Aug 17, 2011
Riots and tabloids and looters, oh my! A feminist reading of #UKRiots reportage
According to the Guardian data blog, 92.2% of defendants in magistrate cases related to the recent civil unrest in England are male.
That is a pretty significant gender differential; even if we take into account that women commit less crime than men in general, the rioting and looting seems to have been truly overwhelmingly a boys' day out.
And yet, if you were to get your new from the front pages of tabloids (which quite a significant proportion of people do), you'd think that there was some sort of apocalyptic outbreak of female lawlessness in the UK this August. On Friday August 12th in particular (as details of arrests and charges began to get out in a steady stream), 6 major national papers devoted their front pages to female looters: the Mail, the Sun, the Times, the Express, the Mirror and the Star. (Note that most of these stories overlap)
That's 46% of the national newspapers represented on Front Pages website, 50% if you count the Independent and i as one publication. More tellingly, all but one of the newspapers who lead with female lawlessness were tabloids, and 100% of the tabloids (not counting the Evening Standard as a tabloid) had a young woman being named and shamed on their front pages that day.
All the tabloid front pages told the story of women looting and rioting - despite the fact that women make up only 7.8% of the actual looters and rioters. Well, the ones who got caught. And then you have the mum who didn't loot or riot but was sentenced to 5 months for receiving stolen goods. Statistics are messy. That's just life.
In any case: we are not talking about some major spasm of feminine revolution, OK? (In fact: if only.)
No, if anything there is a story about toxic masculinity to be told here: a story of gang affiliation as an avenue to excitement and protection, of young men and boys who see violence and consumption as their only legitimate avenues for self expression. Of the feminisation - and subsequent devaluing - of social goods like education and empathy.
It's not the story of declining morals and crumbling families that the right wants to be told - that the right always tries to tell, in fact - but a more complex story of, actually, things being just as they were in the good old days. Except for when the good old days weren't so good.
And still we see item after item in the press about the girls and women convicted for looting or inciting riots. The naming and shaming is pretty much out of all proportion to the actual rate of participation of women and girls in the disturbances. What's going on?
Well, in part this is about editorial policy and selling papers. As Roy Greenslade writes in the Guardian, atypical, non-representative stories are attention grabbers: yet more black hooded tops can't compete with a party dress for audience draw. Nevertheless, it's instructive to consider what atypical profiles particularly draw papers: the very young, and women. Not, just to throw out some examples at random, old age pensioners, disabled people, Polish immigrants, nurses from the Philippines or members of the Berkshire Hunt (I have no idea if any members of the Berkshire Hunt rioted, but wouldn't it be fun if they did?).
It's also relevant that the majority of this focus on female transgression is coming from the most socially conservative part of the press - the tabloids. Why should that be true? Wouldn't they get more mileage out of pushing racist theories about hip hop culture and "Rivers of Blood"? Well, they do, of course - the Daily Mail lowered even its own debased journalistic standards to allow a defence of David Starkey's barmy and distasteful outburst on Newsnight. So the tabloids are keeping more than one string to their bow, but still pushing the moral panic about female transgression.
I think the context in which to understand this is twofold: one, the tabloid business model, and two, less trivially, the fundamental significance of female purity in a patriarchy.
Tabloids - and other conservative media - sell what I think of as "safe fear". A bit like a roller-coaster ride, what they provide their readers is a steady stream of outrage and disgust at the perceived (often made up) transgressions of others, the idiocy and immorality of the world around them. Vicarious and titillating, the steady stream of human frailty reassures readers of their own moral superiority (essential if they are to reconcile the cognitive dissonances inherent in being staunchly right wing) while confirming their opinions about the failure of liberal policies.
There is absolutely nothing like reading the Daily Mail or watching Fox News to convince the least informed, least intelligent and most prejudiced of readers that, by dint of intellectual superiority, they are fully justified in holding the most illiberal of opinions on issues of social and economic policy. This is the Chomskian manufacturing of consent at its very crudest: by fabricating "evidence" for the rank failure of any redistributive, humanitarian or just initiative, they help ensure these initiatives are forever relegated to the margins of democratic discourse. (PS Dan Brown novels work the same way. I'm just saying!)
And, to segue smoothly into my send point, misogyny is pivotal to maintaining this phantasmagoria. It is not in the least coincidental that The Sun has its Page Three girls and the Mail tops any other online publication in number of pictures of women in bikinis. The exploitation of the female image and ideas of femininity to manufacture social order exist on a spectrum, a continuum of opprobrium in which it is possible to find a balancing point from which to sexualise the female form while demonising female sexuality, and by extension female agency.
The extreme end of this spectrum is is honour killings: when a society invests its entire identity in the sexual purity of its women, nothing short of eliminating nonconforming individuals entirely can prevent transgressions turning into social upheaval. Nothing but a monstrous sacrifice (by male relatives who, I'm sure, love their sisters, daughters and cousins, and don't "choose" to kill them in the shallow consumerist way we think of the word) can reaffirm the commitment of the family or tribe to the prevailing mores. In fact, female genital mutilation operates on a similar plain, but in a preventative, pre-emptive fashion.
OK. British tabloids don't pour acid on people. I get that the examples I used can seem just a little bit extreme and maybe even far-fetched. But. Our society is not free fro misogyny; far from it. One in ten young women (and twice as many young men) believe that women can be blamed for violence committed against them. We're not quite as far from the lawless villages of northern Pakistan as we'd like to think, you know? And who, above all, peddles and encourages these antiquated, violent, retrograde attitudes? Who spreads moral panic about "ladettes", or young women binge drinking and peeing on the street, or the transgressive and nihilistic behaviour of self-destructive, troubled pop stars? You got it - the right wing, conservative media.
So for the tabloids, sticking women on the front page in the teeth the fact that 92% of looters convicted so far are male is the natural and only choice. It's is a double dip of win: they get to stoke fear of massive social upheaval by coding feminine transgression as being somehow emblematic of these riots, thereby making them "worse" - scarier, more deeply disruptive, viscerally immoral. Out of control women are qualitatively worse than just loss of control.
And they get to sell copy, by pandering to the very misogyny they thrive on spreading, stoking then stroking the fears and prejudices of their readers. Reassuring the flog 'em and hang 'em brigade that in fact, if we only flogged and hanged more people, then everything will be OK, and the scary pinko liberal feminazi looters won't be able to come for our gas guzzlers and our porn stash with their single benefit scrounging organic solar recycled climate conspiracy.
As I say, the story of "why so many men?" is more interesting and more important - and ultimately, more feminist - than the ridiculous attention grabbing focus on a few women. But the book on that will be written over decades, and it will be written by experts and academics. The tabloids though are so transparent in their motivations I live in wonder at their continual survival.