Forgive the blatant sexual objectification of my own body to get your attention. Given your past reputation and my occupation, it seems fitting.
I’ve got a bone to pick with you… not wishing to sound like another critic in the army of naysayers lining up to knock lumps out of you (it beggars belief to observe the emotional violence levelled at you sometimes) as I think of you as someone who has done remarkably well, who has struggled against and overcome uncommon adversity, worked hard and transformed unimaginable pain into joyous medicine for the soul: laughter. You are a public figure of whom the Buddha himself would be proud.
I want to talk to you about feminism; specifically, how women are represented on the Trews. I’m not talking about the Feminism of yester-year, the bra-burning, militant Greenham Commoners, or the suffragettes who fought to the death for a right that became obsolete anyway. I’m not referring to any of these tired old tropes, which, thanks to decades of media conditioning and unhelpful narratives, continue to diminish the movement.
I’m talking about the value of women in society. How women are valued and treated in our culture, the rights, freedoms and options that they are afforded, or not afforded, by the rest of society i.e. men, and how these freedoms are enshrined in our culture, law and heritage. Simple.
I’ve heard you mention Guy Debord before – his book “Society of the Spectacle” explains how modern culture places a higher value on how things look above their reality, to all our detriment. Our present society likes nothing better than to endlessly pore over images of women, scrutinising every inch. We know that appraising women primarily for their attractiveness and the way they look is harmful to us all, yet it persists.
Media representations of gender are essential to public perceptions and beliefs, therefore the ways in which women are represented in popular mainstream media say a lot about cultural attitudes towards them. The legendary academic Jean Kilbourne nails this in her work ‘Killing Us Softly’, identifying attitudes alongside representations of women in advertising. Admirably, you have also pinpointed the problem of objectification, idolatry, and deification of women, turning them into 2d objects and projecting narratives onto them. You seem to have an impressive grasp of feminist ideology, revealed in episode 12 ‘Is Renee Zellweger getting older’ when you explain the “Madonna/Whore” delineation of female de-sexualised archetypes.
But it begs the question, what are you doing to create alternatives to the usual media mechanisms that silence womens’ voices and deny their personalities? How has the Trews facilitated a discussion about the value of women in society and the media? As a feminist myself, and a big fan of your work, I’m sorely disappointed.
I’ve been watching the Trews for about a year now; the part of me that bloody loves you, and always has, is thoroughly excited and inspired to witness you, with your knowledge, illustriousness, and sheer audacity, having a square go at tackling corruption, greed and ignorance head-on. But, sadly, the feminist part of me that is awake to female representation and subjugation is horrified by the lack of women on the Trews.
With the exception of the Focus E15 mums and Lindsay from the New Era Estate, who are magnificent exemplars of utter mightiness in the struggle for social justice in the UK, there has been a dearth of other women like them. So far I have been dismayed by the lack of outspoken, assertive, intelligent, empowered women in comparison to the number of men who fit that description. There is a growing alumni of impressive and influential male guests, including Scroobius Pip, Brenden Ogle, George Monbiot, Jolyon Rubinstein and Heydon Prowse, B Dolan, Dan Pinchbeck, Dave DeGraw, Mo Ansar, Rufus Hound, David Baddiel, and Alain De Botton. Conversely, is it fair to say that Chloe and Alesha the Cambridge drop-outs, your PA Nicola, and the little girl on the tube represent the full opinion, intellect and creative spirit of half the population?
You invited Helena Norberg-Hodge to share her expertise on trade agreements and food justice, but your habit of continually interrupting her to translate what she was saying into your “layman’s terms” was undermining. Ok, it’s part of your adorable shtick, and she’s not the only guest who is put through your jovial “everyday folk” filter, you do this with male guests too. But there is something disconcerting about her interview. You are more deferential with men, you hang off their every word – not so with Helena.
In episode 164, ‘Is David Cameron The Terrorist?’ you appear with Alec Baldwin, Max Keiser and Stacey Herbert. Worryingly, you introduced both male guests using their full names – but Stacey is just Stacey. She barely gets a word in throughout the discussion, and she is the last person to be addressed on each question. When she does offer a weird analogy about the banking system being like Ebola she doesn’t get to qualify it; instead Max Keiser interjects with “Ah, haha, well I think what Stacey is alluding to there…” Talk about patronising!
Even more worryingly, this has already been brought to your attention! In episode 106, ‘Is The Trews Sexist?’ a fan suggests that you redress the balance of male/female guests, in order to avoid the classic narrative of male-dominated politics. As a life-long fan of your humour I appreciated the delicious irony of your response, ordering your female butler upstairs to boss her about like a patriarchal overlord. Truly hilarious, but you didn’t actually take the hint.
Your most noteworthy female guest so far is undoubtedly Naomi Klein. Does that mean you’ll only take a woman seriously if she triggers anti-globalisation movements with her best selling books? Not a bad criterion to have for your guests, in which case what the bloody hell is Alistair Campbell (spin doctor to Blair’s Evil Empire) doing there? I understand the point – Campbell is human underneath etc. But what is the wider message being sent out to female fans?
I could go on but you’ve probably got the message. I don’t believe for a second I’m the first person to point this out to you – in fact you revealed an awareness of your sexist tendencies by apologising to that politician on Question Time for calling her “love”. Maybe your eyes are opening to the myriad ways that women are still stifled, undermined and disregarded.
What, then, qualifies me to aim this diatribe at you? Obviously, I’m a woman and a feminist. I’m also a “stripper activist”. I co-founded a group called East London Strippers Collective, a group of strippers who have gathered out of shared grievances about our industry, and a desire to improve it. We are committed to self-organisation, self-empowerment and ethical business practises. We seek to challenge stereotypes and widely held erroneous beliefs about our work, provoking better-informed dialogue about strippers and sex-workers in general.
How can a feminist be a stripper, I hear you think? Easily. For us pro-choice, sex-positive feminists our work is built on the principle that women have the right to be sexual beings, the right to choose what they do with their own bodies – the same principle that made abortion and homosexuality a legal right.
ELSC believe that women (and men) have the right to strip and not be stigmatised for it. We imagine that if clubs were run as egalitarian businesses, owned and managed by workers we might create a more respectful and sympathetic environment within the industry, changing the wider social impact. Our manifesto challenges the patriarchal conventions on which the industry is built, and ensures that no individual can profit from the work of another.
Unsavoury workplace controls, exploitative business practises and unhealthy manipulations of male and female sexuality are as much a consequence of capitalist greed than anything else. The more we strive to take back autonomy in our workplaces, the more useful and effective we can be in society, which makes us no different from any other exploited work force seeking an end to greed and exploitation. In many ways, the sex industry is the definitive capitalist business model, entirely profit driven. But I can imagine it being different.
Russell, your call for Revolution is a symphony of inspiration to me. I’m a politicised radical who believes in change. I went to anti-war demos and climate riots, some of my best mates fought high profile climate-justice court trials. What I learned during my informative years as an anti-capitalist rebel I am now applying to my choice of work. As an activist, visual artist and a practising Buddhist I’ve had ample opportunity to re-imagine the world. The task of our generation is re-imagining a system that serves people over profit; gender equality must be part of that system.
My vision for Revolution includes strippers. It includes all sex-workers. Because what they offer society is untold insight into gender biases and power relationships. I refer to this New Statesman article by Alison Phipps ’Why Feminism Needs Trans People and Sex Workers’;
“Sex workers are part of an industry which, although diverse, is profoundly gendered and based on the commodification of sex and desire. From this position they have unique insights into how gendered power relations and sexual scripts work… the gendered structures that radical feminism identified in the 1970s may have already become more complex and slippery in our postmodern world. Surely, those most likely to understand these present-day structures are those oppressed by them the most.”
As we strive ahead together calling out greed and corruption, I want the freedom to strip! I want to provide sexual entertainment to those who would otherwise be devoid of it, for the landscape of our art and culture to include tits and willies, and celebrations of nudity and sexuality. I believe there is value in sex work, and that those who choose to do it deserve recognition. I want my positive experiences as a stripper to be acknowledged and my negative experiences to serve as caution. I want to use my knowledge and understanding of my choice of work to be a source of transformation and inspiration to others.
I’d like to know what you think about this potential sticking point; because in the words of the glorious, articulate and mercifully female political agitator Emma Goldman… if I can’t strip, it’s not my Revolution.