Is it time for the media to take responsibility for feeding fascism?

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The media loves a little political or social upheaval. In the wake of the disastrous result of the EU referendum, newspapers across the country have been relishing the chaos, as they churn out headline after headline, each more sensationalist than the last. The pound at its lowest value in 30 years! Racism and hate crime have gone up 500%! The numerous lies of the Leave campaign leave voters reeling! Xenophobia sweeps across the country!

Yet, something about their seeming outrage at the miserable state of affairs we are in leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Perhaps it is their positioning of themselves as objective observers, just as shocked as anyone by the horrific unfolding of events, when in so many cases, they helped to create the very climate that they are now reporting on? I have yet to find a mainstream media outlet that has acknowledged its own role in shaping public opinion in the lead up to the referendum, or in helping to fan the flames of racial intolerance.

Of course, the two worst offenders that spring to mind are The Sun and the Daily Mail, rather frighteningly, two of the biggest papers in the UK in terms of circulation. With headlines such as, “4000 foreign murderers and rapists we can’t throw out…and, yes, you can blame human rights again”; “Warning on UK Muslim ghettos” and “Migrants: How many more can we take?” from the Daily Mail, and The Sun’s equally pernicious headlines: “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for Jihadis” (a report that was described as hugely misleading and irresponsible), “Halt the asylum tide now”, “Draw a red line on immigration, Mr Cameron…We’re seeing red”, and “Where the Brex was won: Streets full of Polish shops, kids not speaking English…but Union Jacks now flying high again”, it is not difficult to see what role these papers have played in the public’s misconceptions on immigration, and the fueling of racial tension. For all that, in a move of rank hypocrisy and a glaring lack of self-awareness, The Sun had the audacity to call for racial tolerance after Brexit, sparking sharp criticism from James O’ Brien, among others.

Blame cannot be solely confined to these two papers, however. Even the supposedly impartial BBC has a lot to answer for in terms of contributing to the sorry state of affairs the UK is in. Right now, an open letter to the BBC is circulating, in which its nearly 200 signatories condemn the BBC’s decision to allow a fascist, complete with a swastika tattoo, airtime to espouse his beliefs unchallenged.

Even before the referendum, the BBC had been receiving complaints about its lack of partiality in political coverage. Last year, for instance, it decided to furnish UKIP with three party broadcasts a year, while giving the Green Party none at all, despite the fact that both parties had one elected MP each. Nigel Farage has appeared numerous times on Question Time, with much of the debate centering around UKIP and their policies whenever he or one of his MPs appears.

While UKIP receives (as reported in The New Statesman) “historically unprecedented levels of coverage for a minor party”, more progressive views are given short shrift. The aforementioned left-wing Green Party famously struggles to gain media coverage despite its growing membership and support, and was even excluded from election debates, leading MP Caroline Lucas to seek legal action. Even Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, currently in the spotlight due to the attempted coup within the party, has not enjoyed much publicity for his speeches or opinions.

The rise of dangerous politicians with outrageous soundbites, such as the UK’s Nigel Farage or Donald Trump in the US, raises some troubling issues which the media cannot ignore. In the age of clickbait social media, it is easy to see why ignorant political figures who spew offensive rhetoric at every turn get far more than their fair share of airtime — not only do they attract far-right supporters, delighted that their views are being spread on mainstream media, they attract an absolute avalanche of ‘outrage clicks’ and ‘outrage shares’ as well. Certainly more clicks and shares than nice, do-gooders like the Green Party or Jeremy Corbyn can whip up. Although the vast majority of those shares are done through a frame of ridicule or disgust, what has become increasingly clear over the past few months (years?) is that, for politicians at least, bad publicity is far preferable to no publicity at all.

Media outlets have to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that, far from being mere reporters reflecting the public’s fears over immigration and intolerance of foreigners, they may be responsible for feeding that sentiment themselves. In a study by Murphy and Devine (2016), evidence was found suggesting that the relationship between media coverage and party support was one way, with media coverage driving party support, but not the other way around. A rather concerning line in the paper reads, “Additionally, qualitative investigation of the dynamics suggests that in at least two key periods of stagnating or declining support for UKIP, media coverage increased and was followed by increases in public support.”

Perhaps something for editors and broadcasters to bear in mind the next time they decide to give voice to extremist views.

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Exotification – I’m Not Your Pretty Little Lotus Flower

“I love Asian women!” “Asian women are so hot.” “Japan, Korea, China?” “Asian women know how to treat a man!”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you? If they do, congratulations, you’ve come across (or you are) a man — probably white — with so-called “Yellow Fever”.

As an Asian woman living in a country full of white men, I meet these guys a lot. You know, the ones who blurt out all of the above sound bites, who try to guess what ‘type’ of Asian I am, whose favourite actresses are Gong Li, Lucy Liu and Zhang Ziyi, who insist on discussing Korean/Japanese/Chinese dramas with me despite me not having seen the series in question, who tell me about all the other Asian women they’ve dated, who complain about how ugly white women are and why Asian women are so much better, and who try to get me to tell them that white men are so much better than Asian men.

Of course, such exotifiying sentiments are meant to be complimentary. After all, the patriarchy asserts, what could be higher praise for a woman than the approval of a white man?

Only…it isn’t praise. It is patronising and dehumanising, and inextricably bound up with the social power of race and gender. To them, ‘Asian’ is our defining characteristic, in a way that ‘white’ would never be used to define themselves. When the “Yellow Fever”ed men speak to me, they aren’t speaking to me, they’re speaking to their idea of an Asian woman, their fantasy made flesh. They’re speaking to every Asian woman they’ve ever seen in the media, every Asian porn actress they’ve ever leered at on their computer screens. My personality tries to push itself forward, but is rendered invisible, obscured by the lenses of racial stereotype.

And what a horrifically misogynistic stereotype it is too. Have a wander round any online dating site or Internet forum discussing Asian women, and you’ll notice that one of the most attractive things about Asian women, according to white men, is our apparent ability to “treat our man right”. But what does “right” entail? Well, to put it simply, “treating a man right” is to treat him as superior. Time and time again, Asian women are lauded for our supposedly meek and gentle natures, for our submissive attitudes, for our rejection of feminist values. (Hah!) Through their fetishisation and racist assumptions about Asian women, they reveal their attitudes towards relations with women in general: one should be quiet and meek, contented with a subordinate status, and eager to serve.

How, you may ask, do these men reconcile their ideas of Asian women with the existence of Asian feminists? Easy; they decide that she has been “brainwashed” by Western feminist values, has been contaminated, and has neglected her cultural roots. The fact that they assume submissiveness to be so inherent in Asian women that any feminist ideas must be mere parroting of the ideas of white women, is insulting in the extreme. Nor do I appreciate their assumption that Asian culture is static. I would love for them to cast their eye over their own cultural history, going back hundreds of years, and then tell me — what is “Caucasian culture”? And by rejecting the values their ancestors espoused, have they betrayed their cultural roots?

So please, men with ‘Yellow Fever’, stop objectifying, fetishising and exotifiying us. Instead, try seeing us as individual human beings with individual, unique personalities. Cool idea, no? And next time you have the urge to tell me about all the Asian women you’ve dated and how much you loved Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Memoirs of a Geisha — don’t.

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Halloween

With Halloween just around the corner, the time has come to navigate the minefield that is choosing a costume. Dressing up for Halloween can be fun, but it has, to some extent, morphed from being a scarefest into a hotbed for casual racism and sexism. Here are three issues surrounding Halloween costumes which bother me.

Dressing up as a racial stereotype

I’m actually astounded that some people think of these as legitimate Halloween costumes. White people dressing up as Asian geishas, African-American pimps, Arab terrorists, and so on, is rude and downright offensive. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the lived reality of the lives of non-white people, and an insensitivity to the way our lives are negatively affected by the very stereotypes being perpetuated for the sake of a few laughs. It contributes to the othering and marginalisation of racial minorities by portraying us as a separate species, to be parodied and summed up by one outfit, stripped of individual differences.

A group of students from Ohio University called “Students Teaching About Racism in Society” (STARS) have started a campaign against such costumes. Their posters are very powerful, and have gained lots of publicity:

(all pictures are from STARS)


How to avoid this: Easy – steer clear of racial costumes.

Men dressing up as ‘sexy’ or ‘ugly’ women for a joke

From Fancy Dress Ball – The Online Fancy Dress Shop

Sadly, this doesn’t happen only on Halloween. In the UK, a skirt, wig, high heels, fake boobs and make up is an oh-so-funny get-up for male university students, whenever a costume is required. The hilarity depends on the indignity that we perceive to be inherent in a man dressing as a woman, and the more sexualised the costume, the funnier it is supposed to be. Or they sometimes just turn to mocking women who don’t conform to patriarchal ideals of beauty; that works for them too:

From Halloween Spirit

I must be clear that I am not referring to trans women here, or men who like to cross-dress occasionally. I am talking about the outfits that you see in the pictures above, and others like them, that are clearly meant to be ridiculous, and to elicit guffaws from all their lad friends.

How to avoid this: If you’re a man genuinely wishing to dress up as a female character, (and make sure it is a female character, not just ‘Woman’,) do it in all seriousness, and spend the night urging others to critically analyze why they might find it funny. Otherwise, just stick to vampire/monster/skeleton.

The epidemic of sexy female costumes

Have a browse through some Halloween costumes online, or take a trip to your nearest costume shop. Then see how spot-on this cartoon is:

A man’s costume can be scary, funny, weird or disgusting, but God forbid a woman be anything but sexy! I’ve seen this framed as simply a Halloween issue, and indeed I’m writing about it in the context of Halloween costumes, but the problem extends much further than that. Moving away from the realm of costumes, we see this phenomenon in every aspect of our lives. It isn’t enough for a woman to be a world-class athlete, a comedian, a CEO, or a politician, she must never forget her duty to appear attractive at all times. This is why it makes sense for media outlets to report on the figure of Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo; for people to mock Olympic gold-medallist Leisel Jones for being ‘fat’; for hecklers to insult Hillary Clinton’s appearance. Last time I checked, physical attractiveness was not a competency required to be a successful athlete, CEO or Secretary of State. Unless, of course, you’re a woman in a patriarchy. Then it’s always required.

Solution: If, like me, you’re tired of the mandate to be constantly sexualised, focus on being scary or funny this Halloween. Non-sexualised costumes for women are few and far between, but they do exist, together with unisex costumes that are pretty ace. Or if you’re feeling creative, DIY is a great way to go.

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Happy Halloween!

Ted, and the Fallacy of ‘Harmless Jokes’

No spoilers

I wanted to like Ted. Although I had problems with both Family Guy and American Dad, the story arcs of Stewie/Brian and Roger were often funny, and didn’t always rely on offensive material. Being a talking teddy bear, I thought Ted would fit into the same mould.

Sadly, much of Ted’s humour stemmed from his being one of the most obnoxious non-villain characters I’ve seen on screen. He is the ultimate lad’s lad – doing drugs, sexually harassing women, surrounding himself with prostitutes, spewing racist tripe, and being quick to point out that he is totally not gay. All of which, of course, is supposed to be hilarious.

Film critic Jonathan Kim says in the Huffington Post, “It’s a film filled with the kind of jokes you might make with your closest friends, where you can say the most offensive things you want to get a laugh since your friends know you and your intent well enough not to take anything you say to heart.” Well, I’m not sure what kind of friends Jonathan has, but my friends and I certainly don’t find such things funny. No, not even in private. Not even if we ‘know we don’t really mean it.’

The whole idea of how it’s fine to make jokes at the expense of minority groups, because everyone knows you’re not really sexist, or racist, or homophobic, is a common fallacy.

In Quirkology, Professor Richard Wiseman’s book on psychology, he investigates the world of laughter by conducting a wide-ranging experiment as to the kind of jokes people find funny. He found that “the top jokes had one thing in common – they create a sense of superiority in the reader…in each case it is about one group of people trying to make themselves feel good at the expense of another.” He also goes on to say:

“Some research suggests that jokes like these can have surprisingly serious consequences. In 1977, psychologist Gregory Maio from Cardiff University of Wales and his colleagues looked at the effect that reading superiority jokes had on people’s perception of those who were the butt of the jokes. The study was carried out in Canada, and so centered around the group who was frequently portrayed as stupid by Canadians, namely Newfoundlanders (or ‘Newfies’). Before the experiment, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The people in each group were asked to read one of two sets of jokes into a tape recorder, supposedly to help determine the qualities that make a voice sound funny or unfunny. Those in one group read jokes that did not involve laughing at Newfies (such as Seinfeld material), whilst the other read Newfie put-down humour. Afterwards, everyone was asked to indicate their thoughts about the personality traits of Newfoundlanders. Those who had just read out the Newfie jokes rated Newfoundlanders as significantly more inept, foolish, dim-witted, and slow, than those who had delivered the Seinfeld material.”

“Just as worrying, other work has revealed that superiority jokes have a surprisingly dramatic effect on how people see themselves. Professor Jens Förster, from the International University Bremen in Germany, recently tested the intelligence of eighty women of varying hair colour. Half of them were asked to read jokes in which blondes appeared stupid. Then all participants took an intelligence test. The blonde women who had read the jokes obtained significantly lower scores on the IQ test than their blonde counterparts in the control condition, suggesting that jokes have the power to affect people’s confidence and behaviour, and so actually create a world in which the stereotypes depicted in the jokes become a reality.”

So is Ted, as Jonathan Kim opines, “a breath of fresh air,” or does it merely trot out the same old tired stereotypes and brand of humour that has honestly gone completely stale? In a world where sexism, racism and homophobia are thriving – the very things MacFarlane’s jokes depend on – do we really believe that all “viewers are smart enough to know that they’re just jokes”?

Being obnoxious doesn’t make you cute or funny, Ted…even if you are a bear.

Shame on you, Excalibur

This article from Jezebel has just popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. To summarize, Olympic gymnast and gold medallist Gabby Douglas has revealed that during her time training at Excalibur’s gym, she was the victim of racial bullying. This was perhaps the most shocking quote of all:

“According to Douglas, one incident in particular pushed her to the brink of quitting. An apparently shiftless training partner was asked to scrape chalk off the bars and, rather than just doing it, asked, “Why doesn’t Gabby do it? She’s our slave.” ”

So how did Excalibur’s alumni respond? Surely, any decent person would be filled with horror at learning of this, and be keen to reach out to Gabby in support and apology, as well as make an effort to teach younger gymnasts that such behaviour is unacceptable. Wouldn’t they?

No such luck. Instead, prominent ex-Excaliburians (if that’s what they’re called) were filled with outrage at Gabby’s ‘ridiculous’ claims, and were eager to deny that racism existed in their gym at all. Randy Stageberg, former Senior International Elite and National Team member, asserts positively that “anything [Gabby] may have felt was never about race”, and remarks, “I never once heard her complain about girls being mean, funny how it is just now coming up.”

Firstly, I find it absurd that Stageberg could proclaim with such confidence that anything anyone ever said to Gabby at the gym had nothing to do with race. Did she secretly place a little spy camera on Gabby’s shoulder, in order to analyse every comment, look or gesture addressed to her throughout her time there? And the snarky comment, “funny how it is just now coming up,” loaded with the implication that Gabby is making it all up for attention, is downright offensive.

Secondly, it is amazing to me how Stageberg could find allegations of racism so impossible to believe, when we’ve all seen Gabby subjected to it by the general public just a few weeks ago. Remember how Gabby became the first African-American gymnast in Olympic history to become the individual all-around champion, and the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics? And then how all everyone wanted to talk about was how messy her hair was?

Source: Getty images

Her hair looks just fine to me. It’s pulled back tightly away from her face, lifted away from her neck and shoulders, and does nothing to disrupt her lines when she’s performing gymnastics. Here are some pictures of the other American gymnasts and their hair.

Kyla Ross

McKayla Maroney. Source: Ronald Martinez, Getty images

The USA gymnastics team.   Source: AP Photo, Gregory Bull

So what’s the difference? Could it be that Gabby, being the only African-American in the group, has hair that is not -gasp- as smooth as that of her fellow gymnasts? Hmmm.

Finally, I’m not in the least bit surprised that Stageberg had “never once heard her complain.” I once worked in a rather male-dominated environment, and often struggled with prejudices based on my race and gender. I never spoke about it to anyone at work though. I knew that there would be denial, that I would be seen as overly-sensitive and should just learn to toughen up. And given Stageberg’s reaction to the revelations now, is it any wonder that Gabby never confided in her?