In the introduction to their 2006 edited collection, Joanne Hollows and Rachel Moseley reflect on the decision to name their book Feminism in Popular Culture rather than Feminism and Popular Culture, arguing that ‘the idea of feminism and popular culture tends to presume that a “real” and “authentic” feminism exists outside of popular culture, and offers a position to judge and measure feminism’s success or failure in making it into the mainstream’ (p. 1). Instead, they note that their own initial encounters with feminism were through popular culture, including television. As they explain, ‘it was feminism in popular culture that formed the basis for later feminist identifications and politics’ (p. 2). With this in mind, this blog considers how feminism is negotiated in a recent episode of Channel 4’s university-based sitcom Fresh Meat (Season 3, Episode 5).
The main plot of this episode focuses on a rare visit from Vod’s hedonistic mother, interwoven with several secondary narratives involving the personal problems of the other core housemates. The storyline I’m most interested in involves Candice, the only first year student in the house, becoming in her own words, ‘radicalised’ after taking a course by an inspirational feminist lecturer. With resonances to the contemporary No More Page 3 campaign, she then embarks on a mission coined ‘object to objectification’ to stop the sale of lads’ mags in the University, later joined by fellow housemate, Howard.
A clip from Freshmeat Unlocked – an online platform launched by Channel4.com, which purports to offer exclusive access to the video content of the fictional characters’ smart phones as ‘part of Channel 4’s ongoing viewer engagement strategy’ – gives a useful taster of the storyline. Candice’s video is made with the purpose of explaining feminist aims to Howard. (In previous episodes it is hinted that Candice is growing increasingly attracted to Howard and this episodic narrative pushes their relationship further).
From watching this brief clip, it seems that feminism in the show is framed as a bit of a joke and not necessarily something to be taken seriously, despite Candice’s best efforts to the contrary. Reading earnestly from a dense feminist text, throwing a stack of lads’ mags to the floor and stamping on them and staring confrontationally at the camera while wearing some plastic breasts on her head without any sense of self-awareness or humour, Candice looks somewhat ridiculous. There is a sense that she is trying (and failing) to be cool and sophisticated, reinforced by the clip’s style. It has the feel of a poorly made ‘yoof’ music video, featuring the repetition of key buzz words and cheesy background dance music.
Within the wider series Candice is often depicted as out of touch with contemporary pop culture, having been home-schooled before attending university. In the episode itself, her feminist politics are interpreted by many of her housemates as yet further evidence of her disconnection, with Josie exclaiming incredulously that Candice didn’t even know who Simon Cowell was. Her politics are framed as belonging to a different, earlier generation, reinforced by Vod’s mother’s explicit rejection of feminism as something connected to her own mother. As she explains, ‘My mum was a feminist in the 70s and that is why in the 90s, we told feminism to go fuck itself!’ Indeed, Candice’s concern with the sexual objectification of women arguably connects her more with second-wave feminist politics rather than post- or third-wave feminism and the clip draws upon common myths of the second-wave feminist as overly censorious and serious. These allusions to stereotypes of the second-wave are carried through the episode in her costuming, wearing denim dungarees and a chunky knitted cardigan.
However, while Candice’s politics might be viewed as out-of-date by the majority of her housemates, there are several points in the episode where the continued relevance of feminism is emphasised, albeit often subtly. For example, her quest to stop the University from selling lads’ mags stems from the blatant sexism of one of J.P.’s former school friends, who, in response to Candice explaining her problem with the sexual objectification of women, tells her she is just jealous due to her unattractiveness. J.P.’s ‘friend’ is quite clearly the villain here, establishing Candice in comparison as a force of order. The legitimacy of Candice’s campaign is further reinforced by Howard’s gradual, albeit reluctant, feminist enlightenment throughout the episode. Although socially inept, Howard is portrayed in the series as intelligent and Candice’s lecturer’s book has a deep impact on him, despite his initial discomfort and resistance. His studious nature, being typically well-informed about issues that take his interest, lends added weight to his later realisation in the episode that there is no such thing as ‘harmless’, ‘ethically-sourced’, ‘free-range’, non-exploitative porn.
One of the most interesting moments in the narrative, to me, occurs between Howard and Oregon, when he asks her if she has ever been affected by sexual objectification. Oregon scoffs ‘no way!’, before then going on to list several instances where she has been, from being beeped at by men in white vans while walking home from school in her uniform, to being scared walking alone at night, to experiencing verbal sexual harassment at building sites, to feeling uneasy in certain types of clothing, to having a man grope and flash at her. ‘Other than that, it’s, like, no big deal’, she ends, as Howard sits looking crestfallen. Oregon’s response points to the relationship between different forms of male sexual harassment, connected by the discomfort and fear that women feel in response. This, in turn, resonates with Liz Kelly’s (1988) definition of sexual violence as a continuum.
At the same time, Oregon isn’t portrayed as particularly bothered about these experiences, seeming to accept them as a normal part of everyday life. This light-hearted tone can be attributed to the generic norms of the sitcom, but at the same time, it closes down the potential for gendered solidarity between Oregon and Candice. While Oregon is one of the series’ most politicised characters (in the following episode, she is centrally involved in a sit-in to stop a fellow student being deported), she is also often competitive with Candice, frustrated at Candice’s unwillingness to accept her as a mentor. In this episode, she frequently scorns Candice’s politics, arguing that ‘some women bang the drum, others…use words’. Indeed, Howard is the only housemate who helps Candice with her campaign. This lack of solidarity is particularly notable when compared to the support the housemates show Vod in the face of her mother’s abuse.
Ultimately, the storyline functions as a catalyst to advance Howard and Candice’s romantic relationship, which has been hinted at in previous episodes. Candice’s politics grow ambiguous when, in response to Howard’s anger that her enlightenment has ruined his enjoyment of porn, she shyly suggests they could have sex instead. Shortly after this, during her protest, she decides to ‘get [her] tits out’ to ‘fly in the face of body fascism’. At the end of the episode Howard takes on the unlikely role of knight-in-shining-armour, whipping off his top in support of Candice as she is dragged off by university security guards. Indeed, the episode centres more on Howard’s response to feminism than Candice’s and it is he who is pictured on the front page of the student magazine covering the protest. This is not necessarily surprising given that Howard is a more central character than Candice, who only moved into the student house at the start of season three. However, it also resonates with a key finding of feminist scholarship on televisual representations of rape, that white men are frequently portrayed as better feminists than female characters (Cuklanz, 2000; Projansky, 2001; Moorti, 2002). It is notable as well that the storyline is interwoven with other narratives revealing more sensitive sides to the male housemates. For example, in this episode, the usually arrogant J.P. ends up sobbing to Vod that he is heart-broken, while Kingsley embarks on a mission to make Josie have an orgasm (although, notably, this can be read as less about prioritising female sexual pleasure, and more to do with a bruised male ego).
There’s a danger here of me replicating the ‘ur-feminist’ article, identified by Charlotte Brunsdon (2006: 44). To summarise briefly, in this article the feminist scholar explores a text within the concerns and vocabulary of feminism, establishing a supposedly obvious feminist reading in which the text is dismissed as not being feminist enough. The author then mobilises her own engagement with the text and re-evaluates this dismissal, arguing that the text actually reveals the complexities of negotiating a feminist identity in the contemporary age. Underlying this work is an assumption that texts are either governed by a patriarchal and inherently sexist ideology or are able to transcend this to incorporate feminist discourses.
Regardless of whether the feminist scholar celebrates or condemns an individual text, the polemical question of how feminist the text is prevails. This assumes that there is a better, more ideal way of representing feminist issues. One of the main problems with this assumption is that it presumes that there is a ‘real’, fixed, common notion of feminism in the first place. Yet, an array of different feminisms exist making this argument rather circuitous. In the episode itself the multiple interweaving storylines and ensemble cast privilege polysemic understandings of feminism, from Candice’s full-scale celebration of second-wave politics, to Howard’s weary and reluctant acceptance to Vod’s mother’s complete rejection.
The rigidity of this approach also frequently means that the specificities of genre and narrative form are overlooked. As John Ellis points out in his earlier cst blog, Fresh Meat can be defined as a sitcom. It is not surprising then that the feminist storyline is played largely for laughs. But, at the same time, there are moments in this episode that are extremely emotive and hard-hitting, particularly Vod’s mother’s abuse, suggesting that the series does have room to portray issues in a more serious light when it chooses to. As Ellis argues, “sitcom characters are only one laugh away from tragedy”. Ellis also points out that the housemates are bound by their vulnerability as they negotiate the transition the adulthood. Candice, in particular, is frequently portrayed as the most vulnerable, naïve and inexperienced housemate, easily influenced by others. In light of this, her feminism in this episode could be read as just another short-lived phase. However, notably, while the following episode makes no explicit mention of her campaign, she is depicted reading a feminist book.
One of the reasons Candice’s storyline stood out for me is that it mirrors the same way I came to identify as a feminist, after taking a particularly inspirational course as an undergraduate. And yet, while I didn’t explicitly identify as a feminist before this point, like Hollows and Moseley my understanding of feminism and women’s capabilities were initially formed, in large part, through watching strong female characters on TV. While I certainly don’t want to over-simplify viewer engagement or suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between what people watch and their attitudes and beliefs, I do think representations matter. Television does not present ‘a window on the world’, its representations are not reflective of reality, but nevertheless, representations are generative and productive and, thus, worth closer analysis. This analysis is arguably all the more important in light of recent news coverage of widespread sexism in university campuses across the UK (see here and herefor just a couple of examples). I have no conclusive answers as to what meanings of feminism are privileged by Fresh Meat. This is open to interpretation. Instead, what this episode does is highlight how ‘the popular operates as a site of struggle over the meanings of feminism’ (Hollows and Moseley 2006: 8).
Susan Berridge is a Teaching Fellow, Research Assistant and member of the Centre for Gender & Feminist Studies at Stirling University. She also teaches Television Studies at Glasgow University and is the co-editor of the Commentary and Criticism section of Feminist Media Studies.