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Issue 51, October 2000

Nothing to laugh about

Overloaded: Popular Culture and the Future of Feminism
By Imelda Whelehan
Women's Press 2000, £9-95
Reviewed by Clare James

WHEN YOU think of media celebrities such as Zoë Ball, Sara Cox, Chris Evans, Gail Porter and the Spice Girls, they're all 'celebs just having a laugh!' - entertaining the public and being described as 'lads' or, more commonly for women, 'ladettes'. This image is backed up by TV programmes such as Greece Uncovered, showing what a 'good time' women are having now they are able to be as much of a lad as their male counterparts.

We are supposedly in the era of equality between men and women, where to accuse someone of being sexist sees you ridiculed as being old-fashioned and having no sense of humour. The line, 'it's just a joke', seems to crop up all too often.

It's these conditions, attitudes and language, part of our everyday lives, that Imelda Whelehan writes about. She asks if there is a future for feminism ('the F word') in what she describes as 'popular culture'. Whelehan contends that many people now associate feminism with something from the past, extreme action to gain equality, such as the suffragette movement to win the vote for women, over a hundred years ago now.

Whelehan asks, Where is the fightback against the backlash in attitudes to women and how women see themselves in society? She makes some very interesting points on 90s' culture, the rise of the 'ladette', and terms the media use, such as 'girlie'. Whelehan deals with women's role in society and how society views us. As a 19-year-old women who has been made fully aware of the sexism and backward ideas that still exist, I'll touch on the parts that interested me most.


The first and last couple of chapters were by far the best in giving a general view and explanation of the issues. The chapters in between go into different aspects of women's position in society in Britain today. Whelehan describes the ideas put forward by some commentators, which state that there are biological reasons why women are allegedly unequal to men. And she writes of the recent growth of men's magazines, which are marketed at and bought by the 'new lad': Loaded, FHM, Maxim, etc. Whelehan describes the readers as "almost always white; part soccer thug, part larger lout, part arrant sexist".

Loaded magazine's masthead is, 'Loaded - for men who should know better'. Whelehan looks a bit deeper into this slogan: "Those who should 'know' better are not only male readers aware of the embeddedness of their own history within the histories of the women's, gay and anti-racist movements, but feminists who should, it is implied, know better than to complain".

What can only be described as soft pornography in these magazines is justified, as ever, as just 'having a laugh'. But Whelehan asks, "Why is the last joke always on women?" She answers: "Any objections we might feel are set up as contradictory because we are supposed to 'know' that this is ironic and therefore not exploitative". This statement, I think, sums up how sexism has remained acceptable over the past decade.

Alongside lad magazines, there is a huge market for women's and girls' magazines, supposedly promoting 'girl power'. In Overloaded, Whelehan boils these down to "how to fill your time between boys and beauty". Magazines from Sugar and Mizz, for the younger female audience, to Cosmopolitan and Elle, for an older readership, promote life as, "one long scramble to get a 'lush' lad".


Throughout my life, my age group has been bombarded with images of malnourished women, unrealistic figures of pin-ups, adverts and lifestyles to aspire to, mainly of affluent, white Western women and men. The conclusion is that sexual relationships, under this system, are distorted from a very early age.

The main point that comes out of the book is that as women we haven't moved on that far for a whole period of time. Gains have been made, but there is a long way to go. Women still earn only 80% of men's incomes and a majority will suffer some level of sexual or violent harassment within their lives. And, for working class women, real choices over their lives rarely exist under this profit-geared system, such as decent affordable childcare, education, training and housing. Whelehan says: "Feminism is needed more than ever, the time is to start getting angry again - it isn't to be complacent".

There is still an ever-growing gap between the rich and poor which, Whelehan points out, is causing discontent amongst a huge section of society. However, the reason there is a lack of organisation and fightback from women is not mainly because of misguided feminists, individual magazines or the press. Capitalism as a whole creates division between different sections of society, for example, between women and men, to ensure their profit system survives.

Whelehan points out that there is a lack of leadership for those women who want to get organised and fight back. The point I feel she doesn't take far enough is how to build that leadership, one that unites not only women but also the whole of the working class to fight to end poverty and inequality for good. A socialist society would bring to an end the situation where the majority of the wealth is controlled by a minority group, and which fosters the divides between working-class people.


This book is definitely worth a read, by both women and men (particularly those readers of Loaded, etc), to get a more detailed view of the issues facing women today.

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