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“Sexist trousers” affair sparks question, is feminism being watered down?


Photo: Emma Barnett

Alexandra Szydlowska
WVoN Co-Editor

When journalist Emma Barnett was tidying her house last weekend, she spotted her boyfriend’s trousers strewn across the floor. Nothing unusual there.

However, on picking them up, she noticed something strange about the large white label sewn inside.

In big capital letters, following the usual instructions to machine wash warm, using only non-chlorine bleach, etc., was the following suggestion: “OR GIVE THEM TO YOUR WOMAN – ITS HER JOB.”

Predictably shocked, the Daily Telegraph’s Digital Media Editor swiftly tweeted the incident and contacted the clothing brand Madhouse with her complaint.

She also wrote a comment piece for the Telegraph in which she admitted:

“…Normally I am the type of person who can stomach, and often smile along, with a touch of what has just become known as casual sexist ‘banter’… However, this crass message stitched onto the label in these cheap chinos from Madhouse, genuinely took me aback.”

Immediately, last year’s furor over Topman’s sexist t-shirts springs to mind, see WVoN story, for which the company apologised, claiming the logos as ‘light hearted’ humour which ‘carried no serious meaning’.

In  Madhouse’s case, the message put across is considerably more weighty than Topman’s poor attempt at humour. It’s a concealed jibe made at womens’ expense – and thus seems so much crueller for it.

And yet in this video showing five CNN commentators’ reactions to the story, the issue of whether Madhouse’s self-confessed ‘mistake’ was pointedly sexist or not is glossed over completely.

Instead, the commentators banter for about three minutes about whether or not men are fit to do their own laundry, skirting the issue of sexism completely.

Which leads me to wonder, is feminism in danger of being watered down?

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, where news publications, feminist organisations et al shared rousing stories and celebrated the progress that feminism has brought to the lives of women across the globe.

Yet one article written by Laurie Penny in the Independent caught my eye.

It bemoaned the lack of urgency and passion behind IWD today, described by Penny as ‘more about jazzy corporate lunches, poetry competitions and praising our valued sponsors’ than action.

She describes recently attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women, where ‘in a session on body image and the media, delegates applauded politely as a promotional anti-airbrushing video by Dove cosmetics was shown’.

Penny makes the point that for many women, liberation has meant settling for a bland form of neo-liberalism, which has given them a false sense of security while putting them at a disadvantage.

“Instead of equality at work and in the home, we settled for “choice”, “flexibility” and an exciting array of badly paid part-time work to fit around childcare and chores.

“Instead of sexual liberation and reproductive freedom, we settled for mitigated rights to abortion and contraception that are constantly under attack, and a deeply misogynist culture that shames us if we’re not sexually attractive, dismisses us if we are, and blames us if we are raped or assaulted, as one in five of us will be in our lifetime,” she wrote.

So, given that feminists have been pawned off for the last half century, perhaps its not surprising that Emma Barnett was deluged with responses telling her to not get her knickers in a twist about a pair of trousers.

Or more accurately, to ‘lighten up and take a joke’ and to ‘get a life’ in the face of a bit of ‘male banter’.

This suggests a need for the public to be reminded that feminists aren’t caricatures to be laughed at, but women with real difficulties and real demands – and who are prepared to do something about them.

Speaking out against tasteless, sexist ‘banter’ is a good start.

As Barnett wrote: “We really are in a bad place as a society when laughing something off has become virtually the only response to anything vaguely anti-female, or anti-male for that matter.”

And Madhouse’s response? They were ‘unaware’ that the trousers had gone into distribution with the logo intact.

But whether they consider the logo as tasteless or not is apparently not worth us knowing about.

  1. Petra W says:

    I could not agree more with Pennie’s statement about current popular attitude to “feminism”. Any criticism of so called “male banter” invokes an immediate response of “not having a sense of humor” and similar remarks.
    But the habit of smiling along as Barnett calls it, is the heart of the problem. It shows that we as women still put more emphasis on being nice, not confrontational and adhering to the status quo than fighting and arguing for our rights and respectful behavior. Until then, sexism in our society will remain acceptable to the general public.

  2. vicki wharton says:

    Feminism isn’t in danger of being watered down, its actually being railroaded completely out of the way. I think Laurie Penny is right – women didn’t get the vote by asking in a lispy voice if men wouldn’t mind giving it to us – they fought and died for it. And it was men that they had to fight. 1 in 5 of us is being raped by men, 1 in 3 of us in school is subject to sexist assault by boys, 1 in 3 of us is subject to sexist attack in our own homes. The propoganda that is Disney’s Prince Charming simply isn’t the case – a good proportion of men regard their partners as little more than a house slave with benefits – and are overtly contemptuous when asked to consider their slaves basic human rights and needs. After all, when was the last time you saw an article on pregnancy or birth in a men’s magazine?

  3. Thanks Alex for this great article. I myself have been subjected to ridicule and dismissal when I have complained about incidences of “harmless male banter”. I came away with the impression that men are “witty” and should be laughed *with*, and women’s opinions are only based on their emotions should be laughed *at*.

    • vicki wharton says:

      Hi Melissa, if banter was harmless you wouldn’t feel ridiculed – men who laugh at your feelings of discomfort at their jibes about females are the same as people who jibe at black people’s thicker lips or darker skin – sexist discrimination is no different from racist discrimination – the aim of it is to make you feel ‘other’ and excluded from their society in the same way that Aryians excluded Jews, whites excluded blacks in S African, Kosovans excluded Muslims etc etc etc – same shit, different t shirt.

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