Changing the agenda

Girls’ stuff.
Boys’ stuff.

I don’t listen to the Today programme anymore – I did for a while, and when I’ve got the hang of leaping out of bed on the dot of 6am rather than hitting snooze five times and eventually stumbling into the shower at 6.20, I daresay I will again – but I was quite intrigued* by the recent criticism that’s been levelled at its editor, Sarah Sands. Apparently a proportion of its listeners are getting uppity over its “lightweight” direction. Since taking over the role earlier this year, Sands has incorporated more coverage of the arts world and the fashion industry, and some aren’t taking this particularly well.

*For “quite intrigued” please read: “my feminist klaxon went off loudly and with force”.

Now, initially I thought Sands was doing herself no favours whatsoever when she was reported as having referred to these lighter topics as “girls’ stuff”. But on closer reading, it looks as though the “girls’ stuff” quote was taken from a fairly barbed response to some comments from George Osborne. What she actually said was rather eloquent: “The new editor of the Evening Standard apparently told the ES magazine editor… that he was not interested in ‘girls’ stuff’. It’s worth remembering the contribution that girls’ stuff makes to the economy, and employment as well as to the gaiety of life.”

The gaiety of life? How beautifully, sublimely put.

Because most of my writing is me trying to rip off Caitlin Moran, I’ve got a Caitlin column for this very topic  – this piece (paywalled, #sorrynotsorry) from 2014 opens with Moran recalling something Yoko Ono once said: basically, why is it sport that always follows the news? Who decided that the light relief after updates on wars, pandemics and political impasses would be… more men fighting?

Why not include arts coverage or fashion reporting on the Today programme? Of course we need the hard news, the policy changes, the moral debates, I’d  never dispute that – but more variation is rarely a bad thing. If you can have a range of religions represented on Thought For The Day, then surely you can have a bit about what Burberry are doing for Spring/Summer ’18. For one thing, at least we can prove the fashion industry actually exists.

It’s cool to be scathing about fashion, I get that. But the fact remains, it’s a million-pound business and there are some incredibly influential, innovative designers, editors, stylists and photographers that give good interview. If you’re interested in the economy and don’t instinctively skip the business pages in the newspaper, you probably shouldn’t be dismissing the fashion industry out of hand.

At the heart of it though, this isn’t about getting Alexandra Shulman on Radio 4 more often. It’s that age-old complaint – that desperate moan of the nostalgia-drunk, the so-set-in-their-ways-they’ll-need-to-be-excavated: “things ain’t what they used to be”.  If we assume that the Today editor’s main goal is to increase engagement and grow audiences, then diversifying the programme’s content makes good business sense. Cover more stuff = attract more listeners.

Now, I don’t know whether it’s better to have a larger audience that dips in and out of a programme as and when the mood strikes them, or to have a smaller, more loyal audience that engages on a daily basis, but we have to accept that the former is the way things are now. We read articles, not whole newspapers, in the same way we download tracks, not whole albums. We might listen to Radio 4 at 7am, LBC at 11am, and 6Music or Soho Radio at lunchtime. We follow voices we like, not the vessels in which they arrive. What happens to media outlets that don’t try to move with the times? They die – and people lose jobs and livelihoods. It’s another age-old complaint: evolve or expire.

And if that evolution doesn’t involve making your content more diverse, more representative of your audience, then it’s no evolution at all. “Women’s things” need to start being included. Because, well… they’re not “women’s things” at all. If we’re ever going to achieve true, proper equality, we’re going to have to unhook our stubborn claws from two beliefs: the first being that things women like are inferior to things men like.

Because OK, while it’s not the most pressing issue for modern feminism, try getting any man at all to see – for example – make-up as something other than frivolous and self-indulgent, rather than creative and emboldening. Ditto “women’s fiction”. (The author Marian Keyes has some great stuff to say about this in her Desert Island Discs episode.) Calling books about relationships and love “chick lit” is reductive – why should those sorts of stories be seen as less important than spy thrillers? We all have relationships; very few of us end up being tapped on the shoulder and asked to join MI6. But it’s men who write Serious Fiction while women just write silly romances, apparently.

The second belief we desperately need to let go of is that “men’s stuff” and “women’s stuff” even exists. There’s just “stuff you’re into” and “stuff you’re not into”.

And back to the original point, for there is indeed a point somewhere here: arts and culture coverage shouldn’t even be seen as “lightweight” in the first place. There’s so much fodder for passionate, heavy discussion there. Representation, for a start – of women, of people of colour, of trans people, of social class. Inclusivity may be a buzzword straight out of W1Abut it also should be non-negotiable. Funding: how does anyone not born into wealth make a living from a creative pursuit? The more visible these issues become, the more attention they get, the closer we’ll get to solving them – because there will be more brainpower spent on them.

One of the ways you undermine and even oppress whole groups of people is by attacking the things they like. We’ve all had that experience of showing enthusiasm for something – a band, an author, a film – only to be teased, or given a list of reasons why we shouldn’t like that thing – and it can really sting. And if you don’t even see the things you like reflected in popular culture or foregrounded by the media, then you start to feel a little lonely.

Some of the most insightful, damning and enlightening perspectives on any given period come from the art it generates. The news tells us who we are and what we’re doing, the worlds of art and culture hold up a looking-glass. We need mirrors as well as screens.

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