Slut-shaming and the TOWIE Feminist Revolution

Sophie Harman

There is a direct correlation between pressure points in the academic calendar (June exam boards and scrambling together conference papers; September new terms and scrambling together conference papers) and the amount of crap telly I watch. ITVBe and E4 are my crash go-to channels but to remain some pretence of being a serious academic I draw the line at the delicious prospect of E! My name is Sophie and I do not spend my spare evenings reading the FT, the Disorder of Things, or Piketty (which judging by my random coffee poll of BISA conference attendees last week neither has anyone other than the Piketty panel members).

So I was quite affronted when work confronted me while watching a recent episode of TOWIE with the slut-shaming of Ferne McCann by the dastardly Tommy Mallet (a name so brilliant, he was born for telly). I like my crap telly with crap plots that no-one cares about, with the kind of conspicuous consumption that makes me forget about the UK election result and general shittiness of austerity in insecure Britain, but a clear example of slut shaming was too far TOWIE!

The slut shaming of Ferne was unpleasant because it used the old misogynist trick of using female sexuality to put women in their place and to suggest as Tommy did, that the only acceptable space women have in society is as part of a couple. It was also unpleasant in that it silenced the woman who was being shamed and her group of friends that listened to it. It was unpleasant in that after the event everyone seemed to agree that the slut shaming was fair game as Ferne had a reputation for being mouthy and out of all the women in Essex she could somehow take it. Ferne looked like a strong woman might when attacked: utterly dumbfounded and trying not to cry on camera.

The additional unpleasantness of Tommy’s slut-shaming of Ferne is that the ensuing Twitter debate has been more about whether Ferne is or is not ‘loose and a goer’ rather than the double-standards of the men on TOWIE (erm Tommy do you not remember the previous series when men have been consistently called out on this sort of behaviour) or more importantly the right and ownership women have of their own sexuality. If Ferne wants to sleep with half of Essex (and I am not saying she does), events are consensual, and the sex is safe (see my earlier work on HIV/AIDS TOWIE fans) then there will be no agg from me. Our lives, our bodies. Women and men have fought hard for this from birth control, to negotiated safe sex for women worried about their husbands transmitting HIV, to Reclaim Your Campus campaigns. Reality telly has somewhere along the line forgotten this. However with feminism popular again as noted bra-burner Taylor Swift takes down the big beast of the Daily Mail, the time could be ripe for a feminist revolution on crap telly.

And perhaps this is why I decided to have a rant about this. My agg towards Tommy is minimal, I still think there’s time for him to sell his feminist journey to OK! Magazine and have a classic tale of reality redemption. More importantly, my longitudinal analysis of crap telly would suggest that much constructed reality revolves around pitting women against each other rather than building solidarity. Yet pockets of solidarity among women do exist on TOWIE and there is noted disgruntlement as to how men treat the women of Essex and the hyper masculinity of some of the male characters (Lockie, why so calm and then so angry?). If Ferne and her friends (I’m looking to you gobsmacked Billie and GC) engage their everyday reality of slut-shaming and relationship stalking (I’m looking to you more-interesting Chloe and new-boring Chloe) as a means of control then we could be on the cusp of a feminist TOWIE revolution. I could then tell my colleagues about it.

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