Burning bras and caricatures: the difficult relationship between women’s magazines and feminism

// 23 April 2010

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Feminist fist on wall.jpg

I was waiting for a bus from Victoria coach station a couple of weeks ago when I spotted an interesting looking headline on the cover of the April edition of Company magazine. It read Saturday Night sexism: don’t let a stranger in a bar ruin your weekend. Open talk of sexism on the cover of a mainstream women’s magazine in 2010? In an apparently post-feminist climate, where it seems to be fashionable to take the stance that equality has now been achieved? It certainly looked promising.

And I wasn’t disappointed because, inside, I discovered the four page article in this “Bloggers Takeover” issue was written by F-worder Abby O’Reilly! There was even a campaign proposed, inviting readers to log on to the website and talk about experiences of sexual harrassment. (Again, this is surely promising if you bear in mind how many responses -and counting- Laura had for the Hands up if you’ve experienced street harassment post.)

Unfortunately, my sense of hope was short-lived because, this week, I learnt from @BookElfLeeds that the Company magazine website was showcasing a “What Kind of Feminist are You?” quiz. This followed the usual “mostly As, Bs or Cs?” format, with the choice of being either a Stepfordesque traditionalist, an irrational and misrepresentitive caricature of a feminist or a rather bland and equally predictable balance between the two. (It isn’t on the Company website anymore but there’s an excellent critique of it over at Feminazery and I’m aware it originates from Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism book.)

It seems Company are continuing to run with a feminist theme by asking the question “are you a feminist?” in association with the May edition. I haven’t seen the issue itself yet but I can’t say I have much faith when the website has got a picture of a burning bra next to the headline. Yes, that old classic.

This is all very tedious but, on the basis of some of the content in the April issue of Company (for example, Abby’s piece) and the fact they’ve taken the quiz in question down in response to all the criticism on Twitter (without going into whether or not they should have), I’d tentatively suggest they might mean well. Perhaps they actually want to get feminists on-side but are so caught up in the image-centred “don’t be too extreme” bullshit that women’s magazines are under pressure to adopt that they’re bound to mess up?

Certainly, the ridiculous bra-burning icon is a fail but, in my opinion, it does seem to constitute an attempt to engage with feminism . Also, one has to ask why they still want to to do that when the image is clearly so revolting to them that they feel the need to hold up a man-hating stereotype in a quiz in order to reassure readers “Hey! We know (hope!) that’s not you!” Could it possibly be because they know women -including their readers and writers- need feminism? Could it be because they know feminism has more work to do?

Image added retrospectively and shows a feminist fist spray-painted onto a wall. Shared by Eva the Weaver under a Creative Commons license.

Comments From You

Frank // Posted 24 April 2010 at 10:09 pm

The quiz was originally from Ellie Levenson’s book. She talks about it on her blog.

I’ve not read the magazine articles yet. I’m pleased that Company magazine is trying to engage with feminism, but am unsure whether what they are actually doing is pasting a thin veil of feminism over more of the usual objectification? I don’t know.

polly // Posted 25 April 2010 at 10:56 am

The quiz is now on the website. The problem is whatever you answer, it seems you are still a ‘noughtie girl’. Really?


sianmarie // Posted 26 April 2010 at 9:22 am

well said holly! i totally agree, positive that women’s mags are engaging with feminism, troubling perhaps in their methods. that said, elle magazine had a great article about sexism a couple of months back, by lucy mangan. it seems it is creeping back onto the agenda. of course, it doesn’t help that the general structuring of women’s mags in terms of imagery and editorial language often contradicts the pro-feminist articles that are popping up here and there.

i think the real shame is that bloody quiz! it annoyed me when it was in levenson’s book and it annoyed me that it was used by company to represent modern feminism, ironically perhaps by relying on tired and boring old fashioned sterotypes. i was also disappointed in levenson’s response, calling criticism of the quiz ‘sour grapes’. yawn – perhaps the criticism was because women are bored stiff of being placed in such dull rigid stereotypes. it was called light hearted, but it really wasn’t very funny, in fact it was just sooo boring and predicatable!

i guess the main thing is to keep encouraging women’s mags to look at feminism in a sensible and positive light, and to support women who are discovering or learning new things about feminism, and to keep making ourselves heard. and, when we are annoyed about silly stereotypes, to say so! it worked this time after all…!

BookElfLeeds(aka FeminaErecta) // Posted 26 April 2010 at 9:45 am

Whilst I am more than happy to be credited with discovering this quiz I was told about it from @blinikill (I think that is how you spell it, sorry if not!)

I understand that women are considered too stupid even by media aimed at them to discover politics in anything other than a jokey step-by-step ‘ooo can I still wear lipstick? yippeee! I have elbows!’ way, but to be told that not only I am a ‘naughtie girl’ (I stopped being a girl when I was 18, like most of your target group, Company) because I understand that I am worthy of being treated equally to any one else in law and in pratice I found de-meaning.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 27 April 2010 at 12:43 am

Do we see bra-burning as an entirely negative image? I know it’s a stereotype and a single event turned into a myth, that has been used to belittle the significance of the feminist movement. But it is also instantly recognisable and it represents collectivised action amongst angry women. It’s an image that I’ve always been happy to get behind- especially given the symbolic significance of breasts to femininity in modern culture.

I admit that Company probably didn’t give that much consideration to the image when they chose it- but perhaps- as it is an icon that the public immediately understand- we should reclaim it for our own uses?

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