Sam Cameron in a yellow Topshop coat is a far bigger draw than any NHS reform.”

Here’s hoping Grazia readers’ livers hold out.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Catalogue of woe

My mum – a natural trader - had the foresight to start collecting consumer catalogues nearly 40 years ago. She concentrated on those she believed to be “of their time”. She reasoned that their pages form a snapshot of our collective aspirations, and most people chuck them away, making them future rarities.

She’s been proved right time and again. Her stack of Habitat and Clothkits catalogues from the 60s and 70s are pored over. Copies sell themselves on eBay.

So when mum started adding the Boden catalogue to her collection I was unsettled. If images in a consumer catalogue are snapshots of collective aspirations, there are harsh implications for women within the pages of Johnny Boden’s matey quarterly.

Most of Boden’s images are faux family snapshots of vaguely nostalgic holidays, set in a version of Britain. There are wholesome camping trips, or perhaps a cavort through the deserted streets of anodyne city settings such as Notting Hill or Bath. It’s a fantasy of an effortless family life, and of course it's no more than is to be expected, because it’s doing the job of advertising. But a sinister narrative lurks behind the gurning female models acting out Boden’s “mother” role.

In the current edition, for example, the “mothers” play peek-a-boo with infants. They frolic with presents and balloons at children’s birthday parties; they balance cups and books on their heads, and they wink a lot. Sometimes they stick their tongues out. They don’t do anything difficult, or even particularly active. While the men’s clothing pages show "fathers" at work, the office clothes for women are worn by models chatting to men in bars. And there's not a child in sight on the men's pages.

The problem is not that the female models do these things. It’s that, in Johnny’s fantasy, they don't do anything else. This fantasy, and the one consumers are sold , is for women to spend their time playing, like infants. They are infantilised.

Johnny Boden is no fool. He knows his customers, and he knows they are women (he makes men’s clothes, but it’s women that buy them). He knows the reality of their lives is stress, and office work, and that they might fantasise about ditch their day jobs. His prices ensure his customers are middle-class and, in all likelihood, of the professional classes. His well-documented marketing tactics include the brilliant wheeze of inviting customers to send in photos of and details about themselves with the vague carrot that they might be able to appear as models in the catalogue (although judging by its pages there’s scant evidence that any ever do). Johnny’s staff forms these photos and details into a giant picture collage to illustrate a “type” who is likely to respond to the fantasy by spending money on “fun tank-tops" or “checky pullons”.

So do middle-aged, middle-class, educated women really harbour unfulfilled adolescent fantasies of appearing as catalogue models? And, more worryingly, do they fantasise about regressing to childhood?

Johnny seems to think so. And in 40 years time, our grown children may well believe that was the pinnacle of our aspiration.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Beyond irony

Why do women’s magazines make their readers miserable? Last week, Women in Journalism highlighted how the websites of magazines aimed at girls as young as 10 were using “lads’ mags tactics” by encouraging readers to upload photos of themselves in order to rate their own and others bodies.

The campaign group pointed to Bliss magazine, whose website ran a feature encouraging teenagers to rate their own thighs, legs and breasts with the options “happy”, “hate ‘em” and “ewwww”.

The tactic is nothing new. It’s been 17 years since Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth convinced us that the cosmetics industry’s relationship with women’s magazines was symbiotic. The magazines hack away at their readers’ self-confidence in order to create a market for the “solutions” – the products their advertisers sell. Most women's magazine readers know this and accept it for the ludicrous exchange that it is, but such sophistication is a lot to ask of 10 year-olds.

What is new is the casual acceptance of body rating, among both readers and editorial staff. A whole generation of young journalists working on Bliss and its clones presumably regard such features as acceptable. And why wouldn’t they, given that they have grown up with lads’ mag “irony” and a belief that feminism is not of use to them.