Interview with Judith Williamson: Unreal Culture

Unreal Culture

Vera Tollmann interviews Judith Williamson

You have spoken at a number of conferences recently such as "The New Sexism" at the University of Brighton. Following your article "Retrosexism", first published in the London based "Eye Magazine" in the summer of 2003, it seems that sexism is being debated again today. What impact do you think this discussion can have?

I hope it does become discussed a bit more! I've been encouraged by having a big response to my work on this issue. The article in Eye magazine focuses mainly on images - although that doesn't mean I think sexism is only about images. But I have had a lot of women telling me that they had found particular images disturbing and wanted to criticise them but felt not able to. The article tried to address this phenomenon. The term and the very concept of sexism have fallen away in recent years, certainly in Britain. Then there is a strong fear - partly based on the caricature of the women's movement in the popular press - of seeming to be humourless or being outdated. In presenting my material at conferences and so on I have talked to a lot of women, and they have said that on these issues they often operate self-censorship. Women are not feeling confident enough just to say: "We don't like this!"

I think women are looking for a new way to discuss sexism without being associated with the accusing gesture of the 70ties.

That is true. One point I would like to make about that is that the fear of seeming to be like a 70s feminist - "too militant" or "too humourless" - is actually entirely about how you are perceived by other people. This is a trap that women tend to fall into: Caring too much about what other people, especially men, think about them. Women can be too fearful of how other people see them, partly because women, more than men, are brought up and trained to consider how others see them. Feminism was originally about breaking out of that, to develop in a way one feels comfortable with. Too often we define ourselves through men's views. But if someone finds you threatening, that's not necessarily about you. What it really tells you is what you mean to someone else. If you let that define you, you give away your power to define yourself.

Interestingly, our culture is in some ways very aware of what is sexist, and actually plays on it. The point of my argument about retrosexism is that, by using retro styles, a range of cultural forms, images, activities even - like the rise of lap dancing and strip clubs again, which have become very popular - somehow manage to take on a kind of self-consciousness, and appear knowing about their own sexism. They seem to have quotation marks around them. It is not even that the consciousness of "what is sexist" has disappeared, but that it is undercut by being absorbed as something that is retro and allegedly funny - and therefore it is seen to be acceptable.

What would you suggest to do about sexist advertising? Raising awareness to alter our perceptions?

I'm not keen on censorship. What I would like to see is people making enough fuss about sexism to actually change the culture. What is depressing is the fact that this had already happened to some extent as a result of the 70s women's movement, which genuinely changed our culture and awareness. I'm a little bit younger than the pioneers of the movement. At the beginning of the seventies I was 16, and I remember that there was no language to describe sexism within the culture then. Even the left wing culture in London that I was involved in was radical in some ways but it was still sexist. Before the women's movement there was no way to talk about this or to challenge it. Feminism changed that and, over time, made a difference to what was socially acceptable and what was not. That change was visible, even if you look at women's magazines from the 60s to the 70s to the 80s. You see something more empowering and broader in terms of women's roles and you also see a move away from very sexist imagery.

What I have found disturbing over the last decade is a shift backwards. So there is a peculiar experience of living again in a culture in which sexism is much more unquestioned. Despite the fact that there was a time in between when it was challenged and much more debated. Now things have slipped back.

Referring to your quote that "sexism becomes past and present, innocent and knowing" in adverts - where do you think this diversification is going?

Not very far! I think there is something about the retro element in our culture which has been fairly constant now. It is like a paradox, that the retro element has been with us now for 20 years. We have programs in Britain like "I love 1980" or "I love 1976". By now these formats have arrived almost in the present. It is an interesting phenomenon, although the retro period in focus seems shifting all the time. People talk about recent decades in a way that is very obsessive and I don't see that changing, unless something fresh and real is happening within the broader culture. We need something real. At the moment our culture is very ironic.

Referring to recent Calvin Klein ads for example, you describe in your article "social transformation in gender relations that ads have depicted faster, and more thoroughly, than it has actually happened". How would you explain this phenomenon?

The world many ads portray is light years away from reality! You could watch most ads on telly and you would believe that we live in a world where men do lots and lots of housework. This can help give the impression that women are now liberated, and men are very hard done by. A basic explanation for this is commercial consumerism, tapping into a women's market. We live in a culture where problems are only pictured if they can be solved with a product. That means that deeper or more generalised social problems become invisible. Ads invariably portray an idealised world, where everything is meant to be fine if we buy the right stuff. And as women have become more valuable economically as consumers, the world portrayed in advertising products - to women, at least - is one that's idealised from a woman's point of view, rather than a man's.

So mainstream advertising does portray men doing a lot more vaccuuming than they do in reality, or feeding the baby while the woman rushes off to work with her briefcase. Now, the kind of retrosexist adverts that I'm talking about constitute a backlash to that. The whole "revival" of sexism is often seen as a backlash, but the backlash is not against something real, because women haven't actually achieved massive social power. It is a backlash against something feared, or imagined, rather than something that has actually happened.

This summer a remake of the 1974 movie "Stepford Wives" has been released, starring Nicole Kidman in the lead. The original "Stepford Wives" has been described at different times either as progressive or extremely sexist.

I love the original one! I think it is hysterically funny, it is a brilliant science fiction. It tackles something quite real, the feeling of being a woman in a patriarchal society. I've seen it several times and I always find it very moving, it captures a feeling of terrible isolation for the more gutsy women. I love that quote from Rebecca West when she says, "People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that distinguish me from a doormat". The film is about fighting not to be a doormat, and it is liberating to watch because it depicts the conflict as social and structural, something that is bigger than just the individuals. The thing I always used to imitate with friends was the party scene when the mechanics start to go wrong: "I'll die if I don't get that recipe, I'll die if I don't get that recipe." In a bigger sense it is a film not only about women and patriarchy, but as with the "body-snatcher" movies, about a homogenising culture and the pressure to conform. When the woman's friend becomes "stepfordised" and increasingly people have been body snatched, the film is talking about how powerful the cultural forms of domination in our culture are.

But I do have a problem with endless remakes. That connects to the point I was making earlier. The original was made within a feminist period, it was a critique of a male view of women. But today, if you look at, say, the phenomenon of men's magazines, they are like a deliberate catalogue of Stepford women! Since I wrote that piece on retrosexism two new ones, "Nutz" and "Zoo", have been launched and the advertising for them plays on that "yes, we like to be sexist" theme. This is like a conscious gesture towards the Stepford world, being knowing about it, while perpetuating it. The way women look in the pictures is not how women really look, they are just images with no real referent. And that is still very damaging and oppressive for women - something the original film showed very well.

Judith Williamson is a writer and critic living in London. She is the author of three books on popular culture: "Decoding Advertisements", "Consuming Passions", and "Deadline at Dawn" (all published by Marion Boyars). Her essay on "Retrosexism" in "Eye Magazine" Summer 2003 prompted this interview on sexism. She is currently working on a collection of political writings.

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