A few days ago, I became one of those awful people who starts a conversation with a stranger on public transport. Ordinarily, I’d say there’s a circle in Hell reserved for these shameless types, but sometimes you overhear a morsel that’s so gosh-darn up your street that you’ve chimed in before you’ve realised what’s happening.
I was on the Tube and happened to be standing by two female friends who were both touching up their make-up and discussing products as they did so. One girl applied some lipstick, and as she snapped the lid on and put it back in her bag, said, “I always feel like a proper grown-up when I do that”. Make-up lovers, you know exactly what she means, right? I did, and told her so. We ended up having a very hurried but happy conversation about watching our mothers and grandmothers apply their make-up, and quickly got on to how much we love Sali Hughes and her beauty writing. It was three minutes of pure niceness.
And then today, a news story appeared on my Twitter feed*, quoting the headmistress of independent girls’ school Wimbledon High School as saying that young women need to choose between Love Island and #MeToo in order to be taken seriously. “[Can] we couple up, to use a Love Island term, Me Too and Love Island?” Jane Lunnon reportedly said at the annual Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference. “I think we might have to ask our girls actually which camp are we in… If we want to be taken seriously in the Me Too debate, have our voices heard and have agency, can we also be saying this trivial nonsense matters?”
*I should really spend less time on Twitter but where else do you get such a heady mix of rage, lust, despair, and dog videos?
Now of course, Mrs Lunnon’s comments will have been cherry-picked to generate something newsworthy, and she was careful to make the point that teenagers need to be taught to view reality TV with a healthy amount of scepticism and an awareness that what they’re seeing has been structured and manipulated to serve a particular narrative.
But this idea of telling young women they may have to choose between ‘trivial’ and ‘serious’ – and that if they insist on liking ‘trivial’ things they risk undermining a global movement to call an end to sexual harassment – doesn’t sit well with me at all.
I don’t watch Love Island – not out of a sense of smug intellectual superiority, it just literally isn’t my thing – but I don’t judge anyone who does. Because Jesus Christ, life’s hard enough without being criticised for what you choose to soothe your brain with after a long day of work, chores, wrangling children/dogs and attending to things like council tax and food-shopping. And I gather that this summer, the show sparked some important conversations about what emotional abuse looks like and how relationship ‘red flags’ can manifest, and anything that gets youngsters talking about that kind of thing is never going to be wholly useless.
But can we just talk briefly about how it’s young women being told they must choose between trivial and serious? We’re all a mixture of the two, and if we can’t be silly and trivial occasionally, then it’s going to be a long, cold trudge to the grave, isn’t it?
I sort of see where Mrs Lunnon is coming from – shows like Love Island do promote, among other things, unrealistic ideas of what people should look like. And the notion that young women are harming themselves in pursuit of a certain look fills me with horror – whether that’s by restricting what they eat, taking diet pills, or on the more extreme end of things, having cosmetic surgery. Because girls, there’s far better and more fun things to spend your mental energy and money on.
But to say that being into reality TV undermines the #MeToo movement feels like one step away from the old “feminists can’t wear make-up and care about looking nice” chestnut, which was robustly seen off years ago. I really think you can watch mind-numbing reality TV and care deeply about equality. You can wear lipstick – you can pile on the slap if you want – while you fight to the death to improve women’s rights. You can wear what you want, watch what you want, shag who you want and how you want, go where you want, and none of it will ever make sexual assault OK.
Have we ever asked boys to choose between “being taken seriously” and sports, cars, craft beer, and committing mild sexual harassment**? No. I mean, we’re starting to have words about the whole harassment thing but we don’t seem to have stopped taking men seriously quite yet.
**Feel free to insert your own ideas for stereotypically-male pursuits.
Because it’s not just Love Island, it’s… loads of stuff. We still see things made by and for women as ‘other’, and often inferior. Male is still seen as the default. Take books written by women being called ‘chick-lit’, for a start. Thankfully, the term is finally dying out, and being replaced with ‘women’s fiction’ – which is still only helpful if someone can tell me what’s ‘men’s fiction’ is but, you know, one minor battle at a time.
It happens in music too – when asked about my music taste by a recently-acquired friend, I found myself being almost apologetic in my response, which ran roughly, “sadly I’m very predictable and listen to a lot of female singer-songwriters”. Why the fuck would I be sorry for that? To be honest, I think it’s partly because women who write their own songs have historically been categorised as ‘angry waily women’ (Alanis Morissette, Adele, PJ Harvey), ‘sexy’ (Beyonce, Rihanna, Shakira), or ‘unfairly relegated to Radio 2’ (Sara Bareilles, Lissie, KT Tunstall). And as with ‘women’s fiction’, there’s that inescapable sense of having to justify liking things made by women.
And for things primarily aimed at women, such as make-up and skincare, there’s another level of snobbery entirely (yes, I bang this drum regularly, sorry). You only have to look at the comments on beauty columns to see it. And again, even I sometimes feel self-conscious about how much I love make-up – as if having the capacity to get excited about a good liquid eyeliner and the life of Marie Antoinette is a difficult thing, rather than ‘just who I am as a human being’.
Mrs Lunnon’s advice to girls on how to be taken seriously essentially translates as “how to be taken seriously in a man’s world”. We need to change the message to: “girls, this is your world too, take up space in it, fill it with the things you love and believe in”.
Let them watch Love Island, for God’s sake.