Category Archives: News

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Adapting to demand or recreating stereotypes?

Adapting to demand or recreating stereotypes?

Does Disney’s ‘rebranded’ Merida conform to the typical ‘princess’ imagery because that’s what the market wants, or has Disney got a bit worried about stepping too far away from the conservative strereotypes we’re used to from them?

The popularity of the character pre-‘makeover’ (and the protest at her image change) answers the question!

The last one to leave didn’t switch off the lights

Of all the footage and images which have been broadcast since the terrifying weather on the US East Coast began, it’s the photos of central Manhattan like this of Times Square which seem the most unnerving.

It’s a place which is designed to be filled with people. There’s something so strange about the hundreds of advertising boards brightly lit but with no one there to see them.

And it makes the adverts themselves seem all the more empty when many thousands of people nearby have lost power to their homes, or worse.

Internet access – it’s all a load of fuss about nothing

Be honest, which household gadget could you live without? Would there be any impact upon your day to day life if you had no laptop? What about your phone or your vacuum cleaner?

When my two friends and I were choosing a flat to live in just after university, having a washing machine wasn’t one of the priorities. ‘The launderette’s just round the corner,’ we reasoned, when weeks later we were hand washing most of our clothes in the bathroom sink. The lady who ran the launderette was rather strict and we were a bit scared of her; she advised us on drying times for different clothing types and that was all a bit much.  ‘Hand washing saves money and water, too,’ we admirably reasoned.

Whatever their gadget of choice, I’m fairly sure that most people I know would rather lose quite a few household mod cons than lose their internet connection.  To work, communicate, find out information and keep ourselves entertained most of us rely on the internet on a daily basis.

Even the Lords are talking about its importance. A communications committee has raised concerns that the government’s obsession with rolling out speedy broadband overlooks those parts of the country which have little or no coverage at all.

Well, if you ask Ha-Joon Chang, the author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, those people in remote parts of Cumbria who each evening struggle to stream yesterday’s episode of Eastenders in a valiant attempt to keep in touch with what’s happening in the outside world don’t have it that bad after all.

I’m reading Chang’s book at the moment and really like the way that he challenges aspects of free-market capitalism which we don’t really question that much. I don’t always agree with him, but it’s refreshing to read a viewpoint which strays from the norm.

One of his chapters is: ‘The washing machine has changed the world more than the internet has’.

He argues, first of all, that the development of internet-based communications hasn’t had as much impact on humankind as the invention of the telegram did. Chang uses the example of sending a 300 word message across the Atlantic. Sending a fax would take 10 seconds and an email two seconds. The invention of the telegraph, on the other hand, reduced the travel time of a message from the steamship’s best attempt, two weeks, to just eight minutes.

More interesting though, and linking to my (brilliant) anecdote about washing machines, is the social change which Chang attributes to the invention of the washing machine.

The time saved thanks to washing machines, according to Chang, has transformed the way that women live by enabling them to enter the labour market (as opposed to washing and ironing clothes by hand and the other lengthy domestic chores due to the lack of electrical appliances). It also meant that those women who were working were increasingly employed in non-domestic roles.

Brilliantly, this: ‘has definitely raised the status of women at home and in society, thus also reducing preference for male children and increasing investment in female education.’

Even better: ‘Even those educated women who choose to stay at home with their children [now] have higher status in the home, as they can make credible threats that they can support themselves should they choose to leave their partners.’

Leaving to one side the, ahem, blissful and limited family unit drawn here, and the fairly patronising overtones about the ‘status’ of women, is Chang making a valid point?

I do like this challenge to the presumed idea that the internet is the greatest progression that society has ever made. But I’m slightly bristling at the argument which places the realm of washing clothes so firmly with women, and that simplifies complex interpersonal processes such as divorce or workplace equality into such a linear process.

On an individual (and possibly selfish) level I’d rather be able to stream a documentary whilst emailing a friend than dry and iron my clothes in super-quick time. But, do we owe more to other technological inventions than we think?

No doubt, inventions such as the washing machine changed the way we all live. But, is there more to come from the telecommunications revolution in the future? And what about the social change which the internet has already brought about?

The glass ceiling casts a long shadow

It would be naive to assume that those long-despised invisible barriers which push some to society’s top and others to its bottom have been broken. But for some reason the issue has come to a head this week in three different areas.

Alan Milburn attacked the ‘poison’ of our class system in a progress report on social mobility published this week. Many desirable professions are accused of recruiting a high proportion of privately educated staff and of choosing new recruits based on connections rather than purely merit, according to the report. Wheeling out the over-used glass ceiling analogy Milburn said: “The glass ceiling has been scratched but not broken.”

The BBC took a less touchy-feely approach in its publication of new research on women in the workplace. The stats on the proportion of women in top jobs are grim and the BBC did nothing to soften them with its winning headline: ‘Are women their own worst enemy when it comes to the top jobs?’. The report was perplexingly uncomplex for my liking; I’m not sure how many people have overcome their own ‘unconscious bias’ by being told to be more confident. Certainly it’s an essential ongoing debate, but some of the more constructive pointers, for example from Cherie Blair, were sidelined by the overbearing headline in my opinion.

Last of all, this week Plan B’s film Ill Manors premiered. It seemed canny that the film, focusing on social unrest and the dark side of east London’s society, was released so close to Milburn’s report Plan B has not admitted to any personal hopes of social change as a result of the film in some interviews.

The three approaches, one from politics, one from broadcasting and another from film, raise more questions than they answer. Perhaps the most important thing they remind us of is the depressing inequalities in the Britain of today. We need to talk about it, but we need to do something too.

Are we being conned into thinking more about our daily moisturiser?

I like to think of myself as a consumer who is fairly conscious of health and environmental issues. I am a recycling obsessive, I carefully consider what I eat and I avoid buying products which I know could be difficult to dispose of once I’ve finished using them, such as detergents and aerosols.

But a recent trip to the US has reignited my ongoing concern with the chemicals in the beauty products which we use daily, and which seem largely to go undiscussed in the mainstream beauty media in the UK. Many US companies are now mentioning the absence of these ingredients, such as parabens, sodium laureth sulphate and others, as part of the marketing campaigns for their products.

I first became concerned about this problem after watching (the arguably over-exposed but, I think, ethically sound) Sarah Beeny in her 2007 programme for Channel 4, How Toxic Are You?  As a ‘celebrity’, she gained a mixed reaction from the press, who largely chastised her for what was perceived as unscientific naivety. She was worrying about the fact that the products we use on our bodies, including deodorants, moisturisers and shampoos, are not ‘natural’ when we are constantly surrounded by chemicals and artificial products.

(c) miss_yasminaSome scientists have suggested that there could be links between the parabens (which act as preservatives) used in deodorants and breast cancer risk, as they may mimic the effects of oestrogen. However, scientists and charities, such as Breast Cancer Campaign in a letter responding to a Sun report on the topic, are quick to emphasise that these claims are not backed up with reliable evidence and cannot be used to proclaim the use of these products dangerous, since there are so many other sources of parabens within our environment.

So, I am undecided really. Having spent quite some time scanning the ingredient lists of UK beauty products, there are definitely beauty brands in the UK which avoid some of these so-called dangerous chemicals. These include Good Things and some very high-end products like Avène  and La Roche-Porsay. However, it does not seem to have reached the levels of the US market where television adverts mention the ingredients (or lack thereof); we seem to hear more about things being ‘Organic’  or ‘97% natural’, which could mean that the other 3% is bleach after all.

I’m not a scientist and, as far as I can see, the jury is still out on whether these chemicals really do cause us harm directly. Is this just a case of ‘time will tell’, an approach which ought to cause concern when we consider that the PVCs in cling film, for example, were once thought harmless. I do have a sneaking suspicion that the US marketers are pandering to consumer concerns rather than addressing any scientific need, though. It’s no coincidence that the brands which use fewer of these chemicals seem to be more expensive.

What do you think? Do you worry about the ingredients in your shampoo? Or do you feel more inclined to stick with a brand you’re familiar with and can afford, rather than lose sleep over whether there are risks?

Time will tell, I suppose.

How do you like your politics?

If you are a woman, popular opinion would have it that you prefer it alongside your regular gossip fix.
 

How do the sexes compare in their political reading habits?

Governments are always subject to flux in the opinion polls and this month it’s the Conservatives who have suffered from a drop in support shortly after their party conference. According to a discussion on Wednesday’s Woman’s Hour part of this fall in support is due to a shift in the number of women voters, as found in a recent YouGov polling report.

I was surprised to hear that, had it not been for female voters, the Labour Party would have won every election since the Second World War. So, it seems, despite the impression that Labour (or, should I say, the left wing of the spectrum) is generally more forward-thinking in those areas typically associated with ‘women’s policy’ such as childcare, working flexibility and government-controlled measures to ensure pay is more fairly distributed (to varying degrees of success I might add) women vote for the Conservatives in larger proportions.

The Conservatives fall in popularity amongst women is also seen by many as a direct response to the public’s general impression of David Cameron as well as his ‘Calm down dear’ put-down towards Angela Eagle in the Commons, amongst other gaffs. This is also coupled with some high-profile attacks on the government’s strategy of cuts, which are seen as disproportionately affecting women.

The Woman’s Hour discussion then moved on to the way in which parties can attract/make women aware of their policies more effectively. One respondent commented that many women are unaware of policy directly and that parties need to get this information into the hands of OK readers.

I am sure this ignorance and unavailability of political discourse is a problem. But this perception that women necessarily need politics in their gossip mags for them to be informed is also, on first glance, a patronising one. An image of an upper-middle class man with a monocle studying The Telegraph and guffawing about the Tory’s newest childcare strategy whilst his down-trodden but servile wife serves him a cup of tea before settling down to her copy of Closer, because she doesn’t care a thing about real politics being a woman and all, springs immediately to mind.

It cannot be the case that men read serious news whilst women read gossip mags and so therefore have no idea about policy, can it? Or, if there is ignorance it’s not just confined to one of the sexes. I would have thought it’s just as patronising to say that for women to know more about politics we need to get it into OK as it is to say that men would be more aware if Nuts regularly discussed the worldwide increase in the cost of cotton which was thereby having an implication for the Page 3 girls’ ability to stock up on lacy underwear, and what was the government going to do about it?

But, to be on the safe side, I thought I’d look at the numbers a bit more closely. A rough, and albeit not entirely scientific, search of divide in readership of a range of newspapers, from the serious to the questionable, came up with the following proportions:

Daily Mail:

Male – 47%

Female –  53%

Source: http://www.nmauk.co.uk/nma/do/live/factsAndFigures?newspaperID=10

Daily Mirror:

Male – 57%

Female – 43%

Source:  http://www.nmauk.co.uk/nma/do/live/factsAndFigures?newspaperID=2

Guardian:

Male – 53%

Female – 47%

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/advertising/demographic-profile-of-guardian-readers

The Independent:

Male – 59%

Female – 41%

Source: http://www.independentonlinesolutions.com/advertisingGuide/media/indy.pdf

The Sun:

Male – 56%

Female – 44%

Source: http://www.nmauk.co.uk/nma/do/live/factsAndFigures?newspaperID=17

Telegraph:

Male – 53%

Female – 47%

Source: http://www.nmauk.co.uk/nma/do/live/factsAndFigures?newspaperID=11

Although this is not the most scientific or strictly accurate way of establishing how information about politics is disseminated, I was surprised (and slightly disappointed) to find that things are not as 50/50 as they should be. However, the differences between the sexes are not as different as some comment makes out and I think it does show that getting information on policy to women is possibly just as big a problem as it is getting it to men. I agree that policy and the current cuts affect the sexes very differently but is the perception that women need politics in their gossip mags really helpful? Perhaps this is one aspect of political spin for which gender should be left to one side.

How do you think politicians could communicate with the public more effectively?
(polls)

Miner Miracles? and the Tabloid Press

The eyes of the country have swivelled to Chile this week and the rescue of the 33 trapped miners. Newspapers, conversation and twitter pages have been alive with tearful Britons watching the events unfold online as the heroes emerge (largely) unscathed, considering their horrendous ordeal.

Predictably, ridiculous PR stunts have ensued; the tabloid press leading the way. As one radio presenter, rather cynically, commented, we shall all look forward to the ‘Based on Real Events’ film in time for Christmas 2011. Steve Jobs will give each an ipod, ‘Trapped Miners Invited to Old Trafford’, The Sun reported, The Daily Mail told readers of the Eastender’s-style extra-marital affair of one naughty miner.

It got me thinking of how events are perceived in history. We’ve all seen The Sun’s ‘GOTCHA!’ headline of the middle of the Falkland’s crisis, widely referred to as a turning point for the previously unpopular Maggie Thatcher. It is just this sort of cultural symbol which comes to symbolise a moment, when its effect on people’s daily lives at the time could well have been minimal.

Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole (the ever-reliable commentator) sums it up:

‘Woke up my father to tell him Argentina has invaded the Falklands. He shot out of bed because he thought the Falklands lay off the coast of Scotland. When I pointed out that they were eight thousand miles away he got back into bed and pulled the covers over his head.’

Thus some tiny islands, previously geographically ambiguous, came to be seen as a political turning point of a decade.

I myself wonder how the Chilean miners’ crisis will be similarly adopted by history. I can imagine the narrative potential, already, in history lessons of the future. ‘In post-recession, pre-cuts Britain, where things had been bleak for quite some time, and people had been greeted with the news that house prices may drop even more (!), one event gave the country hope, pulled the population together. In a previously ignored part of the world, 33 men became the focus of the world’s media, giving back the faith in humankind for thousands…’

Time shall tell if it will be the case. As Hayden White writes of the story-making instinct of history: ‘The events are made into a story by the suppression or subordination of certain of them and the highlighting of others’, the media, and our history books, come to purport this on a daily basis, more than we realise.

The Definitely Not David Cabinet: Gender Representation in Labour’s New Cabinet

The much-awaited revelation of Labour’s shadow cabinet, under the leadership of Ed Milliband (about whom the media and commentators do not seem to have made their mind up about yet, beyond establishing that he’s Definitely Not David), is due to come on Thursday next week. Questions are springing up already: will he pick the most talented contenders for the positions, or go for his (supposedly more left-wing) supporters?; does his standpoint really give favour to Unions?; and, a more back-burner issue, how much of his cabinet will comprise of women?

Time will tell. But, it seems, there are implications involved in each of these questions which will need to be faced in the following months, by all parties, and onwards to the next election.