Sometimes, things coincide to throw a particular interesting light on an issue that needs raising. This week, for me, these things were the continued discussion in Europe (including the UK) about the sex attacks in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, an article on the hidden rise of violence against women and, the return of Tracey Ullman’s Show. To me, they highlighted on the one hand that feminism is badly needed across Europe and beyond, but also that the belief in a rejuvenated feminism of the ‘4th wave’ might have been somewhat too optimistic.
So how do I get to these conclusions? Let’s start with the sex attacks in Cologne. As other commentators have highlighted, one of the frustrating things about the media reaction to these attacks is that it has been reduced to a debate about migration. Germany, as perhaps too few people in the UK know, has opened its doors to refugees in unprecedented ways for both Europe, but particularly for Germany. Despite the nation’s continued sense of shame and guilt over the atrocities during the Third Reich, Germany has not, over the last 60 years, managed to become a welcoming country for a certain group of migrants. The former East is particularly notorious for regular attacks on asylum seekers and people who do not look North-European, but that doesn’t keep the rest of Germany from being any less racist. This was visible even in the initial reactions that Merkel had to Syrian refugees. Particularly infamous is the story of her telling a young Syrian woman that ‘we can’t take them all’ which promptly led to the woman bursting into tears. It was this event that triggered the change of heart as far as migration is concerned, and Germany has since offered to take around 1 million refugees and has already taken many of them. Compare that to the 20,000 that the UK is willing to take by 2020. This has promptly led to a rise in violence against migrants or migration-related property. The sex attacks in Cologne have allowed this mood to again dominate the political agenda, as is evidenced by the fact that the big coalition government is now putting forward new laws to allow for the easier deportation of criminals.
What really strikes (and annoys) me about this is that the debate about the Cologne sex attacks has completely become one about migration. With the exception of a very few voices who are largely being drowned out, no one addresses the misogyny that underlies the attacks. This is not a misogyny that is specific to migrants – oh no. Being groped and fondled by strangers or near-strangers (on buses, on the street, in bars, etc.) is something that most women can probably report on – and not just in Europe, but across the world. The identity of the groper is insignificant. Being raped is still something that far too many women experience. Again, the rapist can be anyone. But it happens. All the time. Across the world. And it happens particularly in places of war where rape is often used as a weapon. It is interesting, then, that the reports on Syrian women’s experience of rape has been forgotten in the current debate. And instead of facing this fact and telling men to stop believing they have a right to women’s bodies, or that women’s bodies are fair game, we pretend that this is reducible to a specific masculinity that can be easily othered. And, as always, worse, we tell women to behave differently in order to protect themselves.
In a similar vein, the article that highlighted that violent crime is actually on the up but appears to be down because of the way repeated offenses against the same person are recorded shows just how blind we are to our shared sexism. Sylvia Walby et al. indicate how the figures are skewed by the decision to allow for ‘high frequency’ crimes to only be reported five times. As Walby et al. highlight, these ‘high frequency’ crimes are largely incidents of domestic violence. In addition, rape is handled as a separate category. But when it is included in the crime statistics of England and Wales and the high frequency crimes are counted several times then violent crime is up, and more precisely: violent crime against women is on the rise. The Guardian puts it succinctly:
The change coincides with the repercussions of the financial crisis, the researchers point out. “The turning point in the rate of these violent crimes is consistent with an explanation focused on the reduced economic independence of women and the impact of the cuts to services on which women disproportionately depend,” they write, although they add that more investigation is needed.
Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of the Women’s Resource Centre, said that while austerity had played a part in the rise in violence against women, some of it was also the result of a troubling resurgence of sexism.
Let me repeat that: ‘the result of a troubling resurgence of sexism’. Importantly, the decision to report the figures in the way of the Crime Survey of England and Wales contributes to this sexism because it makes the scale of the problem invisible.
For a long time, however, I thought that at least there was a resurgence of feminism as well: The F Word, Caitlin Moran, Amazing Lefty Women, etc. But then I saw Tracey Ullman’s Show. And although it doesn’t tackle the issue of violence against women explicitly (though there’s a hint to it in Karen’s story), watching it has been such an experience of subversion that I have become aware of the tameness of my usual responses.
Ullman’s return to British television indicates what calibre of a comedian she is. Unashamedly political, she makes her dislike for the current government very clear. What makes the coincidence of her new show with these stories of violence against women so powerful, though, is the strength of her feminist conviction. This is not a nicely playing feminism. It’s radical and subversive in the way that I am currently not experience my own feminism (which remains perhaps too nice). I often experience such radical feminism as second wave, though this is probably a problematic view as Christine Geraghty has suggested. One of the main reasons why this felt so subversive was because Ullman, herself having probably passed what Amy Schumer would call ‘last f***able day’, uses the theme of age and time passing as central to her comedy.
The older woman has largely been shoved into the margins of screen narratives or has been represented in a stereotypical manner. Sherryl Wilson indicates that this is along two main tropes: ‘the woman who has aged “successfully”, she who is young-looking, full of youthful vigour and conventionally attractive… [or the] older woman as ancient crone, enfeebled and vulnerable; again, experience and history are eradicated.’ As Deborah Jermyn highlights, comedies, and more particularly romcoms have proved to offer spaces for subverting these traditional narratives. A spade of post-2000 romcoms provided older women with the chance to ‘be witty, smart, and interesting, even if a little discontent… [to] be the sassy one, the lover, the woman with the clever lines, the one the spectator might want to be – and not just someone’s mum’. At the same time, Jermyn rightly criticises the films for the fact that ‘the answer to these women’s latent wish to find satisfaction and fulfilment in later life is apparently embedded, just as it is for younger women, in finding the right man against the odds’. As she argues in another article, such a recasting of the older woman as romantic heroine often goes along with her ‘girling’: her return to conventional attractiveness, Wilson’s first trope.
In many ways, Ullman continues along these lines, but completely reverses the sentiment by presenting us with another form of ‘girling’ that has nothing to do with heterosexual attractiveness. Instead it is based on childish behavioural patterns but played through by older women. Take her character Karen, for example, who has just been released from a Thai prison after 28 years served for drug smuggling. She dresses and speaks like the teenager she was when she was put into prison, not knowing what ‘a flat white’ or laser surgery are and responding to it with ‘a what? A what? A WHAT?’ She returns to her old bedroom that has been kept like it was when she left (with all the 1980s posters), and seems to continue the teenage crush for a man who is about to be a grandfather. However, when she gets to see this man, we find out that it was his scheme that put her into prison, and instead of falling at his feet, she gives him a good beating, eventually cheered on by her elderly mother. Perhaps even more subversive is Ullman’s take on ‘Dame Judi Dench’ who is first caught shoplifting and later sneakily destroying the tablet computers of her male co-stars, both times getting away with it because she is ‘a national treasure’. This label connects her to a long history of fame but at the same time patronises the woman behind it. Her physical violence against objects (she also kicks over a bin while laughing evilly) completely negate this belittlement.
Ullman as Merkel
My favourite part of the show, however, must be the sections on Angela Merkel. Merkel – who like other female politicians has often been assessed for her looks – presents (crucially) herself as a sex bomb that the male politicians can’t keep away from. When her female companion asks what one of her blazers smells like, she indicates that she too might have a bit of a teenage crush on ‘Obama’, but thinks Cameron is a bit weird because he’s a hugger. Later, on her way back from the international meeting, Merkel starts to rant about Nicola Sturgeon because she is apparently ‘usurping her style’. After having a bit too much to drink, she decides to phone Sturgeon. A physical fight with her companion ensues, which she wins. She leaves an insulting message on Sturgeon’s phone, only to then abashedly ask if the secret service had found a way to erase messages from other people’s answer machine. When the answer is no, her response is ‘Scheiße’. Here, the probably most powerful woman today is not undermined through a recourse to sexual objectification. Indeed, her powerfulness is not really at stake at all in comparison to the other politicians (they are presented as just as childish and weird as she is). Rather, she is made human: driven to childish behaviour like the rest of us. That she is shown to behave like that is however fundamentally liberating for women: it presents us as human rather than as bodies or passive observers. The mixture of old age – where we are supposed to have learnt to behave and fade into the background – powerful agency and childish behaviour becomes a dangerous mix that viscerally exemplifies the limits of contemporary media discourse on women.
The coincidence of the release of Tracey Ullman’s Show with the article on the actual increase of violent crime as well as the ongoing debate on the Cologne sex attacks has thus given the TV comedy a rather greater significance than it would have had in different circumstances. What it does highlight is that we urgently need to tackle the ‘resurgent’ or perhaps just continuing sexism in the media and beyond that reduces women to passive images and to the margins of stories, even when they should be human beings and right at the centre of them.
Elke Weissmann is Reader in Television and Film at Edge Hill University. Her publications include Transnational Television Drama (Palgrave Macmillan) and Renewing Feminisms (I.B. Tauris) with Helen Thornham. She is vice-chair of the Television Studies Section of ECREA, and part of the Critical Studies in Television team. She’d like to express her gratitude to the many fabulous feminists who continue to keep her on the toes, not least the ones cited in this blog.