From Berlusconi to Weinstein to Westminster: Why we need a feminist political economy

Vanessa Bilancetti 

Hollywood is being rocked by the revelations about Harvey Weinstein. Almost every day new people are coming forward to tell their stories of harassment and violence. And, as many filmmakers and actors have made clear, everyone knew what was going on, but no-one said anything. Until now. Many newspapers are now portraying Weinstein as a person with a sexual obsession and ready to go into rehab. But the cases of harassment go beyond this single person. What is emerging is much more than one man’s obsession: an entire system based on sexual favours, harassments and violence is coming to the surface.

The Weinstein affair has led to a slightly different public discussion in Italy, a country that is not new to this kind of sexual scandal. Here, actresses are being blamed because they did not denounce the alleged abuse at the time it took place. Some right-wing newspapers have been very clear, these actresses did not denounce because they profit from the situation. Therefore, they claim this has nothing to deal with harassment. In contrast to this position, many others have written about the incapacity for victims to talk about their abuse and denounce their abusers. The Scottish government has released a very good campaign under the hashtag #IJustFroze, to explain how victims can feel about sexual violence.

But the Weinstein case is also important for other reasons, beyond the world of showbiz and Hollywood. This case talks about the relation between women and the labour market in general and how women have entered a labour market that was developed for men and is organised by men. Reading the report of the European Commission on Violence Against Women and Economic Independence of 2017 it is clear how economic emancipation did not erase the possibility of violence or harassment, but a shift has occurred: from violence perpetuated primarily by partners within the confines of the home, to harassment perpetuated by non-partners in public spaces.

Here, there is a pattern of gendered economic relations – beyond the gender pay gap but related to it – that needs to be revealed. And much of this has to deal with violence and harassment in many different forms: sexual, psychological, or physical. This is exactly what a feminist political economy can do by looking at gendered social relations, beyond the abstract idea of the homo economicus.

Firstly, women entering into the labour market have remained responsible for the majority of the cleaning, cooking and caring of children and elderly. From being the housekeeper and the excluded of public life, in the neoliberal era women have become the wonder woman of both the house and the office. Able to do everything and permanently haunted by the idea of not doing enough at work or for their children. In fact, our competitive labour market is based on the abstract idea of a businessman that can dedicate day and night to his job, and achieve satisfaction from it. In reality this model not only harms men but is unsustainable for women.

Secondly, this abstract idea of the businessman breaks down in front of the exploitation that we all experience in the labour market. How free are we really to say no to our boss? How free are we to denounce when we could lose our entire career or simply the job through which we earn our living? In a labour market that is more and more competitive and precarious how much power of negotiation do we have in front our boss? Current labour relations entail subordination for both men and women. But, usually, women are paid less, and they rarely get to the top positions. Thus, our competitive labour market looks much more divided along lines of gender and race, rather than being a space of equal opportunities. White men are usually in positions of power with good salaries, whereas women are more likely to have casual contracts and lower wages, especially if they are women of colour.

Any labour relation entails subordination, but women, who are usually in the subordinated position, can be submitted to a specific form of violence in this relation: violence on their bodies, sexual violence, and harassment. On this issue, Brit Marling, who was sexually assaulted by Weinstein, but was able to escape has probably written the most effective explanation on the topic:

“The things that happen in hotel rooms and board rooms all over the world (and in every industry) between women seeking employment or trying to keep employment and men holding the power to grant it or take it away exist in a gray zone where words like “consent” cannot fully capture the complexity of the encounter. Because consent is a function of power”.

Women like Brit Marling who are now speaking out show that it is possible to escape, if you know that walking out of that door you will still be able to have a job and earn your life. In fact, the majority of the women that are speaking out and loudly now, already have a career and they cannot be blackmailed, or at least not anymore.

As has become clear this is not only about a single film producer, and it is not only about Hollywood. Even, the European Parliament seems to be a place where harassment is normal. And now we know that even the British Parliament – the place where democracy was invented as someone told me once – is a place where harassment can take place.

Everyone in Hollywood apparently knew about what Weinstein was doing, just like as in Italy everyone knew about Berlsuconi, and probably too many people were not surprised about the recording of Donald Trump saying ‘I would grab her by the pussy’. In these cases, the first line of defence of men in power has been to undermine the credibility of victims. This is what Trump did, what Strauss-Khan did, and what Berlusconi did, and none of these men were convicted for committing violence. Blaming victims is what is now happening in the public debate in Italy, because for Italy, as for many other countries, to condemn Weinstein means to recognise a problem much bigger than a single man.

The millions of tweets using the hashtag #MeToo have showed the systematic normality of this violence towards women, and the systematic undervaluation of harassment. #MeToo has not only revealed the vulnerability of every single woman, but it has turned this vulnerability into collective recognition, and then into possible collective agency. A woman should not be alone in front of harassment. Individual blackmail, stigma, shame, fear can only be overcome together. As the Italian movement Non Una di Meno (Not One Less) has written #WeToogether.

#WeTooghether explains another important aspect. Uncovering and challenging systematic gendered and racial violence is not only a question presented to gendered or racialised subjects, but of all subjects. Systematic violence and harassment against women in the labour market is a problem for the entire society, men and women. Addressing this violence means to change the way we relate with each others, as well as, to change the structural relations of power in the labour market. It means to tackle the structural inequality of our society, and also to deconstruct the gender stereotypes that are shaping our relations.

And this is why we need feminist political economy because a gendered perspective on the economic relations is able to unravel the inequality of a society supposedly based on equality. We need to study how the labour market entails a gendered division of labour, how development has been based – and still is – on the unpaid work of women, and how harassment is intrinsic to the labour market.

[This post is republished with permission from the SPERI blog]

Judith Butler, “gender ideology” and the rise of conservatism in Brazil

By Thais Bessa


In early November 2017, feminist philosopher Judith Butler was in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for a conference she co-organised. Although the conference was not on gender, but on democracy, Butler’s presence sparked great controversy in the country.

An online petition demanding the conference to be cancelled gathered over 370,000 signatures and was heavily promoted on social media, especially by evangelical groups. The petition asked people to email conference organisers asking for its cancellation, including the following template message:

Judith Butler is not welcome in Brazil! Our nation has refused gender ideology in the National Education Plan and in the Municipal Education Plans of almost all municipalities. We do not want an ideology that disguises a Marxist political project. Her books want us to believe that identity is variable and the result of culture. Science and, above all reality, show us the opposite. Her presence in our country at a communist symposium, paid for with the money of an international foundation, is not wanted by the overwhelming majority of the population. We care for our children and the future of our Brazil. #OutwithButler. (my translation).

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A group of some 70 people gathered in front of the conference venue to protest, chanting words like “family” and “tradition”. They had posters with pictures of Butler altered to look like a devil and sayings such as “in favour of marriage like God intended – 1 man and 1 woman”. Protesters also burned an effigy with Butler’s face shouting “burn the witch!” in what looked like a surreal medieval scene (which is sadly befitting, as Brazil, and other Latin American countries, seem to be indeed returning to the Middle Ages). A group of protesters even took to harass Butler at the airport shouting things like “go away, paedophile, child killer”. The video footage is cringeworthy and I felt ashamed of being Brazilian for a moment.


As remarked by Butler herself, the protesters seemed to have little familiarisation with her work. One example is the characterisation of Butler’s concept of “performativity”. According to those mobilizing the protests, “through performance, [Butler] proposes that people live every type of sexual experiences” (my translation). But the main object of antagonism for those opposed to her visit and ideas, was the “gender ideology”, which they claimed it was founded and promoted by Butler.

Narratives using the terminology “gender ideology” have been on the rise in Brazil and in other Latin American countries for a while. Produced and reproduced by far-right Christian groups (noting that Catholic and evangelical movements have immense power in the sub-continent), the term “gender ideology” is presented as the imposition of ideas and beliefs that seek to destroy institutions like family, marriage, and religious freedom. Presented as a threat to Christian moral values and tradition, this discourse has been particularly vocal in opposing policies or even debates on issues of gender identity, LGBTQ+ rights (especially marriage equality) and abortion.

Recent examples of how pervasive these discourses are, and their consequences, are abundant in Brazil. Due to pressure of those against “gender ideology”, issues of gender and sexuality were excluded from the latest National Education Plan. Art exhibitions that questioned religion and sexuality have been cancelled following pressure from conservative groups that deemed them to offend Christian values and the “traditional family”. A new legislation that completely criminalises abortion in the country has been pre-approved and will have its final vote by the Congress by the end of November. If this legislation is approved, abortion will be prohibited even for pregnancies resulting from rape, causing risk to the mother’s life and of anencephalic foetuses. One of the front-runners pre-candidate for the 2018 presidential elections is a religious nationalist who is openly anti-gay and misogynist and claims to be “Brazil’s Trump”.

As right-wing governments increasingly rise to power in Latin America and elsewhere, conservative movements feel legitimised and narratives like those creating the term “gender ideology” flourish, with serious consequences, especially for women and LGBTQ+ folks. As recently noted by the Open Society Foundations, although “gender ideology” is a fiction, the threat it poses is real.

Gender notes about Hurricane Harvey

By Thais Bessa

Living through hurricane Harvey in Houston was a difficult experience in many levels. But during the week we were trapped home during the flooding and in the days that followed, I could not help but make some random notes about gendered aspects of the experience.

Indeed, this is my experience and what I observed. Of course it is by no means “scientific” (and definitely not from a positivist standpoint). The “sample” is small, my analysis inherently biased as I was part of it and deeply emotionally involved. Even though they are only my perceptions that cannot hold any scientific claim or be generalised, they raise important reflections about gender.

During the days leading to the hurricane’s landfall, virtually everyone in Houston made preparations for the event. Supermarkets were like a scene from a movie, with people literally cleaning up the shelves of supplies like non-perishable food, water, flashlights and fuel. I noticed that as usual, most people buying provisions at the supermarkets were women. For almost all families I spoke with, in the days before the hurricane’s landfall and even in the first few hours of the disaster, men were quite nonchalant about it, relying on women to make preparations like getting provisions. In many cases, men made comments about how women were being “hysteric” or “overly dramatic”, a discourse that changed once the situation evolved and the hurricane turned out to be one of the worst natural disasters and the worst flooding event in the US history.

During the flooding, thousands of people were displaced and those who were luckier like us were trapped in their houses for days. How men and women reacted to being trapped home is permeated by traditional gender roles. Being more accustomed to occupying the private space of the household, women found it easier to adapt to the situation, whilst men, who usually inhabit public spaces, suffered a bad case of cabin fever. Even when leaving the house by car (Houston is an extremely car-bound city) was not possible, men were seen pacing in front of houses, often in knee-deep or waist-deep water, making remarks on their need “to leave the house” even if just for a moment.

A friend who is a well-educated professional had to evacuate to a relative’s house, where other friends and family members also sought refuge for a few days. Upon returning to her home she confided about how tired she was as on top of all the stress and the demands of keeping the children entertained and somewhat oblivious of the seriousness of the situation, she had to cook for and clean after the 15-20 people staying in the house. According to her, the men in the house were like “headless chicken”, pacing around the house all day and still relying on women to take care of the daily maintenance of life.

Once looting began around town and a state of panic spread, men found a new purpose in the chaos: to guard neighbourhoods. A few of my neighbours were pacing around flooded streets carrying one, two and in some cases three guns (Texas thing for guns never ceases to amaze me) and brandishing “masculine” mottos like “come loot and I will shoot”.

The disaster also gave space to misogynist and anti-LGBTQ+ remarks. Conservative author Ann Coutler tweeted that Hurricane Harvey was more likely God punishing Houston for having elected a lesbian mayor than a result of climate change. A photograph of a rescuer carrying a woman and her child through floodwaters was used as a symbol of traditional gender roles.

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Conservative columnist Matt Walsh tweeted “Woman cradles and protects child. Man carries and protects both. This is how it ought to be, despite what your gender studies professor says.” Another conservative author, Ben Shapiro, wrote that the picture evokes the right vision of humanity: “men as protectors, women as guardians, children as innocents”. Besides the reproachable use of an act of human solidarity to fit a certain narrative, these writings ignore the thousands of women who worked in rescue and relief during and after the floods, as well as the thousands of men who had to be rescued and equally carried out of flooded houses.

Academics and practitioners have discussed how natural disasters are gendered, particularly how people have specific vulnerabilities and are impacted differently by natural disasters due to gender roles and how sexual violence against women increases in the aftermath of disasters. However, how everyday practices during all stages of disasters are deeply gendered remains under analysed. In addition, most debates have focused on developing countries, including analyses related to gender aspects of natural disasters. As largely criticised by postcolonial feminist theory, this assumes that Western/developed societies are somehow unaffected by gender inequality.


The Shadow Monster: 4 things I wish I’d known about doing a PhD with OCD

Milly Morris


(Credit: Dr. Nicki Smith’s analogy about the monster from ST2 being like her writing process inspired this article)

Don’t think about a polar bear. 

…you are thinking about a polar bear, aren’t you?

Now, I bet you are trying not to think about a polar bear, which is making it even worse. There’s now a gigantic white bear dancing about your brain, taunting you. The more you try, the clearer it will become before you can almost see it’s teeth and pearly white fur.

Everyone gets these kinds of intrusive thoughts, the ones that pop into your head and potentially cause you mild discomfort or stress. But then, for most people, these thoughts float away and allow you to move on. For those with OCD, however, these thoughts can be debilitating. No matter how hard you try to get rid of them, they won’t go away.  There is a common misconception that people with OCD wash their hands religiously or spend five hours a day flicking on and off the light switches. In fact, OCD can range from constantly replaying an incident from one’s past to experiencing recurring and disturbing images in one’s mind.

To me, OCD is like the Shadow Monster in Stranger Things 2. It is not felt or seen by anyone except you, even though you are sure that everyone else can hear how loud the thoughts are in your head.  When an obsessive thought takes hold, it’s like an icy grip on your chest and stomach. You can’t move or think outside that worry, the fear is all-encompassing and debilitating: I can’t believe I did *that*, how long before everyone finds out my true nature? These obsessions multiply and mutate when you are alone, becoming distinct from the initial worry until you begin to doubt your own memories and blur the lines between the obsession and reality. I once read that OCD feels like being a stone in a stream, whilst your friends and family are fish. They change and move on as you stay rooted and unchanging, permanently revisiting and analyzing memories of potential mistakes and bad deeds. You constantly feel that the Shadow Monster is lurking behind you, biding it’s time until it can leap out and reveal your true self to those you love.

When I started my PhD, I knew that it would be difficult. 80,000 words is, let’s face it, too many words. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the intense impact that the research process would have on my mental health. Doctoral research includes long solitary hours staring at a computer screen, a complete lack of structure and the persistent question of “is anyone even going to read this?” (answer: probably not).  This is accompanied by precarious teaching contracts and financial worries, which makes the PhD a perfect breeding ground for poor mental health. For that reason, I decided to cobble together some (hopefully) helpful tips for looking after your mental health whilst studying for a PhD. These don’t necessarily apply to just OCD, but they have been some small tricks that I’ve learnt along the way.

1. If it isn’t going to happen, don’t force it. 

There are days where you sit down at the computer and bang out a thousand words before lunch (I didn’t say they were “good” words). These days are few and far between. Often, when I’m feeling particularly anxious, I can go days (and sometimes) weeks without writing anything. I will stare at the computer, hoping that words come to me, but they just won’t. This gets worse if you try and force yourself to write, becoming a cycle of anxiety and annoyance at oneself for not “working hard enough.” Indeed, it can often feel like you are “slacking” whilst everyone else is at their “real job.” In these instances, be kind to yourself. Go for a walk, to the gym, read a non-academic book or write a blog about something that interests you. Something completely separate to the thesis that you enjoy. When you come back to writing, you’ll hopefully be able to focus and you won’t feel unproductive.

2. Talk to people that you trust. 

This is something that’s particularly difficult when you have OCD as obsessions manifest themselves in thoughts or fears that the individual is particularly ashamed or embarrassed about. Airing these thoughts to people that you trust, however, can help you to feel less alone in your obsessions and to separate rational thought from irrational spiraling.

3. If you can, exercise helps!

I like to run whilst listening to podcasts (favorites being Russell Brand on Radio X and Criminal). This really helps me to get space from my anxiety and to concentrate on something else. Exercising, if you are able to, wears out your body and helps give you some peace of mind. I’ve found that going for a run before I start my thesis works builds structure into my day and makes me feel slightly calmer for when I start writing.

4. Tidy space, tidy mind (I’ve turned into my Mum)

Having a clean and homely space to work in has been a really important part of writing-from-home for me. It’s something that really helps soothe anxiety and stress and I find that if my flat is a mess, then I can begin to feel overwhelmed with my workload too. The lack of structure is one of the hardest things about a PhD, and so keeping things tidy stops your mind feeling “cluttered” and allows you to feel “on top of things.”  However, if you are having one of those days where a shower feels like the hardest thing in the world, perhaps do something nice for yourself like light a candle or paint your nails.

5. Your obsessions don’t define you. 

It can often feel like you can’t get away from your worries and that you’ll never be able to move forward, let alone finish a PhD. I’m the worst for this, as I often let myself disappear down a rabbit hole of despair and shame. Here, I’ll try and take my own advice: you are much more than your obsessions and fears. Try and remind yourself of the good parts of your personality or the times that you might have made people happy, rather than that potentially “terrible” thing you did five years ago.  It can feel impossible, but it’s important to try! Hopefully, this will mean that the Shadow Monster becomes smaller and smaller, until it is a distant and unfamiliar memory.

Fashion is more political than Theresa May’s sodding shoes

Sophie Harman

This morning I was having the usual what to wear dilemma of everyone living in the UK during summer: it had pissed it down with rain the day before and now it was sunny, so what to put on my feet? Boots or sandals? While contemplating this daily dilemma John Humphrys was interviewing ex-Editor of British Vogue Alexandra Shulman on Radio 4’s Today Programme. The subject of the interview was meant to be changing fashion trends over 60 years but in effect the questions asked to Shulman can be summarised as: skinny, thin, skinny, skinny, Theresa May’s shoes, you’re not skinny.


At a basic bitch level this is a set of boring questions, asked by someone who clearly thinks fashion is frivolous, and is a dial-in what-to-ask-a-fashion-person-when-you-know-nothing-about-fashion. Kudos to Shulman for calling this out. However the disregard of fashion as frivolous plays into the unchecked political power fashion has. I don’t need to recreate the cerulean shirt scene from The Devil Wears Prada because you know it, because everyone has seen that film, because fashion in powerful. But you get my point – billion pound industries are not frivolous.


On the one hand the frivolity argument overlooks the inequalities in fashion: male ownership of fashion conglomerates; cultural appropriation of every culture possible; the dominance of white models, editors, designers, company owners, PR teams; the age of models, and yes the demands on them to be skinny; supply chains; labour standards and working hours, I could go on but these arguments have been rehashed countless times (and yet still ignored by interviewers obsessed with skinny).


On the other hand the frivolity argument ignores the close alignment between fashion and politics. This is evident in how magazines pursue political agendas – see US Vogue and the Democrats or British Vogue and the Tories – and can be a humanizing and legitimating force for political actors; fashion fundraising for politicians; and fashion aspirations for political office, see for example Anna Wintour as genuinely rumoured to being Hillary Clinton’s pick for US Ambassador to the UK. It is also evident in how fashion engages activism. This is often badly done, however most people in the know know that the Trump resistance is more likely to be found in Teen Vogue that the FT or the New Yorker.


Over the two minutes it took for Humphrys to interview Shulman and for me to choose to wear boots (never trust the blue skies), I could think of a list of alternative questions:

  • What impact will Brexit have on the fashion industry and its contribution to the UK economy?
  • What do you think of Naomi Campbell’s comments on the picture of the Vogue team in the latest edition of the magazine? Does Vogue and Fashion have a diversity problem? Or put more bluntly, Vogue so white?
  • Should designers such as Gucci and Vetements be allowed to steal ideas from hip hop culture without attribution?
  • What did you make of the Lucinda Chambers piece in Vestoj? Have advertisers compromised the artistic part of fashion magazines?
  • Does high street fast fashion have implications for labour standards throughout the fashion industry (child labour, supply chains, and pressure on designers at the top end)?
  • Are the number of fashion shows excessive?
  • How can a new designer get into Vogue when it only showcases people you know or are related to? Ahem, Samantha Cameron and Deputy Editor Emily Sheffield.
  • Is Teen Vogue the vanguard of the revolution? (Okay this is a bit far-fetched, but more interesting than why so skinny?)

These are uncomfortable questions, but not any more uncomfortable than the usual questions posed by Humphrys. The Today Programme missed two tricks here. The first, not delivering on the holding truth to power style journalism that is often claimed to be the programme’s core public good: here they had one of the most powerful women in Britain and they stuck to a tired script. My sense is Shulman may even have wanted to respond to the more difficult questions and offer her opinion without the constraints of advertising, publisher, and colleagues to keep happy. You don’t get to be an editor-at-large without some political savvy and it would have been interesting to hear how she responded or dodged such questions. The second trick is that in not posing these questions, Today missed an opportunity to create more news headlines – the benchmark of how their editorial policy resonates with the wider public – as had Shulman said anything with a smidge of controversy it would have gone viral.


The only saving grace of the whole interview was no-one mentioned or compared Shulman to Anna Wintour. That would have been the cherry of the dial-it-in yawn. The other source of optimism is that there are hints that the new Editor-in-chief Edward Enninful may take on some of these questions in the magazine itself, and perhaps political journalists may (wrongly, of course, this is a feminist blog) see Vogue as less frivolous if a man’s in charge.


Fashion is more political than Theresa May’s sodding shoes. I have personal reasons for writing this piece; one colleague looked at my Zara zebra print shoes and declared them ‘very Theresa May.’ This happened years ago but I’ve not forgotten and I have not worn these shoes since. But the more fashion is dismissed as frivolous and interviews continue to obsess over the skinny, the more insidious forms of power in the fashion world go unchecked and unseen.

In praise of my local boxing club

Charlotte Godziewski

As a child, sports was always part of my weekly routine. I enjoyed trying out and pursuing a variety of different disciplines, mostly gymnastics and tennis. Doing sports was pleasantly uncomplicated. I was having fun developing skills, improving my body’s abilities and strengths, and I was getting the excitement of competing at a small-scale, ‘no pressure’ amateur level. Growing up, though, I found it increasingly difficult to retrieve the same feeling of satisfaction that sports once provided me. It was when I recently joined the Women’s Boxing Club that I finally found that wonderfully fulfilling way of doing sports again. It dawned on me how challenging it can be, as an adult and as a woman, to find a sport club that is genuinely about learning a new discipline, with the multitude of benefits it entails. Yes, I was moving to different countries fairly often, which made it hard to sustainably join a club or a team. But I’d argue that there’s more to it.

The dominant discourse around ‘sport’ changes as you grow up. Sports changes from being ‘a fun and empowering activity’ to a depressing ‘public health discipline’. Even worse, and especially if you’re a woman, physical activity becomes merely a tool to (try to) improve your appearance.

Governing healthy bodies

Much social science research has drawn on Foucault’s concept of (neo)liberal governmentality to better understand the contemporary shape and discourse of health promotion (Ayo, 2012; Crawshaw, 2013; Mik-Meyer, 2014; Thompson & Kumar, 2011; Warin, 2011). In a nutshell, the act (or the art) of ‘government’ is understood by Foucault as a nexus of practices, institutions, techniques and discourses that construct our expectations of how society and individuals ought to behave and lead their lives. He famously refers to this as the ‘conduct of conduct’ (Burchell, Gordon, & Miller, 1991). Governmentality is liberal insofar as it promotes a society of free individuals operating in free markets. However, there are expectations as to how an individual is to enact and make use of this ‘freedom’. The individual is presented as dual: free to enjoy certain rights, but disciplined into enjoying them in a particular way. This discipline, it has been argued, is reflected in public health messages that tend to emphasise strongly – or even solely – healthy lifestyles as a matter of individual responsibility. Citizens are encouraged to become ‘food smart’, active, responsible ‘entrepreneurs of themselves’.

While it can be argued that of course people are responsible for their actions, there are fundamental issues associated with a discourse strictly limited to individual responsibility. For example, the fact that it neglects, and actively draws attention away from, structural determinants of ill-health and unhealthy lifestyle, including socioeconomic inequalities. This sort of discourse, in turn, can have ostracizing effects on precisely the population groups it is supposed to encourage and help.

Another, perhaps more mundane and definitely subjective consequence (which I don’t intend to generalise here), is that this responsibilisation tends to take all the fun out of sports. Which is a bit counterproductive frankly. Responsibilising citizens into getting physically active may be a good thing in itself, but the way it is done is just so tragically unimaginative! Fitness centres that pop up on every street corner. Sure, many people genuinely enjoy going to the gym, and the fact that they are becoming increasingly accessible is great, but isn’t this trend the quintessence of making sports merely a means to an end, rather than an end in itself? Personally, I always struggled to go to a gym on a regular basis. Children can play, but adults have to go to the gym.

You’re here to lose weight, right?

Wright et al. (2006) have investigated the way in which discourses on healthy lifestyles, nutrition and physical activity were taken up and appropriated by a sample of young men and a sample of young women. Their interviews showed that, when talking about physical activity, the young men would mostly talk about skills, strengths and generally fitness as providing the muscular capacity and stamina to enable them to do things. In the female group, however, physical activity was very often associated with desirable body shape and appearance (Talleu, 2012; Wright, O’Flynn, & MacDonald, 2006). It is true that pressure to conform to physical appearance standards is also increasing amongst men. However, weight loss is still rarely stereotyped as the one and only, obvious reason men work out. I’m not sure I can say the same about how society makes sense of women working out. Of course, there is nothing wrong with working out as a means to lose weight and it is really not my intention to imply any judgment about anyone’s motivations, reasons and goals. What I do bemoan, is the all too common assumption that the only reason an adult woman can possibly work out must be because she wants to look more attractive (subtext: for men) (Maguire & Mansfield, 1998). My point is that women’s sports is too often conceptualised in an androcentric way. This ingrained assumption that female physical activity is reducible to weight loss and toning is only reinforced by the gendered ‘healthism’* trend (whose advocates abound on social media platforms like Instagram and Youtube: #fitness #healthybody). In turn, ‘feminised’ versions of sports facilities targeting purely aesthetic goals are booming (Craig & Liberti, 2007). This goes from sexy women’s sports clothing trends to your famous ‘get-a-nice-booty-like-Beyoncé’ fitness class. Of course, I’d be a hypocrite to deny my own motivation to be, and to look, fit. That’s not where the problem lies. All I’m saying is that ‘women working out’ cannot be systematically reduced to ‘wanting to look good’. Body shape is – if anything – only a small part of a much wider ensemble of motivations for working out.

It’s time to challenge these assumptions and redefine physical activity, not just as an obligation to remain healthy, and certainly not just as a tool to become prettier, but as the fun and empowering leisure it used to be when we were kids! Such possibilities exist. I am incredibly lucky to have found a club that enables me to do exactly this. A sports club that does not buy into limiting gendered stereotypes, and that does not believe in adjusting the workout to conform with feminised, patriarchal clichés. And it feels amazing. Not only does the club reject gendered stereotypes, but it also provides an opportunity for women to get involved in a sport discipline that is strongly male-dominated, boxing. And if people asked me why, ‘as a woman’, I like boxing, I’d say it’s pretty much for the same multitude of reasons any man would enjoy it.

*Healthism: “A discourse in public health practice, [which links body shape to good health and] in which individuals are held to be morally responsible for the prevention of illness by knowing and avoiding the risk factors associated with ill-health. Individuals thus have a duty to monitor their own well-being constantly and to mediate and invest in choices and practices that are health enhancing and can prevent illness.” (Wright et al., 2006)


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Craig, M. L., & Liberti, R. (2007). “’Cause That’s What Girls Do” The Making of a Feminized Gym. Gender & Society, 21(5), 676–699.

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Maguire, J., & Mansfield, L. (1998). “No-Body’s Perfect”: Women, Aerobics, and the Body Beautiful. Sociology of Sport Journal, 15, 109–137.

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Lady in the Streets, Freak in the Sheets: challenging the ‘virgin/whore’ dichotomy on ITV’s ‘Love Island’


Milly Morris

Throughout the history of Western popular culture, recurring binaries of women have been used to present a simplistic vision of femininity and to reinforce gendered power structures. These depictions can often be linked to religion, aiming to categorize women into ‘good’ VS ‘bad’ girls or ‘sinners’ VS ‘saints’, with the labels being determined by a woman’s sexual behavior. Whilst the ‘good’ girl abstains from sex and is ‘chaste’ (the ‘Madonna’), the ‘bad’ girl is sexually active (the whore, the femme fatale). Of course, within Christianity, Eve represents the original ‘bad girl’, implying that female sexuality is both dangerous and untrustworthy. This dichotomy is heavily present in the mainstream music industry, with many songs being dedicated to “good” VS “bad” types of women. For example, Avril Lavigne’s ‘Skater Boi’ tells the story of a ‘bad’ girl who thinks she is ‘better’ than Lavigne’s love interest, leading to her inevitable loneliness and regret at her decision to reject him. The song concludes with the ‘good’ girl (Lavigne) ‘winning’ the man’s affection and providing the audience with a moralistic lesson about the dangers of ‘friend-zoning’ men. Lavigne sings:

She had a pretty face but her head was up in space. She needed to come back down to earth.

Another example of this can be seen in Pink’s “Stupid Girls” which cites “porno paparazzi” girls as being a “disease” or “epidemic.” Here, the suggestion is that women who engage in traditionally feminine practices – the video shows heavily made up women getting spray tans and pedicures – should be belittled and considered one-dimensional, fickle and unintelligent. Indeed, both songs replicate the virgin/whore dichotomy by positioning ‘smart’ girls against ‘feminine’ girls, the suggestion being that the latter are always overtly sexual and – consequently – “bad.”

ITV’s ‘Love Island’ is a reality TV show based upon single-tons finding ‘true love’. The contestants are filmed living in a picturesque villa for seven weeks as they try to find a potential partner. Each week, the contestants are told to ‘couple-up’ with their love interests. In the final week, the public ‘choose’ who their favorite couple is (which couple they believe to be genuinely ‘in love’) and that couple wins a cash prize. Each summer, my friends and I become genuinely obsessed with the show (we even have a group chat dedicated to analyzing each episode/character development) and there are parts of the show which are compelling and heart-warming. For example, contestants form tight friendships and are shown being generally silly and carefree together.

With most reality TV shows, backlash is based upon the frivolous and self-centered nature of viewers and participants (often accompanied with a warning about the apparent generational shift towards rampant individualism). For example, Piers Morgan referred to the cast as “cretins” and that the show was designed to “scramble” our brains. Whilst, of course, there are some narratives which potentially reproduce societal power structures (to be discussed throughout this blog), it’s important to note that reality TV doesn’t represent the “downfall” of relationships and so-called “millennial entitlement”…sometimes it is enjoyable to switch off and watch people being carefree on TV.

Despite this, the virgin/whore dichotomy is deeply entrenched within Love Island’s narrative, with the men often debating which women are “wifey material” (one contestant, Kem, is often heard pondering which woman he would be able to “take home to his Mum”). Again, such discourse categorizes the female contestants into good VS bad, the suggestion being that one “type” of woman would be welcomed into a family environment, whilst another is reserved only for fulfilling sexual gratification. For example, during a game truth-telling “spin the bottle”, it was revealed that Amber once had sex with two men in an evening. Despite some of the male contestants revealing that they had taken part in four-somes, this revelation left Kem shocked – and seemingly – disgusted, telling the camera:

I can’t believe she slept with two guys in one night (…) that has put me off

Consequently, Kem’s attraction to Amber was partly based upon a perceived innocence or sexual naivety, which presumably he hoped to “school” her in. His reaction to Amber taking part in “promiscuous” sexual activity with other men suggests that he now views her as “tarnished” or “broken goods.” In contrast, unsurprisingly, Marcel’s revelation that he has slept with “around” 300 women was met with rapturous applause and laughter from the other contestants. In another scene, Camilla encapsulates the balancing act of the virgin/whore dichotomy by stating that she follows the guide of being a “lady in the streets” but a “freak in the sheets.” Indeed, this is seemingly where Amber went wrong; a woman’s promiscuity is expected to be kept private in order to stop men feeling uncomfortable, but should be unleashed when it is “appropriate” to do so. For example, in recent episodes, Camilla has been pressurized into “coupling up” with new-boy Craig.

Such sexual double standards could be seen in 2016’s series, in which Zara – a former Miss Great Britain winner – had sex with Alex Bowen on their first date. After Zara confided in Kady (who “promised” not to share her secret), Kady is seen telling the other contestants and calling Zara an “absolute idiot” and a “stupid girl”, whilst Olivia jokes “Miss GB fucks on the first date, you sure?” The women laugh as Olivia states that she “would never do that.” Here, Zara’s reputation as a pageant queen –historically presented as “pure” and “virginal” – is juxta posed with her “bad” sexual behaviors, positioning her as a possessing contradictory characteristics of both “Madonna” and “whore.” Indeed, this contradiction led Zara to be stripped of her Miss Great Britain title, with the organizers claiming that her behavior was “unacceptable” of a pageant winner. In a later interview on Loose Women, Zara stated that she was “dealing with the consequences” of her actions and was repeatedly asked by the hosts if she “understood” the severity of her behavior  In contrast to Alex – who was shown laughing bashfully with the other male contestants – Zara continuously apologized on air, repeating that the incident was “really not like me at all” and that it was a “mistake.”

However, this series, the storyline with the most prominent virgin/whore dichotomy is that of the love triangle between Camilla, Johnny and Tyla. Camilla – who studied at Loughborough university and currently works for an explosive ordinance disposal unit – has been continuously represented as “not the type of girl” to appear on a reality TV show, with articles suggesting that she is “too classy” to be on Love Island. Such language works to create a hierarchy of women within the villa – whilst Camilla is categorized as “classy”, the other female islanders are subsequently recognized to be “trashy.” Indeed, this discourse has centred around Camilla’s character development on the show. For example, initially, Camilla was “coupled up” with Jonny. However, after new contestants entered the villa, Jonny decided that he wanted to “re-couple” with Tyla. On the “Love Island Reactions” Facebook page – a forum for fans of the show, where admins post their reactions to occurring scenes – many of the posts were based around this love triangle, such as the following:

“Camilla needs to dispose of Tyla like she does those bombs in the Middle East” 

“Camilla dated a prince and yet Johnny is throwing her away for a Sainsbury’s basics version of Michelle Keegan? Nah that’s not on”

“I swear to god if Jonny picks Tyla over Camilla in tonight’s recoupling I will go drop kick him in the pool and drown him” 

Whilst Camilla does seem like a genuinely lovely and intelligent person (a highlight of the show being where she defended her feminist views in an argument with Johnny), the categorization of women in this fashion only works to reproduce damaging power structures. The suggestion here is that Tyla entered the villa with the intention of “stealing” Jonny from Camilla, positioning her as sexually “predatory” and consequently “untrustworthy” and/or “disloyal.” Likewise, the implication that Tyla is “cheap” in comparison to Camilla (continuously referred to as the “nation’s sweetheart”) is intertwined with classism; Camilla’s label of being “too good” for Love Island is often cited alongside her seemingly privileged background, as well as the rumour that she dated a Prince Harry.

Overall, it is important to analyse reality TV’s representations of femininity and sexuality. Such shows often follow simplistic narratives – for example, Big Brother always ‘needs’ a villain to soak up the audience’s collective “hatred” – which can often lead to lazy gender binaries playing out throughout the show’s story-lines. However, one interesting element of Love Island, is some of the resistance that can be seen towards the virgin/whore dichotomy. In one episode, for example, Olivia stated that “it’s 2017 (…) if I want to sit on a dick, then I’ll sit on a dick”, whilst the 2016 series showed Sophie reading a poem about the sexual double standard endured by Zara. Most importantly, shows such as Love Island exist within the mainstream and draw in large audiences.  Thus, conversations surrounding gender and sexuality can be amplified through such shows in a way that is relevant and interesting to some young people. Consequently, it is essential that the shows are deconstructed and are not snubbed as being a pointless focus of research interests (as many “soft” subjects are within academia).