Pop Feminism and The Daily Mail

I was told two surprising things this week.

  1. I should read the Daily Mail.
  2. Post Feminism = Twerking.

Let me explain. The Daily Mail first. I love to hate The Daily Mail as much as the next liberal, but ever pragmatic and open-minded, I had to recognise that a good researcher can’t afford to be snobbish, and The Daily Mail was a very good source of data.

Second, twerking. During a discussion about the changing face of feminism, I summed up post feminism as ‘power women in high heels and lipstick’. To which my friend agreed, ‘yes, and twerking… post feminism is twerking’. Which brought us on to, of course, Miley Cyrus, and her wonderful contribution to feminist theory, and the latest pop star to board the feminist bandwagon, Lily Allen, who has used her pop comeback to send a political message to the world.

So, being the dutiful student that I am, I got up the next morning, put aside my huge pile of reading, and got myself on to youtube.

If post feminism is twerking, Lily Allen certainly isn’t a fan: ‘don’t need to shake my arse for you cos I’ve got a brain’, she sings sweetly. But the thing is, she does. Shake her arse, that is. And more. There’s more twerking in this video, and almost as much sexually explicit ‘dancing’, as in Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’. Ok, I get that Allen’s video is meant to be a parody of pornographic displays like Cyrus’s, but for me it just reinforces the status quo that a female pop star can’t release a video that doesn’t contain half-naked women imitating sexual acts. And this is where Allen has been criticised.

What alternative is Allen presenting for young women?  If it’s true that actions speak louder than words, then I think someone like Adele is a much better role model.  I followed up ‘It’s Hard out Here’ with Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’. Now I have to admit I’m a bit biased here because I LOVE Adele and won’t hear a word said against her. And that’s because she commands respect; as a musician, and nothing else. Her ‘Rolling in the Deep’ video pays tribute to her song; to the incessant drum beat that penetrates the music, reverberating through countless glasses of water (à la Jurassic Park T-Rex scene); the sea of glass showing the fragility of the relationship; the broken crockery mirroring the broken pieces of her heart. Ok, it sounds corny. But it’s a good video, and if you haven’t already, you should watch it.

Adele doesn’t twerk. She doesn’t even need to stand up. She just sings. She has one, fully-clothed, androgynous dancer who adds power and drama, not sex, animating the words of the song with a dynamic and beautifully choreographed piece. There is no nudity; nothing close to it, and nothing sexual about the performance. Now there’s a feminist role model young women can look up to. And there’s a song (video included) with a message. You don’t have to shake your booty to tell a story. Or to become a world-famous (female) artist.

Avoiding the temptation to spend the whole day ‘researching’ on youtube, I took myself to the newsagent for the second part of my ‘assignment’. I was tempted to bring a paper bag for my purchase, but then I remembered that a good researcher can’t be a snob about these things.

If anyone can be accused of objectifying women, it’s the British tabloids, in which the objectification of women has been well documented. So I thought I’d do a little experiment, whilst getting my daily fix of ‘news’, and document all the references to women in The Daily Mail.

It might have been interesting to look at all the visual representations of women (and men) in the paper; there were certainly of couple of fascinating articles which centred around images – one about The Duchess of Cambridge wearing a dress she’d worn before (I know, unbelievable, but  true), and one about women wearing dresses that don’t cover much flesh (how appalling! The Daily Mail ‘despises’ these ‘why bother dresses’, and to prove the point, they’ve devoted a full page to images of women wearing them! I can’t help but think there’s a connection to Lily Allen here). But I didn’t spend much time on the visuals, deciding instead just to read the articles, and note, as I went along, references to men and women.

So, results are in, and the news about the Daily Mail news is that there aren’t many women in it. Out of 41 articles, 12 exclusively referred to men. There was no mention of any women in these stories at all. These ‘all male’ articles included a story about mortgage deals, police fiddling crime stats, teenage drinking and whether morris dancers are offensive or not. To be fair, there were three articles which exclusively referenced women. They were all about nurses and/ or (having) children: one about the shortage of nurses, one about why women put off having children (‘Childless at 35? Your job may be to blame’; this was a personal favourite of mine) and one about a midwife causing the death of a baby.

The rest of the (26) articles included men and women, though often not by equal degrees; 6 of these included a much higher proportion of men. I could have spent all day, all week even, analysing the fine details of the representation of men and women in The Daily Mail, but unfortunately I don’t have that luxury (remember that mountain of books I mentioned?) so I’ll just note a couple more points of interest. Two patterns stood out like a sore thumb. First, men are experts. Throughout the paper, it was largely men who were quoted when an ‘expert’ opinion was needed. Women were largely quoted as ‘laypeople’ (passers-by, neighbours), or in familial roles (wives, daughters, mothers), although of course there are an increasing number of female politicians, in particular, encroaching into the ‘expert’ space. The most striking feature about women, I thought, was that they were nearly always the victims. Of the 10 articles which referenced a clear ‘victim’, 9 focused on an hapless female.

I’ll leave you to join the dots here, but I think it’s safe to say that Lily Allen, in her lyrics at least, has a point: ‘we’ve never had it so good, we’re out of the woods, and if you can’t detect the sarcasm you’ve misunderstood’.

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