So what’s taboo, anyway?

I’ll always remember the first time my youngest son decided to shake social convention to the very core. We were at the dinner table, trying to persuade him to stay on his seat, when he suddenly stood up and announced the following:

I’m going to do a POO on the TOILET from my BOTTOM!

I do apologise for the crudeness, but those were his very words.

Obviously this bombshell woke us from our bourgeois complacency. Not just one, but three rude words in one sentence – how could we maintain the façade of civility now? Indeed, how could one ever conceive of such pointless traditions as “mealtimes” and “rules” ever again? My son was grinning, satisfied with his work, while the rest of us sought to reconstruct some kind of “meaning” from the remnants of family life as we knew it.

Or rather, that’s what my son wanted to happen. The trouble is my son is four. Statements about poo and bottoms are not taboo-breaking when they are made by four-year-olds at the dinner table. If, on the other hand, I’d stood up in a company meeting and made the same announcement, things would have been different. I am an adult. I am expected to behave professionally in an office setting. It’s not the words themselves that matter; context is everything.

The same can be said about lad mags and Page Three. Naked flesh is not taboo per se – it’s the context that makes the difference. How do the words and images interact? Who is the presumed audience? When and where is the material meant to be received? Are the bodies always female? Are they always thin, able-bodied and white? What beliefs are thereby reinforced? The bodies themselves are not transgressive. Indeed, like my four-year-old with his not-all-that-rude words, they are performing to type. Glamour models look how glamour models are supposed to look. If the existence of Page Three makes some women angry, it is not because they just can’t handle the sight of an erect nipple.

The demise of lad mag Nuts might be seen as one small victory against objectification. It has, however, been picked up as an example of how stupid, prudish feminists – rather like judgmental parents at the dinner table – just don’t get it. Writing in the Independent, Chloe Hamilton chides all those who might think a reduction in everyday objectification might be a good thing:

Although campaign groups like Lose the Lads’ Mags (LTLM) and No More Page 3 protest with the best of intentions […] I worry that the end of Nuts magazine and other raunchy publications will usher in a scary new era in which women will be discouraged from wearing short skirts, heels and lip gloss on the basis that displaying their assets makes them objects for male gratification. What of the women who choose to embrace their sexiness? The understanding that girls should remain pure, untouched and sexually naïve until they marry is one I thought we’d banished in the 1960s along with pop socks and poodle skirts.

I find this such a curious turning on its head of all we know about lad culture and what it suggests about female sexuality. Nuts – representative of a boorish, mainstream misogyny that would be perfectly at home in the pre-Female Eunuch 1960s — is suddenly liberation? Just what, exactly, have the likes of Nuts ever had to push against?

As recent NUS-led studies such as That’s What She Said and Hidden Marks have shown, the perception of young women as tits and arse is not under threat; the perception of young women as full, complete human beings, with their own minds and their own demands, is. There is nothing daring or revolutionary about the notion of women “embracing their sexiness” in a uniform, unimaginative lip-gloss-and-short-skirts manner. Neither is there anything clever about suggesting the alternative to Benny Hill-style objectification is to be “untouched and sexually naïve”. All of this is dull, dehumanising, Daily Mail-level stuff. It’s as shocking and original as my elder son’s songs about boobs and willies, that is, not at all.

A few years ago my partner was working as an academic which meant I spent a lot of my maternity leave on a university campus. I remember pushing the pram around and feeling increasingly disturbed number of posters which used thin white women in bikinis to advertise social events. It was pretty much all of them, regardless of the theme or purpose. I wasn’t bothered by the tits themselves – indeed, often I’d find myself sitting near a poster, my own boobs bared, feeding my son – but the message seemed obvious: this world exists for heterosexual men. You, as a woman, are secondary. You might be in the majority but no one gives a shit about “enticing” you to events. Go to as many seminars as you like but don’t ever kid yourself that this is an equal space. It was all about power. I doubt anyone was really turned on by the posters, but that wasn’t the point. The posters reminded women that objectification was a social norm. Women were reduced to their bodies and these bodies were reduced to wallpaper.

Standing up to all this takes guts. Amongst feminists themselves contrived taboo-breaking frequently takes the place of genuine social risk. It’s safer to describe your own sex life in terms of agency than it is to question the cultural influences which lead men to treat women as objects. Performance – whether it’s announcing that you’re about to do a POO on the TOILET or record a WANK on INSTAGRAM – has no long-term impact when it is contained by narcissism and repetition. If anything the known intent – I am going to shock you – renders the performance a cliché. It’s a reinforcement of everything we already know about how women are “meant” to be.

You don’t break taboos if that is your sole objective; taboo breaking is a by-product of doing what you believe in, because it is the right thing to do. When feminists stand up to an overwhelmingly powerful culture which still says women exist only to please the male gaze, we should applaud them. Because no one, really, cares how many shags you’ve had or how many poos you’ve done. A lot of people care about playing off “prudery” against “liberation” in order to maintain existing power structures. A lot of people care about shaming women not because they don’t like sex, but because, quite simply, they don’t like women. And on more mundane note, a lot of parents care about making you eat your dinner not because they’re slaves to social convention, but because they spent ages cooking it and this place isn’t a bleedin’ café. It’s important to acknowledge the real context of these debates and to identify the real challenges. Otherwise our protests might be noisy, but they’ll remain childish and in vain.

8 thoughts on “So what’s taboo, anyway?

  1. And what is wrong with objectification exactly? I’m sure when Andy Murray won Wimbledon you weren’t considering him as a fully rounded human being, you were objectifying him as a supreme athlete that would bring back the trophy to Great Britain. And admiring his bum.

    I used to think those going on about ‘objectification’ had a point, but really it’s just a herd word that can be slapped onto any form of human behaviour that you don’t like. It sounds good because you’re implying you’re **so** much superior because you connect with the whole human being, but actually it’s facile crap, frankly. It’s also deeply sexist because it just plays to the myths of women being the emotional, caring sex.

    I also find the disconnect from the behaviour of our own sex quite stupefying too. A wee walk down Sauchiehall street on a saturday night should convince you that ‘Objectification’ is pretty normal behaviour for both sexes. Or at an extreme a Robbie Williams concert – now there’s a level of ‘objectification’ the men will never catch up with.

    1. The word ‘objectify’ doesn’t mean what you seem to think it means. An athlete is still a human being & when you marvel at someone’s sports achievements and focus on their performance on the pitch or court or track you aren’t thinking of that person as just an athlete trained to churn out a robotic performance. Their blood, sweat and tears are all a humanly obvious part of their achievements. People wanted Andy Murray to win because he had worked so hard for it. People don’t look at Daisy, 20, on Page 3 & think “Ah, well done. You’ve worked so hard for so many years to be there.”

      The objectification of an entire section of society results in those people not being taken seriously by everyone else and themselves. Women are just a body to a lot of men and that is not only a problem for women trying to break the glass ceiling in traditionally male-dominated industries, but a dangerous attitude as well. If a woman is only a body and has no mind, will or agency then it doesn’t matter what someone does to that body or verbalises about it as you’re going about, minding your own business.

      Women & girls screamed for Elvis, the Beatles, Take That & 1 Direction. Men & boys scream for football teams. The girls watching 1Direction want to marry them & the boys watching foorballers want to be one of them. That is an issue of how children are socialised – boys can achieve anything, girls can achieve stuff according to which man they attach themselves to. Objectification is part of the sexist machine that makes this happen.

      1. Sorry, but the women screaming at the Robbie Williams concert just want to fuck him. The women on Sauchiehall street on a Saturday night are simply after a good shag by a guy with a large package.

        And you’ve really never taken a good look at Andrew Murray’s bum?

        You’re being deeply sexist here, you’re putting women on some sort of pedestal whereby we can’t objectify in your ‘bad’ sense because of the patriarchy. The sort of ‘women can do no wrong because they’re oppressed by the patriarchy’ attitude you’re adopting here isn’t going to get us anywhere, because it’s laughable as anyone who operates in the real world knows.

  2. Excellent piece.

    I want to nominate this paragraph for an award:

    “As recent NUS-led studies such as That’s What She Said and Hidden Marks have shown, the perception of young women as tits and arse is not under threat; the perception of young women as full, complete human beings, with their own minds and their own demands, is. There is nothing daring or revolutionary about the notion of women “embracing their sexiness” in a uniform, unimaginative lip-gloss-and-short-skirts manner. Neither is there anything clever about suggesting the alternative to Benny Hill-style objectification is to be “untouched and sexually naïve”. All of this is dull, dehumanising, Daily Mail-level stuff. It’s as shocking and original as my elder son’s songs about boobs and willies, that is, not at all.”

    Thank you!!

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