Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Women: Know Your Limits

Do you ever shop in Marks and Spencer? I'm ashamed to say that I do: for hats and salted capers. In my defence, all supermarkets are evil, and M+S is the one closest to Vole Towers. That, and the fact that there are no independent shops in the city. Not for clothes, wine, cheese, bread or any of life's necessities, even hats. It's such an awful place that even Stoke-on-Trent is better served: that city even has a massive independent book shop that towers over Waterstone's.

However, M+S makes some effort in the environmental and sustainability spheres, even if it is run by a bunch of uber-Tory toffs. Every time I go past the newspaper stand there I shudder: Daily Mails flying off the shelves because the core customers are basically reactionary bourgeois racists in floaty linen.

But it's not just the customers: the company's reactionary tendencies can be glimpsed in their products too: here's a desk planner I spotted there recently, left over from Father's Day. Apologies for the picture quality: snapped in a hurry on my phone with no time to rearrange lighting and composition.

That's right. Only men have desks, and only women are secretaries. And those women are pretty-headed forgetful flibbertigibbets who impeded the Important Work done by the men.

And it's even worse: this is a Father's Day gift. So the idea is that a child buys this for his or her father, reinforcing patriarchy and sexism for both of them. Imagine being a girl child choosing this – perhaps at her mother's suggestion. Way to be initiated into misogynistic culture! Abandon your aspirations right here! It's bad for the boy too, learning that only his father should have a desk and a life which requires planning and organisation.

Now I know what some of you will be thinking. It's just a joke. It's post-modern retro irony and you feminists have no sense of humour. Relax! Chill! And it's true that I personally have very little sense of humour. I don't even find Drop Dead Fred funny, which I gather is a male classic. But this product is more than a joke. Several million pounds were invested in it. Designers came up with the idea, manufacturers were contracted, Chinese slaves beaten in the rush to meet deadlines, marketing and advertising slogans concocted. Look at the beautiful typeface: talented people got together to make this thing happen, and not one of them saw it as problematic.

I'm sure Marks and Spencer will employ the words 'ironic' and 'humorous' if challenged. They'll point to the 'retro' trend: Mad Men, aristocratic and cruel Tory governments, Kath Kidston, The Hour, Barbour jackets and claim that they're just having a laugh. In a sense, they're right: we are living through a particularly reactionary period and the 'retro' trend is a cultural reflection of that because it allows us to return to the bad old days by selectively reproducing the signs of the past without bothering with their signifieds. Mad Men and The Hour are sort-of excused: the sophisticated texts don't simply invite us to revel in the misogyny and racism that pervaded their period, but that's sure as hell not how some sections of the audience receive them. Style and fashion are naturally guilty: the rush for 'looks' requires that troubling signifieds are airbrushed out: Kidston, or the cup-cake craze hark back to a world in which women were assumed to be domestic servants and decorative objects, while blithely implying that their status as ironic consumer objects excuses their semiotic import.

But this nasty little M+S product takes us beyond the lazy denial of some products. These people sat down and decided to add explicit misogyny to a decent bit of retro design, knowing that it would increase sales. In short, M+S know that a proportion of their customers are sexist pigs who think women are stupid: and some of these customers are self-hating women.

There are worse and more blatant examples of misogyny around, I know. There are more pressing concerns. But this one caught my eye, and I think it's important because M+S has a particular standing in British middle-class culture. It's emblematically British, and this product implies that there was a high point of Britishness: about 1952. Since then, it's all been downhill. Women: Know Your Limits (at least Harry Enfield and Chums were being satirical).

Right, now I've got that off my chest, I'm off hospital visiting. Toodle-pip.


Anonymous said...

Vole, I too spotted one of these in Solihull M+S in June and I actually took it to the counter to politely complain. Of course they looked at me like I was a 'mad woman' and said 'it is just a laugh' a 'decoration' and 'if you don't like it don't buy it'. Awful.

The Plashing Vole said...

Disgraceful. This is what happens when there aren't enough of us to complain loudly and confidently - we're the ones marginalised for having no sense of humour.