SubScribe: Doris Lessing, Helen Mirren and the return of silly sexist tokenism Google+

Monday 18 November 2013

Doris Lessing, Helen Mirren and the return of silly sexist tokenism

All four 'serious' papers chose pictures of women of pensionable age as their main front-page image today.

Hurrah! They've seen the light. It's time to celebrate.

Is it? Or is it time to rummage in the attic for some old dungarees and posters? Or time to throw a blanket over my knees and take up knitting?

Helen Mirren was last night named best actress at the Evening Standard theatre awards. This guaranteed her a slot on the Telegraph front and The Times was happy to join in.

The Guardian and Independent, too, saluted the arts. They printed large photographs of Doris Lessing, who has died aged 94. (I am not going to insult you - or her - by attaching a description.)

The Mail also plumped for Mirren. The Sun and Star used - and I mean used - the model Amy Willerton. The Express had the Strictly Come Dancing star Abbey Clancey.

The Mirror ran a news story, albeit hidden behind an advertising wrap-around. So much for casual sales.

Inside all of these papers are reports about Google censoring images of child sexual abuse and the debate about the age of consent. Columnists pitch in with commonsense opinions on gender and sexuality. But these are just words. Words to be squeezed round the edges of endless pictures of women in various states of undress.

You expect it of the tabs, and the Telegraph has form - SubScribe wrote at length on it last year. Now The Times has taken to using women as eye candy, regardless of the relevance to the story. It can only be a matter of time before we see bikini-clad lovelies draped over sleek cars at Earls Court - if we're going back to Sixties mentality, we may as well embrace the language.

There was nothing wrong with the picture of Mirren on the front, although I'd love to know if that was a tattoo or a stonking great ring on her right hand. And the paper acknowledges Lessing with a double-width teaser at the bottom to a story on page 5. This is the next premium slot, since pages 2 and 3 had been sold to HSBC.

The paper would not normally run the same main picture on the front and 3, so the front-page division is fair if you don't think Lessing is more worthy of a page 1 story, but that's a big if. Inside there is a picture of the youthful Lessing at her typewriter at the top of the page, but the mono image is clearly not glam enough for today's Times, so we have a cutout of two blonde actresses  in a film adaptation of one of her books to break up the text.

Over the page and we're back beyond the Sixties with a half-page photograph of some debs in Dubai. In case anyone under 50 is reading, debutantes were privileged young women who went to a lot of parties in search of husbands. The gay social season involved them 'coming out' and being 'presented at court', neither of which had anything to do with homosexuality or crime (perhaps I should say 'or other crimes', since homosexuality was itself a crime in those days). The antics of these glittering gals were documented on the court and social pages and in the Tatler. Their single contribution to society being to inspire the stricture in The Times style book
'The plural of ball is dances'. 
That's enough reminiscing, time to get back to the future. The quintet on page 6 of today's Times are taking part in an event 'arranged by the London Season Academy in Dubai, which offers classes in etiquette and social and business protocol'. We are not told what the event is, nor indeed offered any explanation of why this group of white Western women have decamped to the UAE. For more information, try page 15 of the Telegraph.

Back at The Times, Mirren reappears photographically as the Queen for the coverage of the Evening Standard awards. There's also a picture of Billie Piper, also nominated for the best actress award, with her husband Laurence Fox. There's Maggie Smith (Theatre Icon winner) with Kristin Scott Thomas, another on the best actress shortlist.  Damian Lewis, who hosted the event, is photographed with his wife Helen McCrory and the artist Grayson Perry. So far, so sensible. But dominating the page, for no reason other than her body, is Hayley Atwell.

The Captain America star has just completed a London theatre run and was at the Savoy to present the best actor award, but this information was not confided to Times readers. Jude Law was also there to present Mirren with her gong, but his picture is inexplicably missing.

Turning the page again reveals a pouting Jennifer Aniston illustrating a story headlined
Sex? Women prefer to turn on the television
This priceless piece of journalism tells us that one in five women questioned had cancelled a night out so that they could watch television, and that seven out of ten would rather stay in and watch TV in their pyjamas than dress up for a night on the town. The statistics came from a survey of 2,000 women for NOW TV, 'powered by Sky', which has just introduced a
'contract-free Entertainment Month Pass, which lets customers stream shows live and on demand in seconds'
We have no idea how the 2,000 were chosen to offer their opinions, whether they were stopped in the street at random or perhaps induced by the offer of a discount or a gift voucher to fill in an online questionnaire. News Corp, which owns the Times, also owns most of Sky. But of course there's nothing puffy about the piece at all.

Sitting alongside the TV survey is another about what people promise each other in specially printed cards that they can buy online and have delivered to their loved ones (rather than talk to each other). I guess the survey was supposed to surprise us with details of what men think women want from them and vice versa. Men promise to listen more and empty the bins; women offer to pick their blokes up from the pub and to nag less. Or at least some people have apparently sent cards  making such pledges. I know what I'd think if my other half spent a tenner on a card telling me he'd do his household chores.

Will Lion, marketing director of I Promise, told SubScribe: 'We started last year and sales have really picked up in the lead up to Christmas, which is really exciting.' Unfortunately he was unable 'to share any specific sales data right now'  but, by coincidence, 'just today we put a whole load of our favourite promises on flickr'. He later came back to say that the survey had been based on thousands of orders.

Well, good luck to Mr Lion and his enterprise. But it's hard to imagine why a quality paper would think this newsworthy - unless it happened to be devoting the cover and a spread in its features section to differences between what men and women think and it was in search of a cross-ref.

But before we go there, let's finish the main paper. The opening spread of the overseas news section is another excellent report from Richard Lloyd-Parry on the Philippines typhoon. Further back, however, our token women resurface with a double column picture of a pair of smiling actresses with the caption:
Stars out Hillary Swank and Sharon Stone arrive at a fundraiser for Aids in Mumbai

Just that. No more. If this doesn't seem odd, imagine if the caption said only

Governors' meeting Mervyn King and Mark Carney arrive at an eco-summit in Pisa  
Business news meanwhile kicks off with a photograph of a model in sunglasses and a white flouncy outfit that's a cross between Adam Ant and principle boy. The caption explains
Paul Smith products for women and men are among The Hut's many offerings

This illustrates a story about the 'online lifestyle, health and beauty retailer backed by the high street veterans Sir Stuart Rose and Sir Terry Leahy'.

The company is looking for 200 graduates. Previous recruits included a Chinese student who excelled at Cambridge. The Hut was so impressed by him that it paid his final year fees and also offered his father a job. This anecdote has been mangled to such an extent that the point of the story is concealed from the intro, which says

Father and son need apply to The Hut only if the latter came top of his class at Cambridge.

It's fair enough to try to find an interesting way into a story, but it is always best if it is comprehensible. This was not only confusing, but also gave the impression that only men were being recruited.

And so, finally, to Times2.  By the time the reader reaches pages 4 and 5 of the supplement (via Will Pavia drowning in long-legged models in underwear), he or she has seen a page one puff and a Times2 cover with two apparently naked people facing each other across the question

What do men and women worry about?

(clue: it's not the same things)

The inside heading also asks
What's on your mind? The top 20 worries for women and men today 
The standfirst explains that we're 80% better off than our mothers' generation, yet we are 71% more anxious and that all our worries come home to roost as Christmas approaches, concluding... 'these are the top 20'.

With that sort of billing you expect some kind of scientific, psychological or sociological examination of modern concerns and how they differ between the sexes. The word 'women', plural,  appears in the head, the standfirst and the WOB label. But what lies beneath are 20 issues raised by just one woman - the feature writer Shane Watson. Alongside are another 20 identified by Alex Blimes, editor of Esquire magazine. Who knew that quinoa was keeping men awake at night, with only house prices, Jeremy Paxman's beard and the children's legacy more worrying?

It's fairly entertaining reading, and nobody denies these two or anyone else their opinions. But to present them as a definitive rundown of people's biggest concerns - or even as being vaguely representative - is bonkers.

Newspapers trying to make their way in the digital world should take note that this sort of selling short is not tolerated on the internet. Mislead a reader once and they won't come back.

So today's Phwooar Award for Trivial and Sexist Journalism goes to The Times, with an honourable mention for Mail Online, which managed to run ten photographs of Ms Atwell in her Cher-type sheath (plus one of a model in the same Julien Macdonald dress).

Now that's out of the way, we can settle down to smile at the Independent's charming front page photograph of Doris Lessing. It was taken by Kieran Doherty five years ago when she slumped on her doorstep after arriving home laden with shopping to learn that she had won the Nobel prize for literature. Time, too, to savour the Guardian's front-page piece on the author by Margaret Atwood. Now that is imaginative commissioning.

There is a place in most newspapers for lightweight frippery to balance the gloom, for pictures of pretty women and cuddly animals, for stories about the likes of Harry Styles and Miley Cyrus. But papers that consider themselves purveyors of serious journalism need to keep these trifles in their place. Is yet another picture of a glammed-up Helen Mirren always preferable to one of a laughing nonogenarian?

Mirren has won a boxful of trinkets for her impersonation of the Queen. Well done her. But there are other proponents of the arts whose work can be said to have eclipsed hers. Doris Lessing is one.

When John Tavener died last week only the Guardian made him their main picture.
The Times had good reason for limiting his presence on the front to a teaser, since it devoted the page to the typhoon.
But what about the Independent? A half page picture of Sir Peter Higgs and no mention of Tavener on the front.
And the Telegraph? Tavener was given seven words in the top puff while the main three-column picture was of that unfamiliar figure, the Duchess of Cornwall.

Seamus Heaney was given similarly short shrift by The Times and the Telegraph when he died in August.

Most of us see getting old as better than the alternative. Some of us, including newspaper editors such as John Witherow and Paul Dacre, are well on the way. They would presumably argue that they continue to occupy their seats of great power largely because of their experience. Yet they fail to acknowledge the virtues of maturity in others.

Do we live in a society that disregards the likes of Heaney, Tavener and Lessing just because they don't appear on reality TV shows? And if we do, is it not the role of our media to honour such great talents, rather than to hide them away from the front pages because they don't look pretty in a skintight dress?

Which takes me back to my dilemma. Do I dig out the protest kit and march against tokenism - or admit I'm past it and buy some knitting needles?



1 comment:

  1. I'd knit a scarf and then join the march!