Strange role models: Celebrities will not start the gender revolution

Accomplished women are still more likely to be judged on their appearance than their actions
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The Independent Online

Welcome to the age of Popular Feminism, in which consuming media can feel uncomfortably like judging a special sort of pageant. Role models for women are paraded before us, like so many beauty queens, then lauded or disqualified according to a set of often irrelevant criteria. Rihanna gets naked too often, Lena Dunham is too privileged and UN Women director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka hasn't been in enough Harry Potter movies.

That helps to explain why last week it was not Mlambo-Ngcuka's speech on the UN's HeForShe initiative that everyone was posting on their Facebook walls, but the much more cautious one delivered by actor and UN goodwill ambassador Emma Watson. "Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation," said Watson sweetly to the UN General Assembly in New York. "Gender equality is your issue, too." Some called her speech a "game-changer". Others admired her "business-chic" outfit.

Watson's words were true and her intentions unimpeachable, but she's set up her soapbox on a curious plateau in the movement towards gender equality. We've reached a place where the powerful can pay lip service to the goal of equality, while the reality remains stubbornly fixed. Up to 70 per cent of women worldwide have experienced sexual or physical violence from an intimate partner. In 63 countries around the world, girls are still less likely to receive an education than boys. Accomplished women are still more likely to be judged on their appearance than their actions. Perhaps this delay could have been avoided if we wasted less time patiently cajoling stragglers into joining a march they should be stampeding towards of their own volition? Invitations are for afternoon tea; this was supposed to be a revolution.

For that reason, all podium spots in this week's Popular Feminism pageant are reserved for self-proclaimed equality advocates such as Jasmine Tridevil, the woman who (briefly) convinced the world that she'd had her chest surgically enhanced with a third breast in order to "make myself unattractive to men". Or pop singer Meghan Trainor whose hit single "All About That Bass" claims to be "body positive" but insists that female self-esteem be based on male approval. Or even the irritating YouTube star Sam Pepper, whose idea of a "social experiment" involves posting clips of him approaching women to ask for directions, then pinching their bums and running away. Their arguments are confused and their methods problematic, but at least their actions are provocative.

And anyone who didn't understand the case for action on equality before Emma Watson rehearsed it at the UN definitely requires some provoking.

 

With friends like these

Of the many places that Stephen Fry has snorted cocaine – in the House of Lords, in the Commons, at BBC Television Centre, upside-down on the Nemesis roller coaster at Alton Towers (probably) – by far the most reprehensible is Buckingham Palace.

It doesn't help that Fry's revelation, published in his latest memoir, More Fool Me, comes in the same week that the PM was also caught out abusing the hospitality of the Queen. David Cameron was filmed boasting to the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg about how Her Majesty "purred" down the telephone when told of Scotland's vote to remain in the Union.

Fry and Cameron are both avowed monarchists but, by casting the Queen as a character in the stories they tell to make themselves look good, they insult our head of state more than the most ardent republican. At least those who want to do away with the monarchy recognise the Queen's potency as a symbol of an outmoded elite. Her more frequent palace guests apparently dismiss her as the schoolmarmish authority figure who shushes their hijinks after lights out.

 

Jason, couldn't you go quietly?

In retrospect, it would have been better if Jason Orange had simply stopped turning up to Take That gigs. Someone would have noticed eventually. When he announced his departure on the band's website last week, the general reaction was "Oh, really? Take That are still going, are they...?"

If only pop bands could have endings as carefully manufactured as their beginnings. Had that been the case for Take That, the boys would surely have called it a day after their valedictory-sounding 1995 single "Never Forget", never staggered on for a Bee Gees cover and several nostalgic reunion tours.

Still, Orange's announcement won't be entirely without impact. Just as Barbra Streisand's efforts to protect her privacy resulted in "the Streisand effect" – whereby an effort to hide information backfires by publicising it more widely, Orange's experience could also inspire the naming of a new pop culture phenomenon. The "Jason Orange effect" would be when the effort to publicise an event has the unintended consequence of making people even less interested that they were to begin with.

 

Humphrys caught on the hop

I was surprised to be introduced to the concept of hip hop by John Humphrys on the Today programme last week. Not because of any mismatch with Radio 4's remit, but because I know what hip hop is, thanks.

It's 35 years since The Sugarhill Gang put out "Rapper's Delight" and 14 since Richard Madeley dressed up as Ali G on This Morning, so clearly there's no contradiction between liking hip hop and being thoroughly middle-aged. Yet still the BBC persists with its tiresome pretence.

"A lot of our listeners won't have listened to hip-hop music," Humphrys told 1Xtra DJ Charlie Sloth, before asking him to explain this young person's music to the oldsters. Sloth, by the way, was Radio 1's replacement for renowned hip-hop broadcaster Tim Westwood who was in his mid-fifties when he finally left the station last year.

 

Pricking London's bubble

The insects introduced into the UK to control the spread of Japanese knotweed didn't work. That much is clear from the sad tale of the 91-year-old whose Swansea home halved in value after the weed took hold. If we can't eradicate this terror, the next step is obvious. Create a genetically modified super-strand that grows only within the M25. That should sort out London's property prices.

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