I’m late to this party, for which I apologise (busy, busy, work, applications, work, no internet, and other general life interferences – none of which are an excuse for not writing anything on here since February), but fortunately my point is one that can be stretched to meet various instances of a recurring form of awareness-raising activism that, though sometimes funny and effective, rarely manages to be wholly unproblematic.
I will be taking issue primarily with the message of Kira Cochrane’s article in The Guardian last month, entitled ‘Gender-flips are a simple and smart way to turn sexism on its head’. Cochrane lists a number of examples of the ‘gender-flip’, in which instances of objectification of women to which the general public is assumed to have become inured are highlighted by posing a man in the same style. Some of these examples are, indeed, pertinent, as they send up the industry that produces them – for instance, Jim C. Hines’s imitations and analyses of men’s and women’s poses on the covers of certain fantasy novels. Crucial here, though, is that these characters are fictional, the covers often illustrations or stylised photos, and that the attack is clearly on the industry’s readiness to buy into and promote social conditioning, and that the humour Hines uses to get his point across is self-deprecating.
Unfortunately, the two examples that have received most media attention recently carry much more poisonous undertones. The anything-but-subtle racist and classist implications of the viral video ‘Majorité Opprimée’ (‘Oppressed Majority’) have already been addressed elsewhere. What prompted Cochrane’s article, however, was Bondi Hipsters’ ‘inversion’ of Miranda Kerr’s photoshoot for British GQ. Whilst this project technically qualifies as a gender flip, substituting a heavily bearded man in the poses and outfits modelled by Kerr in the shoot, I am unsure why critics seem to want to give it credit for combatting media sexism – to me, it seems rather to propagate it, as the object of ridicule in the parody shoot doesn’t seem to be the magazine or the media industry in general, but Kerr herself.
The photo series and the interview are clearly tailored to give the impression that Kerr wished to model in this way, perhaps at her own suggestion (if she was pressured to do this in any way, that only makes the parody less excusable). She speaks openly about her sex life and her attraction to both women and men. Dom Nader, of Bondi Hipsters, poses for photos embellished with comments such as ‘If I was really smashed I’d give a guy a wristy… I just wouldn’t tell anyone… Especially not a mahgazine’. The parody, therefore, seems not only to ridicule a woman and a member of the LGBT community for exposing herself, but, rather than questioning the objectification of women by the media industry, seems to blame Kerr for working within it and being subject to its demands. I need hardly point out, furthermore, that the comment I have quoted above also makes light of the experience of feeling ashamed of sexual actions either for fear of societal disapproval or after being forced into them.
Narratives of oppression are rarely simple, which explains why they have proved so insidious and persistent. Sexism is rarely completely reducible to men—good—women—bad: women from different social groups experience different aspects of oppression, and social differences between women mean that they are often played out against one another and complicit in oppressing other women in different ways. Social issues cannot be addressed in a social vacuum. I have not read Noughts and Crosses and therefore cannot comment on the novel, but I remember being startled by the ways in which a BBC radio adaptation broadcast a few years ago persisted in propagating dominant class and gender narratives, and still ended up putting forward a white saviour. What the Bondi Hipster parody ended up doing was using the guise of anti-sexist art to allow privileged men to ridicule a bisexual woman for taking her knickers off and talking about sex and masturbation – and to be applauded as acute social commentators for doing so.
This seems to me to be symptomatic of the individualisation of society, which attempts to shunt the blame for societal problems onto single scapegoats. Miranda Kerr is not responsible for the culture that wants to print her nipples on glossy paper to sell a magazine – she works in a society where objectification is endemic and people will want to talk about her nipples whether she shows them or not. Society is structured in such a way that the choice to take our clothes off or not is not a free one – and ridiculing a woman for posing nude and talking about sex is setting us back decades.