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.

Food is a feminist issue: junk-food, dieting and the beauty ideal

Milly Morris


“Self-acceptance gets minimal support while entire industries devote themselves to the profitable pursuit of change. Our bodies have become like private correctional facilities, and we their prisoners.” 

      – Ophira Edut, Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image 

Fat: the word denotes 1,000 connotations and assumptions. Fat people are lazy, unhealthy and stupid. Their suffering is due to their own stubborn refusal to eat healthily and exercise. In 2015, David Cameron announced plans to make weight-loss programmes compulsory for anybody who is obese and claiming benefits. Seems reasonable, right? Why should fat slobs lounge on the sofa getting bigger and bigger, eating takeaway pizza paid for by hard-earned taxes? This simplistic stereotype and self-inflicted rhetoric is to be played out by the government and the media to demonize another corner of society. It is the language of self-righteous bullies, picking on vulnerable individuals and blaming them for society’s ills. It is a sophisticated version of professional shit-stirrer Katie Hopkin’s vile, senseless nonsense that claims that fat people simply need to “eat less, move more.” It plays into the public’s apparent desire to watch fat people cry and fail in TV shows such as The Biggest Loser for our “entertainment.”

These notions make sweeping generalisations about people’s lives and dismiss intrinsic and ubiquitous cultural factors as to why people are overweight. A growing literature in social science uses terms such as “foodscape” or a “toxic environment” explanation for the so-called epidemic of obesity: junk-food is everywhere and part of our everyday, normal diet whereas healthy and nutritious food is expensive and apparently getting rarer.

According to the tabloid press, the worst crime you can commit in 2015 is being a fat woman: red circles around stretchmarks and cellulite, paparazzi shots that hound pregnant women for not snapping back to a size 6 frame the moment they have given birth and numerous websites dedicated to documenting actress’s weight gain. It is important to note that these tabloids and magazines are the first to point out when a woman looks too thin, or “worryingly thin” as they are often referred to as.

The pressure for women to adhere to a beauty ideal has always been present, but has evolved throughout time.

In feminist academia, Susie Orbach’s Fat Is a Feminist Issue and Charlotte Cooper’s Fat and Proud draw attention to the fight against fat-phobia, fat discrimination and the stereotypes that they believe are often “held against fat women: success, beauty, wealth, love and sexuality are attached to and depending on slimness” for women.

As Victoria Pitts-Taylor notes, Cooper relates these associations to the current religious climate, which is one of Anglo-American Christian values, “the basic tenets of which are represented succinctly through the archetypes of the Madonna and the Whore”. Therefore, obesity is seen as a choice, a “defilement of the Divine gift of the body, and a rejection of the inherent values of obligation, will-power, control, discipline and focused individual achievement”. Pitts-Taylor suggests that obesity is not only rendered “medically dangerous and deviant, but that obese women are also positioned within the moral archetype of the Whore who is self-indulgent, out of control, and sinful”.

Yet if this pressure to be slim is so intense, why is female obesity growing?

In 2015, the World Health Organisation and UK-based researchers proposed that female obesity would be a problem of “enormous proportions” with predictions that 64% of British women will be overweight or obese by 2030.

This leads to the question: are levels of female obesity sustained by the reliance that the junk-food industry, the beauty industry and diet industry have on obese women? After all, if there were no obese women and there was not an immense pressure on women to be slim, would the multi-billion dieting industry even exist?

As Naomi Wolf argued in The Beauty Myth, beauty became a “currency system”, pressuring women into submitting to the beauty industry in order to rid themselves of their perceived flaws. Has weight now become the currency system that plays into the hands of big corporations to provide women with a ‘magic wand’ for the perfect body?

We now face a catch-22: we are told that we must be thin to be happy and successful, that it is immoral to not be slim. Yet society is currently in a choke-hold from the junk-food industry and in times of austerity, it is becoming increasingly difficult to buy and prepare nutritious food. Whilst a burger at McDonald’s costs 99p, a pack of fresh apples can start at prices up to three times as much.

Instead of tackling these issues at the roots by providing easier access to cheaper healthy foods, the dieting and beauty industries are offering quick fixes to these problems: drink these shakes and be thin, wear this mascara and be beautiful. These companies have only profit in their sights, not a healthier and happier world. For example, SlimFast, the liquid meal replacement company, is owned by the company that also owns Ben & Jerry ice cream.

We are being told to chase an ideal of beauty and branded failures when we cannot meet these unrealistic expectations, expectations created by companies to cash in on women’s dissatisfaction with their appearance. Trapped in an infinite cycle, women are left funding the industries that rely on and feed their insecurities.

On stealing conferences

Nicki Smith

This started off as a comment on the Disorder of Things but I’m scared of getting trolled, so I am sneaking around on here instead. There’s a post over there that troubles me.  It’s here.

I made a brief comment, which I now regret because it implies that I believe that it’s ok to ‘steal a conference’. I do not believe that it’s ok to steal a conference. The people who organise conferences do so for absolutely no reward. It is exhausting, debilitating, and takes over your life. The only thing you get back is that you’ve tried to make a big project – something collective – happen. I’m not involved in BISA but my guess is that any and all ‘revenue’ goes straight back into the conference. It most certainly doesn’t go back to the people organising them.  There is this ‘us’ and ‘them’ thing going on in the post and it offends me that my colleagues are being positioned as the ‘them’. They are tired, overworked and overstressed academics trying to make something happen. And any opportunities to be collective – including, yes, conferences – are so crucially important, especially right now, when we’re already under such pressure to divide and individualise.

We urgently need to do more to support emerging scholars, and to recognise much more openly that there is complete inequality of opportunity between those of us who got jobs pre ‘crisis’ and post it.  But if we turn on each other, and nip and bite over the scraps, we will eat ourselves up.

Let’s stop equating reproductive futurity with socially reproductive labour

Nicki Smith

… For they are, quite simply, not the same thing. I keep on spotting this conflation and I find myself stomping at the words with my finger, like a tiny elephant foot on some (highly reproductive) ants. If there should be any doubt that socially reproductive labour is not the same thing as reproductive futurity, then one need look only so far as the figure of the single mother on benefits, for she is about as closed off from discourses of ‘the future’ as I can think of. As I’ve argued in a recent piece on queering crisis, the family is valorised but it is also the family – and, in particular, the ‘troubled family’ – that is being asked to bear the symbolic weight of economic and social crisis. The single mother on benefits is reviled, blamed, and constructed as a ‘drain’ on ‘the system’ that ‘we’ all have to ‘hold up’. I keep on hearing these discourses, and it makes me want to stomp on them with my tiny elephant fingers.

For the single mother on benefits to be routinely erased in queer theory is problematic, but for her socially reproductive labour to be collapsed into reproductive futurity – which she is simultaneously excluded from in dominant discourses – is the proverbial straw. Indeed, I am struck by how several of my queer friends refer to parents as ‘breeders’ and – in a culture where one must become a parent in order to become a fully-recognised liberal subject – I do understand their point. But I’m also conscious that such discourses can’t be removed from, but are part of, the same systems of meaning that construct single mothers on benefits as ‘breeders’ and her children as feral animals (not even worthy livestock).

Put another way, if queer can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to ‘the right to marry’ or ‘the right to have children’, then it can’t just be used as shorthand for not being married and not having children, either. If, as Lee Edelman notes, queer is a ‘structural positioning’, then we need to continue to think long and hard about precisely who is being positioned as ‘queer’ in queer theory too.

Some thoughts on “New Directions and Cutting-Edges in IPE, IR and elsewhere”

Angus Cameron

As someone who myself is inclined to drop the ‘i’, [Juanita’s piece on ‘New Directions …’] is an interesting post. I like inclusive, but also interpersonal, interdisciplinary, impudent, irrational, irreverent and no doubt many others. Over the years I’ve ended up either replacing it with something closer to what I was actually doing in a particular context – e.g. libidinal political economy – or, increasingly simply dropping it altogether. The latter arises from trying to avoid disciplinary/methodological location because of the baggage that inevitably carries with it. Admittedly this is a lot easier to do if one moves away from IR/IPE, because there is no longer the same pressure to validate ones argument in disciplinary terms (even if it does confuse referees, the poor things). More positively, it arises from a desire to put the ‘problem’ at the centre of what we’re doing rather than impose artificial academy-inspired limits from the outset. And this seems to me all the more important if we are fully to embrace the possibilities offered by feminist, queer and other approaches which are all too often still systematically excluded from ‘proper’ disciplinary endeavour. (Proper, here, as defined by institutional or departmental committees playing it safe for REF panels and equivalents). Indeed, I’d go as far as to suggest that feminist, queer, etc approaches are fundamentally incompatible with disciplinarity in any form. This is not to imagine that the disciplines are about to disappear, but that these alternative approaches need to demonstrate their superior powers of explanation, analysis and interpretation and then feed that back into the disciplines to better educate them.

Beyond that, the idea that feminist theory can still be considered a ‘new direction’ for IR/IPE is utterly depressing. If it (present company excepted of course) hasn’t managed to lurch in that direction in the (at least) 20 years that it has been available, it’s probably time to ditch IR/IPE……

[This originally appeared as a comment on Juanita’s post and has in turn been mentioned in Tiina’s but, as this blog is not a fan of such routine matters as ‘chronology’ or ‘coherence’, it is reposted here by Nicki with Angus’ rather tenuous consent].

Subjective traumas and healings of the “I” in IR. (Or, burying The Question)

Tiina Vaitinnen

calabi yau

I started to write a reply to Juanita’s wonderful blog post, and its equally wonderful comment thread, but this turned into a long rant – and hence a blog post of its own. I might divert the original points made – apologies – but here we go…

Inspired by Angus’s comment in particular, and the discussion that followed, I started to reflect on my own traumatic and problematic relationship with my disciplinary training in IR. For critical feminist IR/IPE scholars there tends to be, after all, always a disciplinary trauma. A cut, some might say. My trauma dates back to the very beginning of  my thesis process (which I should now be finishing, instead of writing this). The healing process, in turn, is rather fresh still.

So the story, the rant:

Due to being left wandering alone by the domestic/local IR community here in the Nordic periphery of Tampere, for the most part of my thesis, I’ve “had” to work in rather interdisciplinary ways over the past years. (The thesis is actually no longer for IR but for Peace Research (PR). That’s a long story, certainly feminist, certainly political story of the “I” in a nationally defined IR, though also at times of the “I” in PR …)

Well, not sure I was exactly “left alone”, there’s always two sides of the story. I could have done more myself, but then – should seeking a way to scholarly community (usually from international conferences rather than at home) be the first thing to accomplish by a first year PhD student? Not sure. But that’s a different story and now I’m rambling.


Over the past five years, I have “had” to work mostly with people who always write the ‘international’ without CAPs. Can you imagine, always as a mere adjective attribute?! In fact, I’ve quite literally often studies simply Relations, or indeed simply (varieties of) Political Economy. And this has been a great, great journey – not only away from the “I” but also back to the values and potential of the “I”.

Though pretty awful in the beginning, my “being left alone” by the local IR department was perhaps the best thing that could have happened, in the long run.

I was, at the time, actually looking down at our discipline a bit. Well, a lot. Comparing my skills to colleagues in sociology and other social sciences, I felt we’re not really taught research methods (in terms of techniques) at all in IR; we’re just being taught to read stuff, and theorise the world. Preferably from a distance. Even if feminist IR/IPE literature shows how research is about intimate encounters, too, the skills of getting intimate are not really taught to us in IR. (Well, to be fair, it’s hard to fit teaching those skills into the one quota lecture on feminist research included in modules like Contending Approaches in IR, and the first year course on Research Skills really must teach us the very basics.)

As a consequence, in IR one might simply describe one’s methods by saying “I did interviews”, without reflecting on the type of interviews, or their purpose in the wider methodological setting any further. It may even happen that you write an entire section on methods and your particular research methodology in an article aimed at IR or IPE – and then people will tell you that this is the irrelevant part, that the argument works on its own. Really? How can the actual road and journey to your results be irrelevant, when making an empirically based argument? Oh, yeah, I forgot, in IR/IPE it is simply enough to read the world as it appears to us (as if we always already knew where and how and in which language or register the world is written). Who cares about how you came to look at the world from exactly that position where you happened to stand, when building your theories? Who cares about the particular apparatus (in a Baradian sense) in which the research and its argumentation are positioned?

Sorry, given the likely readers of this blog, I’m provoking and trolling a bit now. Of course, this is not how many of us fetishists of the “I” actually work. For sure, we do have methods, and we follow them, adventurously and creatively – often more so that those with a solid training in qualitative methods. (Well, without solid training in methods, we kind of need to make things up, creatively…) But really, hands up if you have had to learn your methods on your own, when already doing your research, for you haven’t been concretely introduced to the “techniques” and wider methodologies as part of your bachelors or master’s degree. Well, I’m holding my hand up here, with IR degrees from the UK and Finland – hoping that someone else is as well, and I haven’t simply slept through the important bits of both my degrees…

So, that’s my trauma, my cut with the discipline. But then there’s healing, there’s a process of making up, forgiving the wrongs of the past, return to the roots, to the academic home where you grew up. One’s always gotta have the chance to return home. If for nothing else but to realise that, perhaps, it wasn’t such bad upbringing after all. Not perfect, but there are no perfect homes, no perfect spaces of domestication.

I say that being left alone by my discipline (yes, it’s still mine too) at early stages of the thesis process was one of the best things that could have happened. Namely, it not only forced me to build a community of my own (so cool, I tell you: just pick the people you like, and whose work you like, and who find your stuff interesting too!), with colleagues from a whole range of disciplines from Sociology, Social Anthropology, Social Policy, Geography, Gender Studies, Peace Research etc., but it also helped me to see the values of our training in IR from another angle.

Yes, I still think our methods skills in IR suck, when compared to many other disciplines. However, I’ve come to realise we might have something else to offer. Namely, the capacity to theorise the “I” in its entire complexity, even when we seem not to be explicitly doing it, even when we do not mention the international.

Absolutely, the question of methodological nationalism remains extremely central for IR/IPE scholars to bear in mind – in some research settings more than others. Yet, once we grasp the dangers of methodological nationalism, us fetishists of the “I” may actually have tools to go way beyond. For instance, always already troubled by what the state actually is, us fetishists of the “I” might be able to explore the state itself as transnational, rather than a bounded entity which some other transnationally operating actors challenge at its material boundaries and (seemingly) nonmaterial practices.

We may need better methods skills to convincingly study all this, we may need help from colleagues from other disciplines, and from other others still. Indeed, there certainly remains a need to decolonise the discipline (which I think this is an ethical process and as such endless). We also need to continue to better recognise the “I” as involving not only states or institutions but also human beings, as well as an entire world of the non-human.

Taking critical feminist approaches more seriously still is of course a precondition for such attempts to more inclusive discipine of the “I”, as they help to recognise the contingent ways in which each moment in the space-time of the International is made in unique and constantly changing intersectional hierarchies between bodies, human and non-human alike.

But really, in spite of all these needs of doing things better, I would not say that we have forgotten the “I” in IR/IPE – even if we (finally!) fail to constantly reconseptualise the concept of the “I” itself. Remembering the “I”, I think, becomes embodied in our very minds, during the completion of those lacking yet so precious studies in our own little discipline.

But then of course, if forgetting the “I” in IR means that we have (finally!) learned not to ask, in the end of every single article, dissertation or research paper, the question: “…but what does all this mean to the discipline and/or theories of IR…” – this is good news! For that question of the “I” in IR the world never needed anyway.

So, let’s just bury The Question of IR – while continuing to cherish the ever-changing complexity of the “I”.

Mad Max: MRA on the Fury Road?

Heather Savigny

‘Go see Mad Max, it’s got loads of strong women in it’, I was told by one of my male students. It should be said, I was sceptical. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film with a strong women in it, who wasn’t young, white, thin and blond (not that I have objections to young, thin, blond, white women, it’s just hey, there are other types of women out there).

There has been some great work in film and media studies historically located in Laura Mulvey’s (1974) conception of ‘male gaze‘; women on screen are positioned primarily as objects of desire for men. More recently, coming out of work in comic books, we see the ever useful Bechdel test which has three very simple requirements of a film:

1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it

2. Who talk to each other

3. About something besides a man (

Not that tricky, huh? Yet there are a shocking number of films that fail this basic test. (TV programmers also take note).

So, it was with some trepidation that I went to see the new Mad Max film. And on the one hand it was a post-apocalyptic film, about a journey, with lots of battles, blood and fighting. We see Charlize Theron drive a truck out of the city of men and when she escapes her first round of attackers she releases her cargo – and guess what the first shot is of 5 young, thin, women, wearing white, in varying kinds of bikinis, getting soaked by water. Hmm, a handy male gaze trope if ever I saw one.

But the journey became a metaphor for female solidarity, and we witnessed brutality that can be displayed towards women, with the sharpening of knives and the ripping of an heir from a woman’s pregnant body, we also saw something of female solidarity.

The younger women spoke with their elders, in a move reminiscent of contemporary feminists listening to their forebears. And this was the most extensive and powerful dialogue in the film (which did contain a considerable amount of grunting). Not content with a positive illustration of second wave feminists meeting third generations, we were also treated to more contemporary revisions in subtle and nuanced scenes, whereby we could explore the ways in which men experienced their gender; and became aware that emancipating women meant emancipation for all (consistent with much contemporary writing around feminism, gender and masculinities).

So this was a journey with battles, but it was also a surprisingly subtle journey about the positive achievements and opportunities afforded us by feminists and women’s movements. Just a shame that the MRA – Men’s Rights Activists – (which is a funny name for a group, I thought that was just called the patriarchy) just don’t seem to be able to grasp that.