This weekend, actress Romola Garai (The Hour, Atonement, One Day) came out as the latest high-profile backer in the Lose The Lads' Mags campaign, which aims to persuade Tesco to stop selling lads' mags or at least to hide their explicit covers. If it succeeds, the end result will be to put lads' mags out of business.
She has been open about the fact that she has been "part of the problem", benefiting from roles and photo shoots that play on her looks and sexuality, but says she now she wants to be part of the solution, too. She has a "small ambition": by the time her daughter is an adult she "can enjoy the experience of living as a human being rather than being purely defined by her gender at every turn".
Hypocrite! cries the Daily Mail and other critics. You can't denounce sexual objectification via a platform that you've built based on sexy roles and photo shoots!
Well, you can, actually. Sometimes, sadly, it's the only way. Such is the sexism inherent in our media and film industries, using our sexuality is sometimes the only way for women to build enough of a platform to have something to shout from. (In case you're wondering what I mean about the sexism, here are some first-hand examples from Jennifer Saunders, Alice Arnold and Ellen Page).
I wish this weren't the case. I'm sure every woman who has built a platform also wishes she'd got where she'd got on the basis of what she was saying or doing, rather than how she looked, but sadly we're in a situation where many (not all, but too many) female roles on TV and in film are two-dimensional and sexualised and where media coverage of women - across broadcast, print and web - is still heavily dependent on the sexy pic to go with the article.
I've experienced it first-hand, having recently pitched a piece to a national newspaper about some of the hard-hitting issues relating to my latest novel, Feral Youth. The editor accidentally hit 'reply' instead of 'forward', sending me the message he had intended to send his boss. It read:
"Up for this? She takes a good pic."
Did I write the article? Yes. Did I agree to them taking a picture of me in their studio, wearing one of their cutesy little dresses, portraying me as some kind of dollybird? Yes. Did I feel fraudulent and dirty, knowing that my qualification for writing the piece was based partly on looks? YES. I was all too aware of the irony, given that my previous book, It's a Man's World, explored the impact of objectification used in lads' mags on readers and on wider society. But I felt passionate about sharing my experiences and views on what I considered to be an important subject (disenfranchised youth). I was being given the opportunity to reach millions. Why would I turn that down?
I'm sure Romola Garai would prefer to have carved out a career based solely on her acting prowess in the way that her male counterparts have done - not just for her own self-esteem, but so that she could be assured an uncompromised position when it comes to calling out other examples of sexism (e.g. lads' mags).
Unfortunately, many women (not all, but a distressing proportion) still end up using their looks in order to have a voice with which to speak out. We don't want to. We don't ask for it to be this way. We are just at the mercy of industry powerhouses caught up in the belief that sex sells.
Romola Garai has a voice. Surely we should applaud her for using it instead of blaming her for the obstacles she had to climb to earn it?
By the way, if you're in any doubt about the validity of the #LoseTheLadsMags arguments, you should watch this debate between Anna van Heeswijk (the articulate one) and ex-FHM editor Piers Hernu (the one with the sparkly necklace) on BBC News:
Polly Courtney is the author of six novels including It's a Man's World, which is set in the offices of the UK's leading lads' mag and is based on her own experiences in the media industry.
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