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How the media shapes our cultural ideals of body shape
Tuesday, 16 May 2017 18:19

How the media shapes our cultural ideals of body shape

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Melissa Oldham charts how media representation of ideal body shapes, driven by the need to maximise profits, leads to negative body images in women and men.

Feminine beauty, particularly in the western world is synonymous with thinness, whilst the male cultural ideal is to be tall, broad and muscular. This article will examine how the media shapes our cultural norms and the negative impact this can have on body image concerns in females and males. 

Nowhere is the thin female ideal more evident than in popular media. The bodies of characters on TV and in films are not reflective of the general population, because overweight characters are significantly underrepresented and underweight characters are overrepresented. This is especially true for female characters who are more likely to be underweight than male characters. In a very interesting and novel study researchers measured the size of mannequins in a number of high street clothing shops. They found that whilst the male mannequins typically appeared to be a healthy size, female mannequins often appeared to be representative of an unhealthily thin body. In similarly depressing news, many models havea Body Mass Index which is  indicative of having an eating disorder. These inaccurate representations present a distorted and unrealistic view of women's bodies, which could reinforce weight bias and body image concerns.

Many studies have examined how ‘thin ideal’ advertising impacts on body image concerns in women and studies usually do this in one of two ways. Some studies simply examine the relationship between the number of hours that people are exposed to different forms of media (e.g. time spent watching music videos, reading magazines or watching TV) and body image concerns. Although these studies reliably show that women who spend more time watching or reading popular media will be more likely to have body image concerns, there are problems with this method. Because media exposure and body concerns are measured at the same time, we cannot say that media exposure leads to heightened body concerns. Rather, it could also be that women who have heightened body image concerns are drawn to viewing beauty magazines or music videos in search of some ‘thinspiration’.

MO body satisfaction

However, other studies have used experimental paradigms in order to work out the causal direction of the relationship. Many studies show women advertising featuring very thin models or a control condition. The nature of the control conditions does differ across studies. Sometimes, adverts are shown which feature no bodies whatsoever and other times the images are experimentally manipulated in order to make the models appear larger. Regardless of the exact methodology the results of these studies paint a very reliable and convincing picture: exposure to thin ideal advertisements increases negative mood, weight concerns, body dissatisfaction and levels of depression in women. Similarly, young girls had lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape after playing with Barbie dolls than more average sized dolls or other toys.

Historically the body image literature has focused almost exclusively on women as body image concerns are largely thought to be a female condition. In recent years there has been a shift towards looking more at male body image concerns and it is starting to look like men might also feel dissatisfied with their bodies, but in a different way. Body dissatisfaction scales typically look at whether people feel fat or overweight and those who report feeling overweight or fat are classed as having higher body dissatisfaction.

However, as discussed previously, the body ideal for men is mainly focused on muscularity, not fatness. As such, when a body dissatisfaction scale focuses on feeling overweight women will generally have higher scores of body dissatisfaction than men. However, more recently researchers have started adapting traditional body satisfaction scales with questions which ask about muscularity. In these studies the apparent gender gap in body satisfaction is significantly reduced. It seems men are worried about their bodies, but unlike most women, men want to be bigger or more muscular.

Some researchers suggest that male body image concerns could be a result of a tendency in advertising to increasingly objectify the male body. Advertisements frequently feature images which objectify men (does anyone remember the Diet Coke man?) and an advent of male health magazines and lads’ mags mean that men are exposed to idealised versions of the muscular Adonis more than ever.

MO bloke

In the same way that thin ideal advertising can have a negative impact on female body satisfaction, exposure to advertisements featuring large and muscular men could have a negative impact on male body satisfaction. Some researchers set out to experimentally test this idea. They showed men adverts featuring attractive male models that were either muscular or not. Following exposure to the muscular models men were more dissatisfied with their own bodies and more likely to want to be more muscular than those who saw the attractive but non muscular controls.

The gender discrepancy in body ideals is reflected in the clinical body image disorders which are most frequently experienced by men and women. Women are more frequently diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) than men are - around .2-.5% of women suffer from AN whereas less than 10% of individuals with AN are male. Individuals with AN often have an intrusive and persistent dread or fear of fatness.  The primary driver of AN is extreme weight loss. AN sufferers will deliberately and severely restrict their food intake, will often engage in compulsive and excessive exercise and may purge the food they do eat through forced vomiting or ingesting laxatives. There is no consistently successful treatment for AN and under half of individuals with AN do not fully recover. AN can result in reoccurring episodes of hospitalisation and in extreme cases can result in death. Numerous studies have linked long-term exposure to very thin bodies and the ‘thin ideal’ to eating disorder symptomology in women.

Conversely, a lesser known condition known as ‘bigorexia’ or Muscle Dysmorphia (MD) is a clinical condition which affects significantly more men than women. People with MD, or ‘bigorexia’ as it is commonly known, become preoccupied with trying to gain muscle. Individuals with MD perceive themselves as being slim or weak when in reality they have very muscular physiques. Sufferers of MD spend hours strenuously working out, prioritise their gym time over everything else, compulsively check their appearance in mirrors and spend hours each day scrutinising areas of their body that they perceive as being inadequate.

MD can lead to steroid abuse in order to attain the unattainable. MD can destroy lives and can lead to social isolation, social anxiety, unnecessary cosmetic surgery, depression, heart attacks and even suicide attempts. Diagnoses of MD have increased in recent years. Whilst some researchers suggest this is just due to more knowledge of the disease and more accurate diagnoses, other researchers suggest that the increasing trend to male objectification and the promotion of the muscular male ideal is responsible for the increase.

In a landmark decision this week, France has banned emaciated models from walking the catwalk and all models will now need to provide a doctor’s certificate attesting to their health with a particular focus on their weight. France’s Minister of Social Affairs and Health said that this decision was based on the fact that exposing young people to unrealistic and dangerously thin models can have a negative impact on their self-worth and self-esteem. This is undoubtedly a fantastic move by the French Government, but  why  has it taken so long?

 When the link between thin or muscular ideal advertising and negative affect and body image is so well researched it is difficult to see why companies would continue to use this form of advertising. The old adage is that “thin sells” and  the ex-editor of Australian Vogue Kirstie Clements suggests that thin models are used because clothes hang better on very thin models, who do not have curves that could disrupt the line of the clothes. Many fashion designers have supported the notion that clothes look better on thin models in interviews and essentially what they are saying is they are more concerned with how good their clothes look and how much they sell than they are with the negative impact this has on the body image concerns of their consumers.

The move towards very muscular male models is less clear but it is possible that the media industry is playing on the natural human trait of social comparison. We compare ourselves to others on a daily basis in order to get some idea of how we rank in the grand scheme of things. When thin or muscular models are held up as being the ideal we feverishly consume media to find out more about them, how we rank against them and how we can look like them. This can translate into going out and buying the products that these Gods and Goddesses are advertising. Indeed there is some evidence that adolescents seek out images of men and women with ‘ideal’ bodies who they want to emulate and some studies find that ads which feature more beautiful or idealised models promote a more positive evaluation of the product and can increase an individual’s implicit motivation to buy the product.

Advertisements which promote unrealistic body ideals for men and women are irresponsible and can have a very negative impact on body image concerns, mood and in extreme cases can contribute to the development of clinical disorders. The advertising world should move away from objectification and using models with unattainably beautiful bodies, just for the purpose of maximising profits.

Perhaps it is time to use our influence as consumers and campaigners to question and challenge the use of very thin or very muscular models in popular media.

Friday, 10 March 2017 19:37

Distortion and groupthink

Written by

David Cromwell and David Edwards edit Media Lens, www.medialens.org. In a foundation essay on media culture, they explain how the British media distort reality and marginalise dissent. Media bias against the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is likely to be prominent in the next few weeks, and we invite further contributions on this topic.

The media presents itself as a neutral window on the world. We are to believe that the view we see through that window supplies ‘all the news that’s fit to print’. But when you take a closer look at the ‘window’, you realise it’s not a window on the world at all - it’s a kind of distorted and limited painting of a window on the world. Moreover, the ‘painting’ has been produced using colours, textures and forms all selected by profit-seeking corporations or national broadcasters tied intimately to the state.

It is no wonder that so much media output looks the same, with an artificial shared consensus on vital issues – ‘austerity’, war on Iraq, war on Libya, war on Syria, the NHS and the economy, to name just a few. The reality is that the state and the corporate media have shared elite interests, goals and biases. Anything that seriously challenges the status quo is marginalised, buried or vilified.

Consider the impact of advertising which typically provides around 50 per cent of revenues for the commercial media. Journalists regularly claim that reporting and opinion are protected from the influence of advertising by a failsafe firewall. Editorial priorities and media performance are, they say, completely uncontaminated by the ads in which they are embedded. In the real world, every last aspect of a newspaper is shaped by and designed to attract advertising. Media analyst James Twitchell explains:

You name it: the appearance of ads throughout the pages, the “jump” or continuation of a story from page to page, the rise of sectionalisation (as with news, cartoons, sports, financial, living, real estate), common page size, halftone images, process engraving, the use of black-and-white photography, then colour, sweepstakes, and finally discounted subscriptions were all forced on publishers by advertisers hoping to find target audiences. 

- quoted in Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.181

Even Andrew Marr, the BBC’s former political editor and former editor of the Independent, once admitted:

But the biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda. It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.

Marr, My Trade, Macmillan, 2004, p.112

Media historians James Curran and Jean Seaton described the impact of advertising revenue on media culture at the beginning of the twentieth century:

Dependence on advertising encouraged the absorption or elimination of the early radical press and stunted its subsequent development before the First World War

 - Curran and Seaton, Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain, Routledge, 1991, p.47

In fact, advertising completely changed the media landscape:

In short, one of four things happened to national radical papers that failed to meet the requirements of advertisers. They either closed down; accommodated to advertising pressure by moving up-market; stayed in a small audience ghetto with manageable losses; or accepted an alternative source of institutional patronage.

- Ibid, p.43

It is no coincidence that just as corporations achieved this unprecedented stranglehold, the notion of ‘professional journalism’ appeared. American media analyst, Robert McChesney, writes:

Savvy publishers understood that they needed to have their journalism appear neutral and unbiased, notions entirely foreign to the journalism of the era of the Founding Fathers, or their businesses would be far less profitable.

- Robert McChesney, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw - Leading Journalists Expose The Myth Of A Free Press, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.367

By promoting education in formal ‘schools of journalism’, which did not exist before 1900 in the United States, wealthy owners could claim that trained editors and reporters were granted autonomy to make editorial decisions based on their professional judgement, rather than on the needs of owners and advertisers. As a result, owners could present their media monopoly as a ‘neutral’ service to the community. The claim, McChesney writes, was ‘entirely bogus’.

Built-in to ‘neutral’ professional journalism were three major biases. First, ostensibly to ensure balanced selection of stories, professional journalists decided that the actions and opinions of official sources should form the basis of legitimate news. As a result, news came to be dominated by ‘mainstream’ political and business sources representing similar establishment interests.

Second, journalists agreed that a news ‘hook’ - a dramatic event, official announcement or publication of a report - was required to justify covering a story. This also strongly favoured establishment interests, which were far more able to generate the required ‘hook’ than marginalised dissident groups.

Finally, carrot-and-stick pressures from advertisers, business associations and leading political parties had the effect of herding corporate journalists away from some issues and towards others. Newspapers dependent on corporate advertisers are, after all, unlikely to focus too intensively on the destructive impact of these same corporations on public health, the Third World and environment.

McChesney notes how professional journalism ‘smuggles in values conducive to the commercial aims of the owners and advertisers, as well as the political aims of the owning class’. (Ibid, p.369)

All of these factors are included in the most complete analysis of media bias: the ‘propaganda model’, introduced by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 book, ‘Manufacturing Consent’. The propaganda model consists of five ‘news filters’ through which ‘money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public’. They are:

i) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms;

ii) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media;

iii) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and "experts" funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power;

iv) "flak" as a means of disciplining the media;

v) "anticommunism" (more recently, “anti-terrorism”) as a national religion and control mechanism.

All of these factors work to ensure that the ‘mainstream’ media actually promote the interests of a very narrow, 1% elite. Herman and Chomsky commented:

The “societal purpose” of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state. The media serve this purpose in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises.

But what about the BBC, the Guardian and Channel 4 News? Aren’t they different? Don’t they present accurate reporting and a wide range of views? Certainly, no serious media analyst looks to the right-wing press to defend and expand free speech; they are plainly propaganda organs for established greed. But many people do look to the so-called ‘left-leaning’ press. Until recently, many liberals, and much of the general public, viewed the BBC and, to a lesser extent, the Guardian as national treasures. However, two recent major events have severely challenged this complacent assumption. In Scotland, in particular, there is now considerable scepticism, to say the least, at endless proclamations that BBC News is an ‘impartial’ public-interest service. The broadcaster’s biased coverage of the independence referendum campaign in 2014 blew apart that illusion once and for all.

And throughout the UK, people have witnessed the spectacular ‘mainstream’ media bias targeting Jeremy Corbyn. Given the huge mandate that Corbyn received to become leader of the Labour Party in two elections, the constant attacks on him have highlighted how systemically opposed the media is to policies favoured by much of the public. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell commented recently:

Jeremy Corbyn is trying to transform our society so that it is radically more equal, radically more fair, radically more democratic. The whole media establishment [is] owned by people whose power is entrenched. They are trying to destroy a socialist who is trying to transfer power from the establishment to the people. That is their job to do. The oligarchs are protecting their power base.

- https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/mar/03/labour-caught-in-struggle-to-survive-media-attacks-says-john-mcdonnell

But what of the so-called ‘left-leaning’ press? McDonnell added:

The Guardian became part of the New Labour establishment and, as a result of that, you feel dispossessed because your people are no longer in power…

Other issues also reveal the lie of the ‘liberal’ media: coverage of the NHS; Israel’s monstrous crimes against the Palestinians; and the West’s endless wars – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. We have covered these issues, and many others, in hundreds of media alerts and several books going back over 15 years. See, for example, our free online archive at http://www.medialens.org/index.php/alerts/alert-archive.html

In a talk almost twenty years ago, the American political writer and media critic Michael Parenti explained powerfully how journalism works in practice, including the liberal media:

'Oddly enough, if you talk to most reporters, most of the reporters I know who are giving me stories about censorship, about top-down control and all, are ex-reporters. They're often people - I began noticing, "Well I used to work for Associated Press...", or "Well, I used to work for CBS..." – "Well I used to..." The ones who are still in there absolutely vehemently deny that there's any such thing like this. They get very indignant. They say: "Are you telling me that I'm not my own man? I'll have you know that in 17 years with this paper I always say what I like." And I say to them: "You say what you like, because they like what you say."

'And, you know, the minute you move too far - and you have no sensation of a restraint on your freedom. I mean, you don't know you're wearing a leash if you sit by the peg all day. It's only if you then begin to wander to a prohibited perimeter that you feel the tug, you see. So you're free because your ideological perspective is congruent with that of your boss. So you have no sensation of being at odds with your boss.

- Michael Parenti - Inventing Reality, YouTube, talk on 17 October 1993)

As Chomsky has pointed out, the tiny handful of relatively honest journalists working in the ‘mainstream’ – Owen Jones, George Monbiot and Robert Fisk, for example – play a vital role in supporting the illusion that corporate media offer a wide ‘spectrum’ of available views. In truth, they are tiny oases in a desert of news and commentary promoting elite interests. Glenn Greenwald, who reported whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations for the Guardian, soon left the paper. Indeed, he has been quite critical of them since he left; for example, pointing out in Twitter exchanges involving Guardian journalists:

Mocking you [Media Lens] as conspiracists is how UK journalists demonstrate their in-group coolness to one another: adolescent herd behavior
- https://twitter.com/ggreenwald/status/636131030399909889

and:

I've never encountered any group more driven by group-think and rank-closing cohesion than British journalists.
- https://twitter.com/ggreenwald/status/636131347019497473

The Guardian likes to portrays itself as a compassionate forum for journalism willing to hold power to account, and it makes great play of its journalistic freedom under the auspices of Scott Trust Limited (replacing the Scott Trust in 2008). The paper, therefore, might not at first sight appear to be a corporate institution.

But the paper is owned by the Guardian Media Group which is run by a high-powered Board comprising elite, well-connected people from the worlds of banking, insurance, advertising, multinational consumer goods companies, telecommunications, information technology giants, venture investment firms, media, marketing services, the World Economic Forum, and other sectors of big business, finance and industry. This is not a Board staffed by radically nonconformist environmental, human rights and peace campaigners, trade unionists, NHS campaigners, housing collectives; nor anyone else who might threaten the status quo.

Consider the fate of Nafeez Ahmed, a respected analyst and writer on energy, the environment and foreign policy. In 2014, the Guardian dropped his popular, highly-regarded online column after he overstepped the mark when he examined credible claims that Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza last summer was motivated, in part, by greed for gas resources. He observed:

'If this is the state of The Guardian, undoubtedly one of the better newspapers, then clearly we have a serious problem with the media. Ultimately, mainstream media remains under the undue influence of powerful special interests, whether financial, corporate or ideological.

Beyond Equality: Transparent's Gaga Feminism
Tuesday, 08 November 2016 15:38

Beyond Equality: Transparent's Gaga Feminism

Written by

Debra Ferreday suggests that the TV series Transparent shows how the media can operate as a site of cultural struggle, and help liberate us from rigid sex and gender systems.

In May 2014, Time magazine featured on its cover the actress and activist Laverne Cox, star of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black and the first openly trans person to appear there. The headline declared 2014 to represent a ‘Transgender Tipping Point’, a term which went viral, heralding a period of unprecedented visibility for trans people.

This ‘moment’ - described by Time as ‘America’s next civil rights frontier’- has raised complex questions around visibility, representation and mediation. The general mood in the mainstream media is rather self-congratulatory: when Caitlyn Jenner chose the cover of Vanity Fair to come out in spectacular style, for example, more difficult questions seemed to be swept away - especially questions about the years of bullying and abuse she had previously suffered at the hands of the press that now celebrated her as an icon. The focus on celebrity figures who do little to disrupt feminine gender norms has led to concerns about whose stories get to be represented in this cultural moment, and whose are excluded. As the activist and blogger Alok Vaid-Menon sums up, ‘Society’s message to trans people feels like: ‘Congratulations! As long as you look like a conventionally attractive, respectable, thin cisgender model.’ Certainly it seems a little early to celebrate the end of transphobia when trans people are still disproportionately likely to be victims of violence, and trans youth recently faced having their very existence debated by a charity whose supposed role it is to protect young people.

Menon concludes that perhaps we need to see the ‘tipping point’ not as the conquest of a new frontier – a fantasy which suggest the incorporation of trans people into a nationalistic fantasy of US identity – but as an opportunity for reflection. Perhaps we need to see this opportunity as not just relating to the ‘issue’ of trans - as though trans people were a single, homogenous group that can simply be ‘represented’ through media visibility – but on the relationship between gender, sexuality and media in general, and by extension, what a liberatory media representation of sex and gender might look like. Below I turn to the Amazon streaming TV series Transparent – an ambitious, richly entertaining family drama – which illustrates how media can operate not just as ideological machines or as spaces for more improving representations of minorities, but as a site of experimentation and struggle.

This relates to John Storey’s work on culture in this website: as he writes, ‘both text and audience produce meaning: in political terms, a text can help change how we see the world, but so can the meanings we find in it’. Storey calls attention to the complex ways in which identities are produced in dialogue with media, arguing that ‘signification has a ‘performative effect’; it helps construct the realities it appears only to describe’. This idea of signification as performative has been hugely important in theories of gender and sexuality. In 1990, Judith Butler proposed the idea of gender as performative: that is, while dominant ideology sees gender as the natural outcome of biological sexual difference, gender is in fact not something we are, but something we do: the identities we see as natural consist merely of the repetition of particular stylised acts. This means that we learn how to do our gender through constant citing of the same normative practices: and it follows that in an increasingly mediated society, media representations are central to this process.

Butler’s work is important for feminism because it takes a fluid rather than rigidly ideological view of the way institutions operate to produce gender difference, and I want to suggest that this queer-inflected feminism offers a more nuanced way of looking at media than the model of media as ideological institution that dominates much discussion of gender on the Left. The problem Storey identifies – that ideological critique denies agency to media consumers, seeing them as ‘cultural dupes’ – seems particularly intense in relation to women and minorities, who are often seen as particularly vulnerable to ideological brainwashing: there is a certain kind of feminist criticism that can feel like little more than an alibi for attacks on cultural practices traditionally associated with women, queer subjects and people of colour. This can produce moments of aggression that seem in excess of the professed desire for better representation: the writer who wished Kim Kardashian dead – a view she claimed to be entirely compatible with her self-identification as a feminist is a recent example.

Queer feminist approaches to media studies take a stance that is in a sense both more radical, and more attentive to the highly complex ways in which audiences actually engage with media. A key figure here is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who famously argued that the omission of queer identities from mainstream representation was not simply a side-effect, but was central to Western art and literature: the closet, she writes, is central to Western thought, and normative, heterosexist representations are haunted by the queer identities they exclude and silence. Sedgwick questions what she calls the ‘minoritizing view’ of sexuality – that is, the idea that a minority of individuals are born gay, and that depictions of homosexuality are only relevant to the ‘deviant’ few who fit that category, in favour of a ‘universalising’ view which positions queer identity and its denial at the centre of Western culture.

Often, representations of gender fluidity are situated firmly within the minoritizing model. In The Danish Girl, where Eddie Redmayne’s performance as the central character, Lili, presents her as fragile, damaged and ultimately tragic: her untimely death is succeeded by the restoration of heterosexual romance when her wife, Gerda, falls in love with a cisgender man. The film’s obsession with medical issues is typical of transphobic discourse: its final act consists of little more than a series of failed medical procedures, with Lili literally fading before our eyes. The film approaches trans people as curiosities: we are invited to take a prurient peep, but then our assumed anxieties are soothed through the restoration of heterosexual order in much the same way that crime cinema opens up the possibility of terrible violence only to end by restoring a sense of justice and hence safety. Not surprisingly, the film attracted the dismay of trans and feminist critics.

danish girl poster

Sedgwick’s work suggests that this minoritising view is inadequate to explain straight audience’s fascination with queer subjects, who are fascinating because they suggest that all gender is constructed. While some of us might think of ourselves in terms of binaries – male/female, gay/straight –the reality is much more arbitrary and more fluid. 

Transparent, which has just completed its third series on Amazon, centres on the experience of Maura Pfefferman, played by Jeffrey Tambor, an older trans woman who is anything but the ‘conventionally attractive, respectable, thin cisgender model’ stereotype – although she is white, middle-class and wealthy. Maura is a retired academic who, in her previous identity as Mort, has not always been respectful of her female counterparts: the series deals partly with her relationships with her three children and her ex-wife Shel, and partly with her attempts to cope with the pressures of coming out, and with coping with her past and current privilege. But what is important about Transparent is that Maura is never presented as an anomaly in a world of ‘normal’ cisgender subjects: instead her transformation is the catalyst for sometimes jolting change in those around her. Through Maura’s network of old and new relationships, the show has explored marriage and divorce, marriage equality, racism, Jewishness, abuse, abortion, women and ageing, male privilege, bisexuality and the BDSM scene, to name just a few. Writer Jill Soloway, who was inspired to write the script by her own father coming out as a trans woman, has spoken of her desire to address intersectionality through ‘the questions of whether or not women, people of color, and queer people have similar or different struggles, especially for people who are sometimes both, who are women of color or queer people of color’. ‘What’, she asks, ‘do trans women owe each other if one is black and one is white; what is the trans sisterhood, and does it transcend race’?

It’s to the credit of Soloway and to extraordinary performances by the core cast that the show manages to do all this and still be warm, funny, and believable – there are no conventionally likeable characters, only believably complex, sometimes contradictory human beings. Moving beyond the model of trans* people as anomalies who have rights and who must be treated as equal but who nevertheless deviate from what is assumed to be the norm of fixed, intelligible gender identity, Transparent shows that gender identity – all gender identity – is political. It is also deeply about the ways in which gender identities do not exist in isolation – as the individualising discourses of neoliberal capitalism would have it – but are embedded in social worlds: from Maura’s support group, which includes a number of real-life trans activists who were also consulted in the writing of the script, to set-piece disastrous family gatherings (a Thanksgiving dinner that almost turns violent: a huge, vulgar wedding that ends in the break-up of the happy couple), these are characters firmly located in a social world - and that can be both oppressive and liberating.

What all this suggests is a new way of doing media feminism – one that moves beyond the idea of ‘minority groups’ as Other for the enlightenment of an audience which, by looking at these Others comes to ‘know’ itself as normal – as I would argue The Danish Girl does. What queer feminism suggests is that equality is not enough. Transparent, then, can be seen as a work of what queer theorist Jack Halberstam terms - in reference to one of its most visible media symbols - Gaga feminism: “a feminism that recognizes multiple genders, that contributes to the collapse of our current sex-gender systems, a feminism less concerned with the equality of men and women and more interested in the abolition of these terms as such’. Those who want equality, they suggest, lack ambition: only the collapse of the sex-gender system will do. In Transparent, we see a family caught – scarily, exhilaratingly, triumphantly – in its death throes.
Deutschland 83: Replacing Reality with Fantasy
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Sunday, 10 January 2016 06:46

Deutschland 83: Replacing Reality with Fantasy

Written by

John Green outlines the disappointing failure of the new TV series to accurately portray life and events in East Germany.

The gullibility of even sophisticated audiences and readers when it comes to accepting pure fiction as reality never ceases to amaze me. This is particularly so with portrayals of East-West relations and the characterisation of Communists and former Communist countries. The recent, much-hyped German series Deutschland 83 is no exception. Cold War clichés and the most improbably scenarios seem to be de rigueur. Such fictionalised dramatisations then take on a life of their own, replacing real facts and real events in people’s memories.

The blurb for the new series, which is based on real events, promised to offer a new and different perspective. British-American author Anna Winger, co-producer of the series with her German husband, Joerg, said in an interview about the film:

‘It’s important to remember that a lot of people were happy in East Germany, It didn’t work economically, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel good to be part of it sometimes. The existence of the East made the West more humane but now, in an era of unbridled capitalism, we don’t have that balance.’

Quite promising, you might think. The series does indeed begin quite well with a family party scene in the GDR that doesn’t rely on the clichés of drab-greyness, dour East Germans and low living standards. We actually have attractive looking individuals and young people who could just as easily be from the West, listening to rock music and enjoying themselves. Even when we meet the film’s young protagonist, Martin Rauch, who is a GDR border guard, we are presented with a pleasant young man taking two West German visitors to East Berlin gently to task for buying books in the East with money exchanged illegally. He tells them to scarper, unscathed, but keeps some of their books.

Unfortunately the drama very soon begins to serve the usual stereotyped narratives. When a couple of Stasi agents visit the family home to recruit the young man to work as a mole in the West German Bundeswehr, we are presented with two hard-bitten, stony-faced men, who break one of the young man’s fingers and drug his coffee so that he can be kidnapped.

When Martin wakes up in the West, now as an unlikely agent of the Stasi, he walks into a supermarket and is mesmerised by the array of goods on the shelves. Most GDR citizens regularly watched West German TV and, even if they or their families hadn’t travelled to the West at any time, they would have been used to seeing consumer adverts and programmes that featured big cars, shopping malls and glamour. They would hardly be surprised to see it first hand.

What makes this series very much of a missed opportunity, however, is that the facts of the real story are just as dramatic if less fantastical. In 1983 the world really was on the edge of a nuclear holocaust and it was a single East German counter-espionage agent who saved the day. Ronald Reagan had been elected president of the USA in 1980 and unleashed an unprecedented and hysterical campaign against the ‘Evil Empire’ as he characterised the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies. He, along with his close political ally, Margaret Thatcher embarked on a new and dangerous confrontational policy, surrounding himself with fanatical anti-Communist warriors, like Richard Perle (the Prince of Darkness), Dick Cheney, Caspar Weinberger, Paul Wolfowitz and George Bush who were all determined to confront the Soviet Union and bring about its downfall. After years of detente, the Helsinki Accords and a general easing of tension, the world was once again plunged into a new phase of confrontation that threatened to destabilize post war detente with dangerous brinkmanship.

In 1979, as part of its medium range nuclear modernisation programme, NATO began deploying cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe. The first Pershing missiles were deployed in West Germany in autumn 1983. Because of this provocative escalation and the reduction of launch warning time, tensions were stretched to breaking point. The Soviet leadership became convinced that the US was seriously planning a nuclear surprise attack under the cover of carrying out military exercises.

NATO’s giant ABLE ARCHER exercise in 1983 was meant to simulate a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union with weapons. It would take place close to the German-German border. As tension mounted, Soviet nuclear bombers were deployed, on the tarmac at their East German airbases, engines running, waiting for the order to go. If the order had come, most likely nuclear holocaust, at least for Europe and the UK would have ensued. Recently released papers indicate that even among British military leaders Reagan’s reckless agenda aroused concerns that the Russians might take the exercise for the real thing and be provoked to take irreversible action in return.

We were spared this scenario largely due to the efforts of one man: Rainer Rupp, who at the time held a top job in NATO headquarters in Brussels, but at the same time was secretly working for the GDR’s foreign intelligence service. As a student, Rainer Rupp had been an active peace campaigner and was recruited by the GDR to help them monitor Western intentions. He managed to work his way up the hierarchy in NATO, and had access to top level and highly secret documents. He saw his role as keeping the Soviet Union and its allies up to date on NATO strategies in order to help avoid the sort of hellish scenario that seemed to be unfolding.

Richard Perle, State Secretary in the Pentagon for planning and policy, was of the opinion that a limited nuclear war against the Soviet Union could be fought and won without massive damage to the US. Back in the early 1980s the US knew that the Soviet Union had an advantage in terms of both conventional weaponry and size of its armed forces and would prevail in a non-nuclear war scenario, so a pre-emptive nuclear strike was logical from this warped perspective.

In the autumn of 1983 the worst case scenario looked as if it was about to unfold. Reagan’s crusader rhetoric and his Star Wars programme, together with the decision to station Pershings in Europe, had dangerously raised the stakes. The Soviet Union would now have only minutes of warning in the event of a nuclear attack. It considered that NATO’s previous policy of defence preparation had now been transformed by Reagan and his cohorts into one of waging a pre-emptive war. It had already experienced surprise invasions into its territory in the Second World War, which cost the USSR 27 million lives, and it didn’t wish to be caught out again.

ABLE ARCHER took place in that context. The planned combined NATO exercises were viewed by the Soviets as a pretext for a first strike, but they were not prepared to wait and find out. They desperately needed to know urgently if such a plan was indeed about to be put into practice. They were convinced that the exercises were a ruse to initiate a first strike.

The exercises were to be carried out under very realistic conditions, and would take place over ten days, beginning on 2 November and involve all Western European NATO members. The aim was a simulation of a co-ordinated deployment of nuclear weapons and their use. What was particularly alarming was that there were new elements in this exercise: middle-range nuclear weapons were brought onto the field for the first time, absolute radio silence was maintained, and a new code format was introduced for communications. For the first time, leaders of all the NATO countries were intimately involved, which also alerted Moscow to its unusually high political significance. Moscow also thought, wrongly, that the USA had put its troops on the highest alarm stage, DEFCON 1. In reality DEFCON 1 was only simulated during the exercise.

Convinced of an immediate US attack, the Soviet Union put its own strategic nuclear forces on red alert. The smallest mistake could have unleashed a catastrophe. Even Gorbachev later declared that the situation at the time was as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, but with an even greater potential for nuclear holocaust.

At virtually the last minute, Rainer Rupp was able to photocopy a whole swathe of top secret documents that convinced the Russians it was indeed only an exercise, thus saving the day. Years later, at a Berlin conference on international espionage in 2005, the former CIA-head for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Milton Bearden, congratulated the former Head of East German foreign intelligence, the legendary Markus Wolf, saying that thanks to his excellently placed source in NATO-HQ in Brussels peace had been saved in 1983, as he had ‘been able to calm the recipients in Moscow’ and in this way, avoid a nuclear war. Rainer Rupp, the agent who literally did save the world, was given a thirteen year sentence for his troubles after the demise of the GDR and his British-born wife, a clerical worker at NATO HQ was also imprisoned.

That is the real story, but Deutschland 83 has used the realistic background to create a fantasy scenario for commercial purposes. Even though the series attempts to portray daily life in the GDR with some sense of balance and doesn’t hide Reagan’s vitriolic rhetoric or the concerns of NATO generals about his dangerous policies. In the blurb to the series written by Gabriel Tate for the Guardian Guide, he writes:

‘The arms race is on and Ronald Reagan and his Russian counterpart Yuri Andropov are ramping up the rhetoric from the White House and the Kremlin. Germany is caught in the middle, split in half and subject to the whims of its effective occupiers’.

The rhetoric, though, was coming solely from Reagan and the White House, not from Andropov who was acting with restraint and caution. The last things the Russian wanted was a war with the West – they had enough of their own internal political and economic problems to deal with.

The series creates its own fantasy world and thus relinquishes any claim it may have to historical accuracy or real insight. Did the producers not have any proper consultants from the secret services to point out how ridiculous much of the storyline is, and how stilted the dialogue sounds? The idea that East German security services could recruit a young GDR soldier against his will, drug and kidnap him, dumping him in West Germany where, within days, he will become aide de camp to one of the country’s top generals, is extremely whimsical.

The agent is given a cursory training and then let loose on his target. While a visiting top US general and his own chief are out to lunch, he breaks into the latter’s office and photographs secret documents left conveniently behind in an unlocked briefcase, listing all the US nuclear targets in the East. At the general’s house at a party given for the same visiting US general, he slips away from the crowd and telephones his girlfriend in the GDR from the general’s own telephone, only to be overheard by one of the general’s daughters, so has to pop a heavy sedative into her drink very quickly to render her unconscious. His GDR handler meets him and waves copies of secret documents in his face while he is in the middle of a jog at an army training camp. The improbabilities and fantasies mount as the story unfolds.

There is in principle nothing wrong with fiction, however wild and improbable, but when such fiction replaces historical fact in the minds of viewers it becomes dangerously corrupting. It then starts to have more in common with Goebbels’ methodology than Harry Potter. Deutschland 83 is good, gripping entertainment, but it could have been so much better.
The BBC: national treasure or tool of propaganda?
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 30 November 2015 18:33

The BBC: national treasure or tool of propaganda?

Written by

Chris Jury explains why we should defend the BBC against the free-marketeers.

The period of public consultation on the BBC Charter renewal has already been undermined by the announcement that from next year the BBC will be responsible for the cost of providing free TV licences to the over-75s. This in itself represents a 20 per cent cut in BBC funding. But Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has made it clear that this is the very best the BBC can hope for and that far more significant changes are being considered.

In response, the Federation of Entertainment Unions has launched the Love It Or Lose It: Save the BBC campaign. Much to our surprise, the campaign has met with sullen indifference and even hostility from many on the left, based on the assertion that the BBC has a malevolent right-wing bias and is simply a propaganda tool of the Establishment.

It is undoubtedly true that for at least the last 20 years the BBC has mirrored the prevailing neoliberal economic and political orthodoxy and that “the suits” have seen their salaries rise to staggering levels in exchange for imposing cuts on
everyone else. But this has happened across the public and private sectors, so why would we expect the BBC to be any different? And does anyone seriously think that turning the BBC into a fully commercial media company will improve its political bias?

Ever since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, every BBC Charter renewal has seen the its legitimacy challenged using the catch-22, free-market argument which says that if the BBC makes popular mainstream programmes then it is unfairly competing with commercial businesses that should provide such programmes.

But if it only made niche public service programmes a universal licence fee would not be justified and the only way to resolve this dichotomy is for BBC content to be paid for directly by individual consumers through a mixture of commercial subscriptions, pay-per-view and advertising. Thus the size and function of the BBC would be determined by the market, not by politicians.

In response, many quite rightly argue that for licence payers the BBC is incredible value for money. For 40p a day you get 11 TV channels, 18 radio stations, iPlayer, the website, three orchestras and one of the most highly regarded news services in the world.

But the free-marketeers simply respond by saying: “Great! If it’s such value for money then consumers will voluntarily pay for a commercial subscription, right?”

And they claim that “free” consumers, making “free” consumer choices in a “free” market will force the BBC to provide the programmes that the viewers actually want — and that these “freely” made consumer choices are a far more authentic expression of the collective will than any choices made through democratic institutions ever can be.

This is of course the same “public bad, private good” logic that is used to attack the NHS, education, social services and everything else in the public sector.

But it is a profound misrepresentation of how business actually works. The purpose of any commercial business is not to provide goods or services to the public but to make money for its owners.

Indeed, the law has established that for public companies traded on the stock market, this is their only legal purpose. And it may surprise you to hear that the business of commercial TV companies is not the making and broadcasting of television programmes but the selling of advertising and/or subscriptions.

In business terms, the content of TV channels is simply a cost that has to be endured in order to generate the income from the real business, which is selling advertising and/or subscriptions. The profit comes from charging more for advertising and subscriptions than it costs to acquire the programmes.

This is not of course how viewers experience television. To viewers, its programmes are cultural objects, just like books, plays, songs, symphonies or operas and they carry huge significance and meaning. To a passionate Whovian, Dr Who is not a consumer product. It is an imaginative window into a life-enhancing world of infinite possibilities. To a regular viewer of Eastenders, the characters and world of the story are part of their own experience of social life, not simply a branded consumer product like washing powder.

Being informed by television about the arts, wildlife, history, news, science or how institutions work from the inside transforms lives on a daily basis. It informs career choices for the young, stimulates people to take action by joining organisations and it enriches all our lives by allowing us to observe and share experiences across space and time.

We experience television as a transformative cultural experience and for most of us television is the principal, if not the only, opportunity we get for such experiences. Television, and what’s on it is hugely important to us as individuals and to the health of our society. Making money for the owners is not the primary aim of the BBC, nor is selling advertising or subscriptions.

Its purpose is, or should be, to use the latest broadcasting technology to inform, educate and entertain the British public as democratic citizens and to do so without pressure from corporate advertisers or the government — hence the licence fee, which is actually a noble and praiseworthy attempt to provide value-for-money for licence-payers and a non-commercial income for the BBC while keeping the government and commercial corporations at arms length.

For a democracy to be meaningful all citizens have to be informed and educated to a level that allows them to analyse and critique competing economic and political theories and policies, to engage with civic life and to make informed choices at the ballot box.

The BBC is not simply a provider of consumer media content; it is, or should be, one of the foundational institutions of our democracy. A fully commercial BBC would owe no allegiance to Britain or its democratic citizens but only to its “customers,” and the only influence they could have would be to subscribe or not to subscribe.

So the questions we need to ask about the BBC are not whether we like this programme or that programme, or whether this or that presenter is a Tory bastard.
We need to ask whether we think our democracy would operate more effectively if the BBC became a commercial business, whether cultural life and the public expression of our shared cultures would be enhanced or whether television news and comment would be more reliable.

Just like the NHS, the questions about the future of the BBC are ideological. Do we believe that free markets are the only just and efficient way to provide individuals with all their wants and needs? Or do we believe that collectively owned public institutions are crucial to mitigating the inevitably brutal, destructive and chaotic effects of the marketplace?

Culture is both individual and universal and, of course, we make personal and individual choices based on which cultural objects we prefer. But the result of these choices is far more than simply an aggregate of these choices. It is what we call “our culture,” all of us live embedded within it and, like it or not, television has for the last 50 years been the defining and determining expression of our culture and will, in some digital manifestation or another, be so for many years to come.

Thus we need to defend the BBC as one of the core institutions of our culture and our democracy and not fall into the free-marketeers' trap by defending it solely on their terms or conversely dismissing it as merely a tool of the Establishment. Whatever its current failings, a national television broadcaster independent of both the government and the marketplace is the envy of the world and should be treasured and defended with all the passion we on the left can muster.