Uniform disapproval: Back to school, back to sexualising girls

It is so prevalent in British culture that there seems little point in stating the obvious - but it is a bit creepy, isn't it?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was back to school this week, which meant lots of 11-year-olds proudly donning their new school clothes. It's a short-lived joy. The tie will soon grow uncomfortable; the colour will soon be deemed uncool and, for the girls, there's one additional reason to loathe your uniform; it's a magnet for pervs.

When I was 13 and 14, I was sexually propositioned on three different occasions by adult men during my journey to or from school. I've since learned this isn't an unusual experience, but at the time I was frightened, annoyed and, above all, confused. It wasn't as though they could have mistaken me for someone older; after all, I was in my school uniform. How much more obvious can it get?

Shortly after I turned 15, Britney Spears released the video for her No 1 single "... Baby One More Time" and I began to understand. Watching the way she danced in an unbuttoned school shirt, with her hair in pink-ribboned bunches, the truth dawned: schoolgirls are considered sexy, and not just in the mind of the occasional pervert, but in normalised, mainstream, popular culture.

We can't shake our heads in fond disapproval at the St Trinian's films from the 1950s when two much filthier sequels came out only a few years ago. We can't pretend that it's only on the "barely legal" porn sites where (hopefully) adult women dress up as virginal girls; they're doing it every weekend at school-disco themed club nights. The sexualisation of underage girls is so prevalent in British culture that there seems little point in stating the obvious – but it is a bit creepy, isn't it?

That's why the Advertising Standards Authority's decision last week to ban American Apparel's "back to school" ads was such a welcome surprise. The images in question feature models in school uniform-style miniskirts bending over to expose their underwear and buttocks. The ASA judged these "had the effect of inappropriately sexualising school-age girls".

American Apparel insisted that its models were all of age – one was 30, it said – but that's beside the point. If you are fetishising a school uniform, then you are fetishising the exact part of the image that signifies childhood. And surely we can expect advertisers to avoid actual child abuse on set as a bare minimum.

The private fantasies of individuals are unpoliceable, of course, but this isn't about what's private. It's about what's publicly deemed acceptable on billboards and in broadcasts. In a culture that's so anguished by historic child abuse cases, and still reeling from the Rotherham report, the figure of the "sexy schoolgirl" is an odd and shameful disconnect.

Schoolgirls should be allowed to reach adulthood without these constant bullying reminders that their consent is not required to turn them into sexual objects. As the leak of nude photos of female celebrities showed last week, they'll get enough of that when they're older.

Come back, Miss Marple

In the TV shows, police are always annoyed by amateur sleuths. As of last week, that's one more we can add to the list of detective fiction's unrealistic clichés. Victims of crime are now being "encouraged" to investigate offences themselves, according to Roger Baker, the inspector who led a new review of policing by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary. Examples of the outsourced detective work include speaking to potential witnesses, looking for CCTV footage and even checking for fingerprints. Nation of mystery lovers that we are, you might think the public would welcome the chance to play at detective. Sadly, the reality of DIY detection is a lot less cosy than an episode of Midsomer Murders.

Baker and the Association of Chief Police Officers differ as to whether austerity or "mindset" is to blame, but agree on how police forces have been forced to "prioritise" their workload. And if a crime isn't being investigated by a professional, says Baker, that probably means it isn't being investigated at all. "Effectively, what's happened is a number of crimes are on the verge of being decriminalised." Where's Miss Marple when you need her?

All of a piece

Those wishing to remember the late, great Joan Rivers could do worse than watch the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. It's the insulting title that charms the most – partly because it illustrates how the Queen of Mean could take it as well as give it, and partly because the phrase itself is such a good 'un.

In the film, "a piece of work" refers also to Rivers's formidable work ethic, but even without that pun, the words convey a sort of grudging admiration for the "piece of work" in question. They suggest a person who is difficult, yes, but in an interesting way. Some trace its etymology back to Shakespeare's "What a piece of work is a man!" speech from Hamlet – himself quite a piece of work – but the sense of the phrase also lives on in alternative expressions.

As I child, I was always half-flattered to be told off for "working my ticket", ie, irritating my Newcastle-born dad. If Joan had been a child of England's North-east instead of America's, her biopic might have had a slightly different title. Joan Rivers: Workie Ticket is a film I'd like to see.

Cutting edge of tech

Laugh it up while you can, Luddites. When the iPhone 6 comes out on Tuesday it will be back to square one for anyone who's only just learnt how to use a touch screen. In the meantime, here's a rare gag at the expense of early adopters. In its latest ad, furniture retailer Ikea announces its entry into the tablet market. The new Ikea BookBook sounds great. It's completely wireless, boasts an eternal battery life and has a classic interface which ensures great usability. You may even have one at home already – only you probably just call it "the Ikea catalogue".

Now that's hefty

The discovery of a new dinosaur is always exciting, especially one as big as the 85ft, 65-ton Dreadnoughtus schrani whose fossilised remains were dug up in Argentina. No longer will B-movie monsters be "gargantuan"; they will be "dreadnoughtean" and we won't compare skyscrapers to x number of T rex, but to y number of D schrani instead. Dreadnoughtus schrani is the new gold standard for very big things. Not that it's fat, mind. It's just big-boned.

twitter.com/@MsEllenEJones

Comments