Targeting supermarket sales of lads’ mags is the wrong strategy in the war on sexism, writes Lori Anderson
The stare was smouldering and whispered: “Come hither.” Lying back on a minimalist silver-grey sofa, clad only in a skin-tight black top, high heels, black hold-ups that halted 10in before vintage-style black knickers to reveal milky thighs, Romola Garai arched her back in expectant ecstasy and gazed out from the pages of Esquire magazine as if beckoning readers into her arms.
Ten years later, the garb and stance adopted by the actress, who appeared in films such as Atonement and One Day and boldly sashayed in the tightest dresses as Bel Rowley in the 1950s newsroom drama The Hour is quite different.
Wearing a simple white T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Sexism” in the style of the Tesco logo, she has joined forces with the women’s rights groups UK Feminista and Object in an attempt to sweep lads’ mags such as Zoo and Nuts from the shelves of Britain’s largest supermarket. While admitting that in the past she had been part of the problem, Garai this week insisted: “Let me be part of the solution.” She believes a step towards tackling everyday sexism would be to force Tesco to dump these magazines, which she argues are pornography, which the supermarket claims not to stock.
In a high-profile interview, she explained: “Zoo and Nuts are not just pornographic magazines, they also have a culture that makes it permissible to hate women. They are sort of fanzines for misogyny. They grew out of a reactionary culture that was growing out of women being much more public and in the workplace and more empowered in day-to-day life.
“I think we have to recognise that reaction occurred and we have to try and combat it. I think it is hard to think of specific ways to take action, but asking to make an ethical choice about the kind of publications they sell is, I think, a very specific way of doing that. And also, at the very least, you are saying to Tesco that you cannot claim to have corporate responsibility when it comes to selling adult magazines when in fact you do sell pornographic magazines, because that is what these are.”
Today, Nuts sells less than 60,000 copies, a drop of 30 per cent in the past year, while Zoo has lost 20 per cent of sales in the past 12 months and sells around 35,000 copies. The magazines’ nadir came three years ago when Danny Dyer, an actor famed for his wide-boy roles as hoodlums and football casuals was hired by Zoo as an Agony Uncle and offered the following advice to “Alex from Manchester”, who had recently been dumped by his girlfriend: “You’ve got nothing to worry about, son. I’d suggest going out on a rampage with the boys, getting on the booze, smashing anything that moves.
“Then, when some bird falls for you, you can turn the tables and break her heart. Of course, the other option is to cut your ex’s face, and then no-one will want her.”
When the government commissioned a review on the Sexualisation of Young People it found that lads’ mags “promote an idea of male sexuality as based on power and aggression, depicting women as sex objects and including articles that feature strategies for manipulating women.
“The evidence gathered in the review suggests a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm.”
On Tuesday, Polly Neate, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, unveiled statistics that also suggested lads’ mags encouraged sexual hostility and violence.
A new report found that young women are more likely than any other age group to experience domestic and sexual violence, with 7 per cent of women aged 16-19 and 6.4 per cent of women aged 20-24 experiencing abuse by their partners compared to 4.2 per cent for women of all ages.
As Caroline Lucas, the Green MP who hosted an event in parliament highlighting the new campaign, explained: “The abuse of women doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The constant diet of images of women as available for men’s pleasure in magazines like these creates a context in which violence against women and girls is more likely to flourish.”
Yet is there a downside to Tesco toppling Nuts and Zoo from its shelves, two magazines with a dwindling circulation? By capitulating to a protest group, could the supermarket chain be opening itself up to further aggressive lobbying by a whole host of single-issue groups?
There are those who disapprove of leisure pursuits such as fishing and shooting and Tesco currently stocks magazines dedicated to both of these – should they also be banned from the supermarket shelves?
Fashion magazines featuring size-zero models on the cover can do reprehensible damage to self-esteem according to some women, why not ban them, too?
One could argue that the man or “lad” who purchases a copy of Nuts or Zoo at Tesco, or anywhere else, is already a lost cause. Why not concentrate instead on protecting the fragile self-esteem of young girls by policing what they read?
The answer is that fashion magazines may elevate the beautiful and svelte but they don’t, like Nuts and Zoo, denigrate and belittle women.
The reason that Romola Garai has taken on this new role is for the sake of her young daughter, born earlier this year.
Garai wants her daughter to grow up in a society where she “can enjoy the experience of living as a human being rather than being purely defined by her gender at every turn”.
It is a noble dream worth fighting for, but Nuts and Zoo are only paper targets.