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Joanna Williams: Censorious feminism ultimately backfires
18 Oct 2017
BY JOANNA WILLIAMS
Joanna Williams. Credit: Julian Anderson

The frazzled but happy mum, single-handedly putting dinner on the table for her boisterous family, might be an advertising cliché but it’s one we’ll no longer see on our screens. Following lobbying by feminist campaigners, the Advertising Standards Association (ASA) now prohibits gender stereotypes in adverts.

According to the ASA’s chief executive, images of women doing the cleaning or men making a mess of household chores, “reinforce outdated and stereotypical views” and “play their part in driving unfair outcomes for people”. The ban on sexist stereotypes followed the 2015 protests over Protein World’s “beach body ready” adverts and London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s subsequent promise to rid the Tube of adverts presenting “a damaging attitude towards body image”.

Feminism today appears to be more concerned with images than reality. Worse, it risks portraying women as dumb enough to confuse adverts with instructions and so fragile they wilt at the sight of a skinny model. But instead of standing up to these patronising bans and insisting women can cope with adverts, many feminists argue for yet more censorship.

Khan subsequently came under fire for not taking down a different advert from the same company featuring Khloe Kardashian. Transport for London now bans all adverts that don’t promote “body positivity” although how this is defined is not clear. Most recently Heist, a company selling tights through an image of a fit, healthy and — yes — attractive woman dancer, was ordered to cover up the woman’s naked back.

To be a feminist today is, it seems, to support censorship rather than free expression. In the name of feminism university students have banned speakers, advertisements, posters, newspapers and greetings cards as well as, most famously, Robin Thicke’s hit song Blurred Lines from campuses across the UK. The Victorian idea that men will become rapacious at the sight of bare female flesh has been updated with an assumption that girls will develop anorexia if the flesh on display is too skinny. This insults men and patronises women.   

There has always been an uncomfortable relationship between feminism and free expression. Early campaigners fought for women’s rights to education, to work and to vote but many had their roots in the temperance movement and, at times, appeared more concerned with civilising men than liberating women. The sexual liberation of the 1960s and 1970s sat alongside attempts by radical feminists and conservatives alike to ban pornography. Every step of the way, the demand from some women for greater freedom has been met by calls from within feminism for free speech and free expression to be restricted. Today, a censorious strand of feminism is on the ascendancy as feminism increasingly becomes blurred with identity politics.

The notion that words and images inflict not physical but psychic harm on women assumes women are innately vulnerable and have a fragile sense of themselves; it assumes that a woman is not a robust individual so much as an ‘identity’ primarily constructed — and therefore potentially dismantled — through language. Language and images become pinpointed as the source of women’s oppression.

But this censorious feminism ultimately backfires. Women who insist on trigger warnings for literature classes and swoon at the sight of a sexist advert find it difficult to present themselves as strong and powerful at the same time. Ironically, it is often women, even women who define as feminists, who find themselves the target of disinvitation campaigns or have their talks shouted down. Over the past 12 months, notable feminists such as Germaine Greer, Linda Bellos and Julie Bindel have all been no-platformed from UK universities.

Today’s censorious feminism encourages women to see themselves as vulnerable. It promotes a self-infantilisation that sets the clock back on equality. We need a liberation movement that promotes free speech, not censorship.

Joanna Williams is speaking at the Battle of Ideas to launch her new book: Women vs Feminism: Why we all need liberating from the gender wars.

Battle of Ideas 2017

A weekend of thought-provoking public debate taking place on 28 and 29 October at the Barbican Centre. Join the main debates or satellite events.

Political activism and protest today
Recent years have seen something of a revitalisation of political protests and marches, but just what is protest historically and today?

Women vs feminism: Do we all need liberating from the gender wars? 
In many ways, it seems there has never been a better time to be a woman. But many women consider themselves disadvantaged and vulnerable.

Censorship and identity: Free speech for you but not for me?
Is identity politics the new tool of censorship and, if so, how should we respond?

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