Storm in a D-cup on the talkshow that time forgot
Last week's radio row over a sexy but tenuous photoshoot made me feel like I was at an Eighties feminist revival, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
SOME people believe that physical objects are capable of storing memories, and that if you could somehow tap into the stones of an ancient abbey, you'd hear the voices of the medieval monks chanting away as in days gone by, or pick up traces of conversations in Edwardian drawing rooms trapped inside the walls of the past residents' elegant townhouses.
Thankfully, the technology already exists to allow listeners to pick up strange voices from the past. It's called Liveline.
Tuning in to Joe Duffy's daily whingefest is a bit like getting a regular update from the land where time stood still. The sort of place where people still get unfeasibly annoyed and cry sexism at the sight of a pretty girl in a bikini. I blame the economy.
Recessions always breed nostalgia, and this one is no different. We've already had the return of socialism -- though that was mercifully shortlived -- and now the feminists are having a crack at a comeback.
It'll be leg-warmers next.
Last week's outrage was prompted by a photo shoot for Food & Wine magazine, which featured celebrity chef Neven Maguire posing with a plate of food next to a bikini-clad model called Georgia.
Hey, after all, it was a slow news day. What else could the Liveline team do but round up the usual suspects to denounce the manipulation of this poor young girl -- forced to strip to her two-piece with nothing but a plate of hors d'oeuvres to protect her dignity?
Despite the amount of time devoted to this thinnest of subjects -- I mean the issue of bikini clad models, not Georgia -- the details remained sketchy. The publisher of Food & Wine, Norah Casey, came on air, to announce that it was all a big mistake, it shouldn't have happened, she was off work currently, there was a new PR person involved, she'd apologised personally to Neven Maguire, the editor was horrified, they'd tried to recall the shoot, it wouldn't happen again, blah blah.
It was the classic response to a Liveline controversy -- desperately pass the buck, and throw yourself on the mercy of angry listeners. The show also attempted to contact Neven Maguire for an explanation, but he wisely retreated to the kitchen and left them to it.
Nobody appeared to have asked Georgia for an opinion, but that didn't matter because they had a long line of other women who could do her thinking for her -- bless her little brunette head -- all of whom were disgusted at this exploitation of the female body.
Now, there's a debate to be had about the use of the half-naked female form in advertising. There's also a debate to be had about how PR firms can continue to charge huge amounts of money to come up with campaigns so woefully lacking in originality.
But this wasn't that debate. It was basically taken for granted by all concerned that there was something demeaning about the "gratuitous" sight of a woman in a bikini, so Joe never bothered pinning down the exact reason why his callers felt so strongly about it.
The way was then left clear for a variety of callers to stir up this storm in a D-cup by asserting that such images encouraged rape and the early sexualisation of children.
One woman was even heard to denounce the images as evidence of a pernicious "hetronormativity" in society. Hmm, someone's clearly been going to Women's Studies classes, haven't they, dear?
It was like being transported back to the Eighties, when this sort of meaningless jargon was considered cutting-edge stuff by a cohort of group-herding feminists.
If there was one consistent argument put against the use of such images, it was that a woman in a bikini had nothing to do with the subject matter of the promotion, which was a food and wine magazine. But isn't that the nature of all advertising? A gorilla playing along to a Phil Collins song on the drums has nothing to with chocolate, but the ad firm employed by Cadbury's for their last campaign won awards for that one. Animal rights activists didn't jam the phone lines complaining about exploitation.
Young women also constantly use their own sexuality in a provocative way to get what they want. I'm just back from France, where young women were sashaying around in tiny bikinis all day, wiggling their bits at every passing man. That's the way of the world.
They want male attention. And they get it. What is the essential difference between promoting yourself as a sexual object, and using your sexuality to promote something else?
Is David Beckham being demeaned too when he poses on billboards in his Calvin Kleins? Is he a passive object of desire, or is it only women who can be victims? And is it only pictures of women in bikinis which are out of order, or models whose faces are chosen for ad campaigns purely because they look prettier than the rest of us? Are we not objectifying their noses and cheekbones at the expense of the whole person within?
I suspect the objection is exclusively to the display of a female model's naughty parts for advertising purposes, in which case it's starting to look not so much like a high-minded argument about objectification, but plain old-fashioned puritanism.
It's back to the conflict between those who want to reform human nature, ironing out what they see as its imperfections, and those who accept human nature for what it is, and work with it.
The fact is that straight men like looking at attractive women with not very many clothes on. We could engage in all sorts of social engineering to stop them doing that, but they'll still go on wanting to look, and we'll only have wasted our precious time by trying to stop them.
The responsibility not to be seen simply as a passive object of desire lies ultimately with women themselves. If you don't want to be judged purely on your looks or your body, then do something which makes people take notice of you for different reasons. Get a brain. Develop a working sense of humour. I dunno, build a bridge or something. That's what men do all the time. Energy spent moaning about other women in bikinis is energy wasted.
One caller last week actually declared that pictures like the one of Neven and Georgia peddle the myth that "women are here to please men and we're supposed to have these perfect bodies".
I honestly don't know any women who think that way -- and if I did, I'd avoid them like the plague. Real women just get on with their lives and careers and relationships. Tell them they should be having a nervous breakdown when they fail to live up to some imaginary ideal, and they'd just laugh and tell you to get stuffed. Feminists, though, are so outraged by every imagined slight perpetrated by men that they completely fail to miss some of the astonishing things which are said by other women.
The mother of Irish model Pippa O'Connor came on Liveline last week to defend her daughter's fellow models as lovely girls altogether, then said in passing that Pippa had never done bikini shoots because "Brian Ormond [the model's boyfriend] wouldn't have it, for starters".
I collapsed laughing, but there wasn't a peep from any of the other callers. It was as if it was perfectly OK for a woman to not do something because her man back home in the cave wouldn't stand for it, but not OK for another woman to make up her own mind that she would.
Proof again that if feminism is about anything, it's not giving personal freedom to women to make their own choices.
It's about getting other women to fit in with your idea of what they should be. That kind of attitude should be left back in history where it belongs.