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Review: SEE Undressing Identity

Now I like to think of myself as a fairly enlightened guy. I recycle. I once protested against the circus (Ban those evil clowns!) and I have even stopped smirking whenever anyone says ‘fracking’, but when it comes to women’s issues or feminism (the dreaded F word) I tend to think, as a man it’s not something that really relates to me. I just nod in agreement, as in theory it all sounds good; equality, respect etc. But I never really engage with it as it often seems like a women-only closed shop. Thankfully, last Monday’s SEE event, Undressing Identity, has gone a long way towards breaking this misconception.

Undressing Identity was a micro-symposium of speakers and art revolving around the place of women in contemporary media, particularly in the over sexualisation/perfect body image in TV/film and newspaper/magazines leading to the impossible aspirational system this creates in young girls/women. Four of the six speakers talked about broadly differing aspects of this subject, while the other two had specific targets for discussion. Briefly the speakers were:

Julie Addington-Barker (Girlguiding UK)
Julie’s presentation focused on how the self esteem and body image issues created in the media affect the aspirations of young girls and women. The freedom that is afforded through social organisations such as the Girl Guides can help girls deal with this ever increasing problem, and can empower them to seek greater opportunities in society.

Kirsty Hopley (Child Eyes UK)
Kirsty is from the hugely important organisation Child Eyes UK and took on the difficult subject of porn culture. Kirsty discussed how unavoidable exposure to the over sexualised magazines in consumer outlets is affecting children’s views of sex and self image as they grow. To instil these magazines’ unobtainable body image ideals and sexual excesses into children while they shop in the supermarket really is so disturbing, yet we do it without thought on a daily basis. With the casual sexual nature of these vulgar celebrity and lads magazines so easily viewable, Kirsty and her organisation are seeking, alonside other goals, to have these magazines presented in a child/family friendly manner behind modesty screens.

Melanie Haughton (PhD student, Lancaster)
Melaine’s fascinating presentation explored the British media’s obsession with ‘reality’ stars such as those from Made in Chelsea, T.O.W.I.E and Desperate Scousewives. Young girls watching these shows (especially from less affluent backgrounds, where aspirations are sadly lower because of the financial costs of further education) are fed the constructed myths of the lifestyle of these shows.  The resulting aspirations created for young girls, both physical and sexual, are a mix of low self regard, dangerous health practices to attain the physical ideals, and social aspirations that include options such as marrying a footballer as an economic choice. This all amounts to a depressing view for huge numbers of young women in this country and bodes badly for the next generation.

Flis Mitchell (Queen of the Track zine, writer for The F Word)
Fils started her presentation with the series of disturbingly low percentages of female roles and the number of those roles which are in sexualised dress and position in cinema. With this disparity of meaningful roles in cinema, aspirational figures for young women tend toward the stereotypical sexual figures presented, which is a negative trend to be addressed.

Angela Towers (No more Page 3, founder Feminist North West)
Like it or loathe it, it’s impossible to say that Page 3 is a bit of harmless fun. A 1970s hangover that Angela’s eloquent presentation brought to task as outdated and dangerous. With the No more page 3 campaign being of a higher profile and something that pretty much everyone has an option on, it was no wonder that Angela’s presentation would be the one that had the most involvement with the audience. Angela held a lively question and answer/debate session where issues from censorship to ingrained media tradition were discussed.

Sophie Fuce (Sociologist, founder SEE Organisation)
Valiantly stepping in at the 11th hour after illness stopped one of the speakers attending, event organiser Sophie talked about her reasons for setting up the SEE Organisation and the value of educating school age children about respect and inclusion. Sophie then spoke about erotic capital and the dangers of this to the self image and body aesthetic aspirations of girls and young women. An awareness of these issues can only be a positive thing.

The speakers were one aspect of the evening, the other was the art exhibition.  Set within the Blackpool and the Fylde College’s well appointed, purpose built gallery space, the whole event was physically framed by a collection of work that reflected the themes of women in the media and the feminist reaction to this state of affairs. With a mix of submitted and specially commissioned work, the pristine walls of the gallery become a line up of thwarted sexual and cultural tropes.

Sarah Eyre lines up her photos of wigs, the ‘because you’re worth it’ culture falls flat when the stark reality of the half a dozen populist hairstyles are taken from the head and isolated.
Ann Carragher‘s sketched over images of a foot are horrific in the implication of the damage caused by Chinese foot binding, a cultural beauty ideal that sadly still persists to this day.
Corrine Streetly, no stranger to feminism both inside and outside of art, gives us Adam in Eden black balling Eve to an eternity of exclusion, whilst ‘Inculcate’ shows the building blocks of a life of female stereotyping.
Millicent Gilmore asks us to fill in the blanks in her Rorschach tests, revealing the tawdry side of ourselves.
Laura Havenhand gives us naked Adonis in a domestic setting and Joseph Pegler‘s unsettling half revealed faces disturb. Kazia Tan and Liam Hemsworth’s photos deconstruct traditional beauty images. Whilst a parade of screaming victims from a certain long running TV show is my own contribution.

The symposium and art exhibition utilised the colleges gallery space fully. This will hopefully start the ball rolling for similar events, as the gallery space seems to have been a slightly underused asset for town which is hungry for venues for small events.

Overall the whole event was a success. Intelligent, informative and, sadly, vital in these fast moving over sexualised media times. It managed to walk the line between being both academic and accessible for the layman, not an easy proposition for any subject, but for one as loaded and challenging as ‘feminist perspectives on women in media’, a brilliant balance. I think the real testament to the evening will be what people took away from it and how that will affect how they view the media. I for one was genuinely shown some dangerous and negative aspects of our daily media culture which I had never really thought about, and I may even start to do something about it, and I don’t think I was the only person who was left feeling that way, and who knows where that could lead.

The gallery show runs until November at Park Road Campus.

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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