Slagging off the sexually voracious

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We can all rest easy in our beds now that the advert which has drawn the most complaints this year - 309 - has been banned. A replacement advert, for low-calorie Lucozade, also features the "Fat Slags" cartoon characters, but it has been changed. Instead of saying "O mercy, it's the Fat Slags", it will now say "O mercy, it's Sandra and Tracey".

Does a slag by any other name smell as foul, I wonder? Does calling these characters Sandra and Tracey rehabilitate them into respectability? Is this not yet another significant victory for womanhood?

It is hard to know which word has caused the most offence - "fat", or "slag". Both words are used on television. The word "slag" features in many a line of soap opera dialogue, as in, "Who you calling a slag? You slag." But the use of the word in an advert is considered inappropriate for television advertising, according to the Independent Television Commission.

For those of you who don't know, the Fat Slags are a creation of the adult comic Viz. They are, in the prim description of the Telegraph, "large, lewd and under-dressed" - Sandra and Tracey are appetites on legs, in fact. They like sex, particularly in alleyways, and chips, cigarettes and alcohol. Their clothes are too tight, they decorate their legs with purple blotches, they give up their babies for adoption rather than have a night in. I happen to think they are rather funny. Not everyone does. The Fat Slags embody, we are told, every cliche about women. They are a male invention that stereotypes women, that enables men to laugh at us. Anyhow, you wouldn't want your children learning the word "slag" off the TV when they could be learning it at school now, would you?

Such an argument makes sense only if we acknowledge that once something appears on television it is given a level of societal approval. But, as always with this type of discussion, a dreadful literalism creeps in that is ignorant of context. The result is that we end up banning an ad with the word "slag" in it, but tolerate any number of ads which feature women as clueless but sexy bimbos who have nothing better to do all day than to go round stroking cars.

Give me Sandra and Tracey using and abusing men any day, over the Stepford wives who become aroused at the sight of a set of car keys. Or the woman whose vile boyfriend enlists his horrible Renault Megane in his campaign to sexually harass her.

Whatever one thinks of the Fat Slags, they wouldn't put up with such treatment, for they embody men's fear of women more than anything else. They are primal beings who do not appear to attend seminars on what society thinks of sexually voracious women. Nor are they much concerned with being overweight. In this way they are liberating, just as Edina and Patsy were liberating in their drunken bad behaviour, just as Dawn French is when she dresses up as Pamela Anderson, just as the Spice Girls are when they go around nipping Prince Charles's bum and talking about snogging each other.

Open expressions of female appetite and female desire are still rather rare. Though lad culture may have prematurely climaxed, its influence is still everywhere. It has been used to legitimise the most appalling and deeply embedded sexism in the exhausted name of irony. However, lad culture does not exist in a vacuum. While the lads who have made soft porn acceptable are poring over yet more images of mute women, in the real world women are continuing to move on up. The only women allowed to speak in the sad lad fantasy world are the MAWs (Models/Actresses/ Whatever), and then only about their sex lives. The Fat Slags, on the other hand, hardly need to go to workshops in assertiveness training. They know what they want and they want it now.

The question, then, is whether or not such a joke rebounds on women. The answer is that, yes, sometimes it does - but not always. Is this enough reason to ban it? Personally, if I thought that it would help to stop 14-year-old boys using the word "slag" of girls who won't sleep with them, then I would happily ban the ad and the cartoon strip tomorrow. But we all know that it ain't that easy. Despite the overt sexualisation of our culture, we are increasingly confused about what is acceptable and what isn't. At the heart of this confusion is the way that we pay more attention to language than we do to who is speaking. Some people are dismayed that women can now declare themselves bitches (as in Meredith Brookes' "I'm a bitch/I'm a lover/I'm a child/I'm a mother," which my six-year-old happily sings along to). When, they ask, did this become acceptable? Don't they realise that this is yet another little ditty for women who juggle their lives?

Have they failed to notice the conscious effort over the last 20 years that feminists have made to appropriate many negative word about themselves? In the Seventies, Erin Pizzey was happy to describe herself as a "slut". She was reacting to the Superwoman trend by refusing to get obsessed by housework. Indeed, words such as "nigger", "faggot" and "queer" have been similarly reclaimed, which goes to show that there is a world of difference between being the object of an insult, and a speaking and self-defining subject.

The worst excess of laddishness is not that it reduces women to stereotypes - these stereotypes have always existed anyway - it is the way it deliberately silences women and reduces them to a mute fantasy, whether this be lap- top porn on the Net or supposedly upmarket lap-dancing. Laddishness is actually fairly impotent in the face of sexually active, articulate, achieving women, for it exists primarily as a defensive strategy, a denial of fundamental changes in our society. One of the ways women are silenced, of course, is by being told that they take everything far too seriously, that it's only a laugh.

The riposte to this is not to laugh louder than any man at yet another dull piece of sexism, but to insist that other kinds of images, other kinds of voices, also appear. The Fat Slags (who, let's not forget, are cartoon characters, just as Jessica Rabbit is a cartoon character) may not be your role models but at least they speak up for themselves. Calling them Sandra and Tracey will hardly destroy their joie de vivre, because they do not think there is anything wrong in women being promiscuous. The slags themselves are remarkably happy with their lifestyle. The only way to make "slag" less offensive is to remove its connotation that female sexuality is a bad thing. Rather than banning the word we need to change the attitude. You certainly don't need to be fat or female to be called a slag these days. For surely, lads, isn't that what equal opportunities are all about?