all lads together
After the backlash comes the backlash against the backlash. As beer-swilling New Lads strut their stuff in magazines and on TV, now it's women's turn to start behaving badly. Enter the ladette
Sunday 24 December 1995
It's a new turn in the seemingly unstoppable rise and rise of laddishness. Loaded, which launched only a year ago, is already the official ABC top selling men's magazine. The style is brash and, in defiance of the formula for most glossy magazines, downmarketly unaspirational. It gives the reader what he wants, not what he thinks he should want. This month's issue features a photo spread revealing "top game show totty" plus interviews with Freddie Starr and Jack Dee, the requisite football feature and as many semi-naked women as one can possibly cram in without necessitating a move to the top shelf.
The success of Loaded is evidenced not just by the magazine's rocketing sales, but also by its influence on other men's lifestyle titles. Arena and GQ, the latter particularly under the late Michael Vermeulen, have increased their sex content, developed attitude, and dropped PC. Lads are everywhere - comedy has produced a new breed of comics such as David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, heavy on toilet humour and football; the Sun is back in fashion; Paul Calf in Coogan's Run; even in the world of politics Kenneth Clarke has brought lager to Number 11, while Michael Portillo and Bill Clinton are illustrative of political New Lads.
There is no mystery as to why this has happened. Everyone agrees on the reason. Laddishness is two fingers to feminism. It's a reaction to the long, slow negation of traditionally masculine interests which is deemed to be the result of feminism. At GQ, whose last issue featured a lingerie pull-out special, deputy editor Philip Watson declared it was "a reaction against the absurd idea of the New Man, who was a construct without basis in theory or practice. There was always a laddish side to men's behaviour and now it's all right again for men to be laddish. Our ethos here is `it's fun to be a guy' and the magazine is a celebration of that, not an apology."
But there's more to it than that. Loaded, in particular, is so self-consciously, stereotypically masculine it's hard not to flick through its determined (ironic!) debasement of women, its surfeit of sport, and its toilet humour, without the sense that they protest too much - that what you are hearing is less an Iron John roar of the reassertion of the beauty of the masculine than the squeaking of hard-squeezed pips. It all seems a little desperate. Indeed it has already been remarked that the new men's magazines are really read by liberal, middle-class men. They are wannabe lads who have been pushed too far and want to rekindle their laddish elements. Real lads read Razzle.
At Demos, the independent think-tank, Helen Wilkinson has studied changing attitudes among young women and young men. An ongoing project is a study of young men which will appear in the new year. She says the rise of the lad is definitely "a backlash-type reaction to PC" but with a difference. The magazines are a testimony less to the failure of feminism than its success. "Feminism has squeezed them so much that for men this is the only space where they can be laddish. They used to behave like that in the pub. Now they can't." Although the magazines bridge a number of constituencies and do hold appeal with those who feel genuinely aggrieved by feminism, they are in the main self-parodying in their over-masculinized stance. Perhaps it's a deliberate counterpoint to the give-away sachets of scent and the fashion spreads; for the truth is that men's magazines now share the frivolous ground they once sneered at women's magazines for occupying.
This is the reason that, to the surprise of older women, particularly older feminists, young women are not threatened by laddishness. They think it is funny. For their world is one in which Panorama asks "Does the Future Belong to Women?" and other programmes ask "What Are Men For?" They've seen the press, read the articles and whether the predictions are right or wrong, for once they feel that they are in the ascendant. So where does that leave The Girlie Show? Trying to do for women what others have done for men? If male laddishness is a reassertion of masculine behaviour in the face of the rise of the monstrous regiment, what is female laddishness? What Demos's research shows is that among younger age groups, the genders are becoming more and more alike. Minus a few laddish excesses, men are basically feminising while women are becoming more masculine. Among the 15-17 age group, women for the first time have overtaken men in emphasising the importance of values like hedonism, risk taking and seeking excitement. So in theory at least there is a market for The Girlie Show.
In a sense it's territory which has been gone over before, although not tackled head-on. Channel 4 already has Dressing for Breakfast which is girls behaving badly (or desperately). Absolutely Fabulous's Patsy was a lad. Other well-known women inclined to behave like the worst sort of men are Madonna, Courtney Love, Sandra Bernhardt and Chrissie Hynde - before motherhood and meat got to her. kd lang is too attractive to be a lad, although her language is getting there. The girl band Fluff wear mini-skirts (with bare legs in winter), talk hard and market themselves - but their anti-men stance lacks the insouciance of the true lad. Janet Street Porter is a real lad by deed and reputation and one of the few I have ever met - even surrounding herself with men named Del and Darryl.
Donna McPhail is a stand-up comic and also presenter of BBC2's The Sunday Show. She is a lad by her own admission - or "ladette" to use her word. But she reckons she is one of a very few "out" lads who drink, club, don't wear make up and are not afraid of physical aggression. I suggest some well-known women who behave like lads but she is dismissive. The problem is, she explains, that women can't afford really to be lads except in private. "They can go so far but if they went the whole way, as men do, they'd end up losing out." Male censure is what has so far succeeded in keeping most women's excesses in check. As McPhail, who is gay and therefore free to do as she likes, kindly commiserates: "At the end of the day, women want to get a shag and so they can't behave too badly."
Imogen Edwards-Jones, a columnist for Arena, says an article she wrote on penis size earned her abusive mail and one man even refused to sit next to her at dinner. What is called laddish behaviour in women in her view amounts to little more than "babe feminism". "You're supposed to entertain, be sexy and clever but never dominate or threaten. Women have had to put up with Page Three for ages but men haven't had that. They haven't got a sense of humour."
That is going to be The Girlie Show's problem. Television is commercial, visual and has to play to the biggest audiences. A programme portraying women behaving as they really do, might prove a bit strong for audience tastes. They are also aiming for a mixed audience and this may be why the production company Rapido TV has chosen an American supermodel, Rachel Williams, to front the show along with two other women. Mark Ford describes the programmes attitude as "feisty", which strikes another warning bell. "Feisty" is what Victorian heroines are, it smacks of the little woman. Lads aren't feisty. Ford also describes the show as "cleverer, smarter, less boorish, more flirtatious and naughty". This isn't laddishness either. Laddishness does not benefit from occupying the higher moral ground.
Donna McPhail says: "I don't want to watch a supermodel being a bit risque. I heard in the pilot they did a thing about periods. Real ladettes wouldn't f---ing bother talking about that. We've got better things to do. That's not laddishness any more than putting condoms on cucumbers and giggling."
Another proposed item is about the wives and girlfriends of footballers and their grim lives on awful estates by the football grounds. McPhail gave it the thumbs down. Lads don't sympathise with women they see as doormats and nor are they politically right-on. "Stupid bitches, serves them right," was her response.
Other items will include following a group of Newcastle lads around, which doesn't promise to yield much we don't already know and `Girl's Night Out' an anthropological, fly-on-the-wall feature which may yet give us something more concrete. What about naked men? I ask Ford. Surely they're a must. Yes, there will be naked men. Full-frontals too? Well ... maybe not. But there is an item on breaking the taboo on words for female genitalia, which sounds interesting. Ford is concerned he will lose his male audience - there we go again.
In a final effort to persuade me of The Girlie Show's integrity, Ford tells me that despite the fact that the programme was commissioned by a man and will be a series produced by a man (himself) the rest of the staff are rather laddish women who will be listened to. To this end he tells me a story. Two messengers came for a job in the production office. One was very experienced. The other was without any experience whatsoever but looked just like Brad Pitt. Despite the disparity in qualifications, and at the insistence of the entire office of women, the Pitt look-alike was given the job. Now that's progress! Isn't it?
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