Bikinis, burqas and flat brown shoes: female role models in the 21st Century

Sunday 31 October, 3.45pm until 5.15pm, Student Union

If once it was feminists who campaigned against the objectification of women, now it’s a Conservative prime minister, backed up by Mumsnet. David Cameron has made headlines condemning the ‘commercialisation and sexualisation’ of young girls. There is widespread outrage over retailers selling t-shirts bearing Playboy bunnies, toy pole-dancing kits, and lingerie deemed unsuitable for prepubescence. Figures like Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse are criticised for making ‘sluttishness’ fashionable. Does this backlash represent a new wave of feminism, or rather old-fashioned moralism about female sexuality? It was the third wave ‘lipstick’ feminism of recent years that urged us to move beyond worrying about sexist images and appearance. Out went the bra-burners and dungarees; in came new female icons like the characters from Sex and the City. But given that recent surveys of teenage girls have found more than half would consider being ‘glamour’ models, and a third see Katie Price as a role model, have things gone too far? Do we really want our daughters, sisters - ourselves - to aspire to such diminished caricatures of ‘independent’ women? One of the New Feminism’s original architects, Natasha Walter, certainly thinks there’s a problem. In her latest book Living Dolls, The Return of Sexism she admits, ‘I was wrong’ to suggest feminists should focus on political equality and not worry about the ‘raunch culture’ of celebrities, pole dancing and an increasingly blatant sexualisation of women and girls. ‘The language of empowerment has been harnessed to confuse sexual liberation with sexual objectification,’ she writes.

Many young women do complain bitterly that they are valued for their appearance rather than achievements, intelligence and talent. But can feminists challenge unwelcome objectification without then policing the drunken fun of ladettes, imposing models of correct female behaviour, and tut tutting if girls choose to wear clothes deemed inappropriate? Is it helpful if feminists back up conservative criticisms of everything from frilly pink pants for children to ‘size zero’ models? Young Muslim women who embrace the hijab often claim they want to avoid the harassment of the ‘male gaze’. But it’s not just religious conservatives who worry about pressures on young women to dress provocatively. Does an unease about ‘sexualisation’ constitute a challenge to sexism, or simply distaste for modern life and openness about sexuality?

Finally, does it not matter if women tend to care about their appearance more than men? Or are there still unanswered questions about the true meaning of sexual liberation and equality? Is the battle for formal political, legal and equality between the sexes really over, so all that’s left to fight over is bikinis and burqas?

Listen to session audio:


Dr Maria Grasso
lecturer in politics and quantitative methods, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield; author: Generations, Political Participation and Social Change in Western Europe

Carol Dyhouse
research professor in history, University of Sussex; author, Glamour: women, history, feminism

Mary Evans
emeritus professor, School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent, Canterbury; Centennial Professor at the LSE Gender Institute

Fran Hoenderkamp
feminist actvist; news editor, UK Feminista website

Sarah Boyes
freelance writer and editor; assistant editor, Culture Wars; editor, Battles in Print 2010

Produced by
Sarah Boyes freelance writer and editor; assistant editor, Culture Wars; editor, Battles in Print 2010
Recommended readings
Bikini body, anyone?

The brainchild of a 1940s lingerie salesman, the tiny swimsuit has not lived up to its promise

Laurie Penny, Guardian, 19 July 2010

Caroline Spelman: wearing burka can be ‘empowering’

Wearing a burka can be 'empowering ' and 'dignified' for Mulsim women, one of the Government’s most senior female ministers has said.

Rosa Prince, Daily Telegraph, 19 July 2010

Women are happy to let feminists get bashed

Few are prepared to defend the movement that gave women rights. That's why Piers Paul Read can attack it without being challenged

Hannah Betts, Guardian, 18 July 2010

Living dolls: inside the world of child beauty pageants

They parade in miniature ballgowns, wear false eyelashes and can be as young as five… We venture into the world of mini beauty pageants to meet the young princesses and their pushy parents

Elizabeth Day, Observer, 11 July 2010

It’s all over for sex-and-shopping feminism

For my generation, Sex and the City’s vision of female empowerment rings increasingly hollow.

Laurie Penny, New Statesman, 28 May 2010

After feminism: what are girls supposed to do?

Today's teenagers are struggling to cope with the expectations imposed by media images and peer pressure, the reality of low-paid work and a sexist culture

Amelia Hill, Observer, 21 February 2010

Living dolls: reconsidering the legacy of the 1960s

Far from undermining capitalism through a reclamation of authentic subjectivity, cultural radicalism in fact helped fuel the emergence of contemporary consumer capitalism.

Mark Carrigan, Culture Wars, 19 February 2010

Glamour: Women, History, Feminism

How do we understand "Glamour"? Has it empowered women or turned them into objects? Once associated with modernity and the cutting edge, is it entirely bound up with nostalgia and tradition? This unique and fascinating book tells the story of glamour. It explores the changing meanings of the word, its relationship to femininity and fashion, and its place in twentieth century social history.

Carol Dyhouse, Zed Books, 11 February 2010

Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

Empowerment, liberation, choice. Once the watchwords of feminism, these terms have now been co-opted by a society that sells women an airbrushed, highly sexualised and increasingly narrow vision of femininity.

Natasha Walter, Virago Press, 4 February 2010

The collapse of feminism is bad for us all

Men lose too, if women are demeaned

Claudia Pritchard, Independent, 1 February 2010

Festival Buzz

Battle for Leadership - Alison Wolf

"The arts and humanities need to be defended and we must fight for the freedom to extend barriers, not merely to work within them. What better arena than The Battle of Ideas?"
Professor Colin Lawson, Director, Royal College of Music

in association with