Bikinis, burqas and flat brown shoes: female role models in the 21st Century

Sunday 31 October, 3.45pm until 5.15pm, Student Union

If once it was feminists who campaigned against the objectification of women, now it’s a Conservative prime minister, backed up by Mumsnet. David Cameron has made headlines condemning the ‘commercialisation and sexualisation’ of young girls. There is widespread outrage over retailers selling t-shirts bearing Playboy bunnies, toy pole-dancing kits, and lingerie deemed unsuitable for prepubescence. Figures like Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse are criticised for making ‘sluttishness’ fashionable. Does this backlash represent a new wave of feminism, or rather old-fashioned moralism about female sexuality? It was the third wave ‘lipstick’ feminism of recent years that urged us to move beyond worrying about sexist images and appearance. Out went the bra-burners and dungarees; in came new female icons like the characters from Sex and the City. But given that recent surveys of teenage girls have found more than half would consider being ‘glamour’ models, and a third see Katie Price as a role model, have things gone too far? Do we really want our daughters, sisters - ourselves - to aspire to such diminished caricatures of ‘independent’ women? One of the New Feminism’s original architects, Natasha Walter, certainly thinks there’s a problem. In her latest book Living Dolls, The Return of Sexism she admits, ‘I was wrong’ to suggest feminists should focus on political equality and not worry about the ‘raunch culture’ of celebrities, pole dancing and an increasingly blatant sexualisation of women and girls. ‘The language of empowerment has been harnessed to confuse sexual liberation with sexual objectification,’ she writes.

Many young women do complain bitterly that they are valued for their appearance rather than achievements, intelligence and talent. But can feminists challenge unwelcome objectification without then policing the drunken fun of ladettes, imposing models of correct female behaviour, and tut tutting if girls choose to wear clothes deemed inappropriate? Is it helpful if feminists back up conservative criticisms of everything from frilly pink pants for children to ‘size zero’ models? Young Muslim women who embrace the hijab often claim they want to avoid the harassment of the ‘male gaze’. But it’s not just religious conservatives who worry about pressures on young women to dress provocatively. Does an unease about ‘sexualisation’ constitute a challenge to sexism, or simply distaste for modern life and openness about sexuality?

Finally, does it not matter if women tend to care about their appearance more than men? Or are there still unanswered questions about the true meaning of sexual liberation and equality? Is the battle for formal political, legal and equality between the sexes really over, so all that’s left to fight over is bikinis and burqas?

Listen to session audio:

 

Speakers
Dr Maria Grasso
lecturer in politics, University of Sheffield

Carol Dyhouse
research professor in history, University of Sussex; author, Glamour: women, history, feminism

Mary Evans
emeritus professor, School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent, Canterbury; Centennial Professor at the LSE Gender Institute

Fran Hoenderkamp
feminist actvist; news editor, UK Feminista website

Chair:
Sarah Boyes
freelance writer and editor; assistant editor, Culture Wars; editor, Battles in Print 2010

Produced by
Sarah Boyes freelance writer and editor; assistant editor, Culture Wars; editor, Battles in Print 2010
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