Faux pas

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My friend Brenda has this great theory about the Nineties, and how everything has gone from ironic to faux. "So, we used to have faux ocelot and faux pony," says Brenda in her fabulous Toronto drawl, "but now we have faux relaxation and faux commitment, and faux Zen. I think it's something to do with virtual reality and the principle of osmosis."

Last week Brenda's theory took on a vivid, almost hallucinatory quality, as the nation's press went into faux frenzy over whether or not fashion pix were degrading British women. Really, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. But there it was in black-and-white and throbbing purple, splashed across the Standard, Telegraph, Times, Guardian and Sun. The overall theme was that fashion mags are dragging us into a moral abyss, with pictures of bare-breasted models licking blood from meat cleavers and suchlike.

The instigator was Laraine Ashton, who seems to be emerging as the First Lady of Faux Feminism. Ms Ashton, a 49-year-old former model who runs the IMG modelling agency, denounced three magazines - Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and Dazed and Confused - as "sex obsessed". She accused them of "exploiting women" and promoting "filth". She also proclaimed: "Something which is tantalising and sophisticated is all right and that is what sex should be, not something that is cheapened."

Model, agent, aesthete, arbiter of erotic taste - there seems no end to Ms Ashton's talents. How can we have overlooked her for so long? Parliament sorely needs women of her calibre, especially on those drab back benches. And why shouldn't policy be conveyed in the form of fashion statements? If we cannot expect honesty from our politicians, at least they could give us a few make-up tips.

A slack-jawed press overlooked the fact that Laraine is merely rubbing our cultural G-spot, dishing out a little moral relief. There is no real critique at all. Faux feminism is simply holographic outrage. It seems to have three dimensions, but when you turn it over there's nothing behind it. If Laraine truly wants to address the exploitation and degradation of women, she should start at the beginning.

Women hold fewer positions in public life in Britain than in virtually any other member state of the European Union. According to a prominent politician: "There are no women whips in the Tory party, never have been, and, on present form, never will be. To me this is an utter disgrace. This gives the lie to the Prime Minister's speeches... and implies that women are second-class citizens." You know who said that? A Conservative, Laraine. They're the ones in blue.

Women are vastly under-represented in the judiciary, academia, private industry, trades unions, and many other areas where appointments are supposedly made on the basis of merit. Women are economically disadvantaged in our society. The abolition of wage councils in 1993 affected women far more than men, because women constitute about 80 per cent of the country's lowest-paid workers. Women commit far fewer crimes than men, but are often imprisoned for relatively minor offences. Between a quarter and a third of all women in prison are there for non-payment of fines. The civil rights of prostitutes are routinely violated in Britain, and the law is tilted against women. While it is not illegal for a man to pay for sex, it is illegal for a "common prostitute" to solicit for trade. Is that "tantalising and sophisticated" enough for you, Laraine?

Images are modified by their context. Complaining about disturbing photos in the style press is like moaning about dog shit in the street. It's there, and if it gets on your shoes now and again, so what? Surely there are more important issues at stake than the mess on your carpet?

A pretty girl with her tits out licks a bloody meat cleaver. Her tongue makes a nice shape. Provocative, but hardly pornographic. One might even argue that women will indeed have to take up weapons, and learn some form of butchery if they are to wield any power in this world. In fact, the more you think about it, the more it seems an image appropriate to our times. In a faux shocking kind of way, of course