Wednesday, 28 December 2011

On Laurie Penny's response to "panda-gate"

On her blog at the New Statesman, Laurie Penny has written about "panda-gate*." She is talking about the BBC including a panda in its "faces of the year - women" feature and what this says "about how sexism works in cultural production." Here, I'd like to take issue with one particular point in her writing.

First, I should say that I largely sympathise with the thrust of the article. I would argue that, rather than indicating any sexism inherent in the BBC specifically, the BBC's list merely reflects the particular expectations of women and gender stereotypes within a patriarchal society. It does raise questions about "on what basis women should be celebrated," but this list and the BBC are in this instance an echo chamber of mainstream opinion rather than the instigators of some new offence.

However, that aside, it's this statement in the article that I take issue with (emphasis mine);
Newsworthy male feats in 2011 include, apparently, being a politician (3), being a police officer, being a soldier (3), being an Oscar-winning screenwriter, being an athlete, being a revolutionary martyr, being a fascist mass-murderer who definitely shouldn't have any more sodding publicity, and being shot by the Metropolitan police. To be considered a newsworthy woman in 2011, meanwhile, you have to make an allegation of rape, be a pop star, go on a date with a pop star, get married to a royal, be the sister of someone who got married to a royal, be a royal and get married to someone who isn't a royal, or be a panda called Sweetie.
Again, whilst I get what Pennie is saying, here she is throwing in "mak[ing] an allegation of rape" with a list of things only considered achievements by the vapid, celebrity-obsessed consumer culture. In both of the cases she is referring to, this is insulting.

First, we have Nafissatou Diallo, who reported being raped by the then-head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In doing so, she was subject to intense media scrutiny which bordered on the absurd. Strauss-Kahn's supporters pulled apart her background in order to discredit her, and as Katrin Axelsson put it in the Guardian, "woman who reports rape is expected to have a virginal past to qualify as a credible rape victim." Penny made similar comments on the case herself.

Diallo came forward in "a criminal justice system where prejudice and politics may shape the investigation and any trial – and even determine the outcome." For that, her life was turned upside down, every inch of it scrutinised and she was smeared in the world media before her alleged attacker got off Scot-free. She cannot be compared to royalty, pop stars and pandas.

Next up, there is Eman al-Obeidi. This is the woman who burst into the Rixos Hotel, hosting foreign press in Libya, and told them that she had been beaten and gang raped by Gaddafi's milita. She exposed to the world how the late Libyan dictator was using rape as a weapon of war, and as a consequence detained by the government. She was eventually released and received asylum in the US, having already been described by the Washington Post as "a symbol of defiance against Gaddafi among activists seeking to oust his regime."

Once more, it isn't fair to compare her to the "famous wives, brides and girlfriends" as somehow separate from the "women who have done brave, brilliant, newsworthy things this year."

As I said earlier, I agree with the overall argument Penny is making, even if I wouldn't focus so heavily on the BBC. My only issue is that by throwing in these women with Adele, Pippa Middleton et al, she too is doing them a disservice.

*Don't get me started on the use of -gate as a suffix to denote a scandal. FFS.