An ironic fig-leaf is not enough to hide exploitation

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The Independent Online

The woman is reclining on a bed. The expression on her face leaves little doubt as to what is on her mind. A caption beside her reads, "Visible quickie"; another, in the general area of her armpit, reads, "Invisible deodorant".

The woman is reclining on a bed. The expression on her face leaves little doubt as to what is on her mind. A caption beside her reads, "Visible quickie"; another, in the general area of her armpit, reads, "Invisible deodorant".

Ten or 15 years ago, this advertisement, which is currently appearing on hoardings across the country, would, if permitted at all, have quickly been defaced by slogans pointing out that it exploited women. Now, it seems, it is fine - a reflection of our new maturity, our liberated attitudes to matters of gender.

Doubtless, the idea that they were demeaning women would not have occurred to the advertising "creatives" as they worked on their ad. For them, their visible-quickie girl was simply celebrating her freedom to do what men have always done - enjoy the moment, grab whatever pleasure of the flesh happens to be available at the time.

But perhaps, at this point, it is permissible to ask why this great leap forward feels increasingly like a step back into the exploitation of the past, despite the thin veneer of irony and self-mockery behind which it hides.

The model of the modern, fun-loving, get-yer-tits-out-for-the-lads woman is now so prevalent as to be almost a cliché. She is there in those never-ending and virtually identical documentaries, so beloved of Channels 4 and 5, which set out to reveal how far young women and men will go to have fun on holiday or on Saturday nights in pubs and clubs. As yet another pie-eyed 19-year-old fixes herself up with a bloke for the night, the message is unmistakable: what was once the privilege of lads on a night out can now be enjoyed by all.

The problem is that when boys were out on the pull, they were not followed by TV cameramen. Their misbehaviour was dull, usually revolting; that of the ladette is the stuff of voyeurism and male fantasy.

Yet, because the people behind these programmes are not pornographers but ambitious young men and women of the media, the exploitation is given a cunning, modern gloss.

Actresses who advance their careers by undressing for male magazines are no longer perceived as witless bimbos demeaning themselves for the male gaze,but as free spirits making their way in the world ina witty, hedonistic, self-parodic manner.

Similarly, a TV show such as Ally McBeal - in which the central character is a simpering air-head prepared to pout and wiggle for men to get her way, even in court (she's an attorney, for heaven's sake) - gets away with it by playing the irony game. Somehow, if the presentation is knowing and slick enough, the insult to women can be ignored.

Just as, in the late Sixties, the mood of political liberation was exploited by men to get vulnerable younger women into bed, so today's media portrait of young women, either as quickie-crazed bunk-up-merchants or giggling bimbos, is every bit as insidious and harmful as any stereotypes of the past.

It makes good marketing sense, of course. To the poor saps who spend their days thinking up new ways to sell deodorants, or to the lazy creators of fly-on-the-wall documentaries, it offers an opportunity to provide the illusion of cutting-edge contemporaneity while cashing in on traditional forms of fantasy and voyeurism.

Yet it is now so accepted and widespread, that an unpleasant form of brainwashing could be taking place. Be a ladette, enjoy that quickie, wiggle and pout at work, teenage girls are being told - it is all right to play up to men, so long as it is for you, not for them.

It all seems rather sad, the way feminism's hard-won victories have been hijacked by the marketing culture. Somehow, all the talk of freedom and choice sounds more and more like a new version of the old, old story.

terblacker@aol.com

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