Cake and fighting spirit

“We’re moving into a bigger room” was the necessary announcement from the surprised and elated members of the Reading University Women’s Campaign and the speakers: Dr Madeleine Davies, Professor Grace Ioppolo, and Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein. This event on the topic of “Laddism” was inspired by the concerns felt to be present in many of the audience’s comments and questions at the previous talk that was organised for International Women’s Day in March. ( )

The unanticipated level of attendance of the first event was exceeded last night, despite the expected difficulty of it being held at the end of Summer term. Encouragingly there were some faces we recognised and even more wonderfully, a great number of male audience members! With everyone squeezed in, sat on the floor in some cases, and a cake of some kind in hand, the talk began.

Reading University’s Women’s Campaign live tweeted the event for those self-defining Feminists or curious parties who were unable to attend: The tweets included the main points of the talks and the following discussion. Thanks to the 140 character limit they often beg to be re-tweeted as succinct Feminist mantras, for example: “We are not in a post feminist society. No way. Definitely not’’ and “We need to make #shoutingback a habit”.

international women's day

Through references to key Feminist texts such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Susie Orbach’s Fat Is A Feminist Issue, insightful observations about the recent NUS report on sexism at Universities and a powerpoint presentation which connected Early Modern portraiture of womenand with current examples of sexualised advertising, the talks demonstrated that the issues facing women have not changed. The three speakers agreed that “Lad Culture” is a new name for the same process of insisting female inferiority in order to maintain male superiority; as one audience member acutely stated: “’Laddism’ shows that it is still a man’s world.”

Shocking personal examples from the speakers and the audience, and the commentary on the role which social media has begun to play in sexist “humour” showed that “Laddism” can be found in all spheres. Professor Grace Ioppolo recalled her experience of hearing a well-regarded academic ask during a lecture given by his female colleague, “why is it all Feminists are so ugly you want to put a bag over their head?” Dr Madeleine Davies cited examples from Facebook, such as: underneath a picture of an injured women a caption stated “one out of three women are victims of domestic abuse”. A comment in response to the image was: “two out of three men aren’t doing their job properly”.

A key concern raised by Dr Davies’s examples and revelations from the student audience members about websites such as “Spotted: University of Reading Library”, (on this website female appearance is scrutinised to a high level, and humiliation seems to be the main aim), was the power the internet and its anonymity seems to galvanize in its users. Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein also suggested that this kind of effect is produced through the consumption of alcohol, which she argued was repeatedly mentioned in the NUS report but was not drawn as part of the conclusion due to the communal difficulties in our attitudes regarding alcohol.

It appears that being a “lad” is an exaggerated manifestation of being male. Through excessive consumption of alcohol which is encouraged within the culture and the use of anonymous social media, “lads” are able to overcome the male fear of losing their superiority which Dr Davies quoted from Virginia Woolf and which describes Professor Ioppolo’s anecdote about the male academic perfectly: “Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of womenhe was concerned not with their inferioritybut with his own superiority.”.

Although much of the discussion was about issues which are difficult to overcome, a lot was learnt and the following seem to be at the forefront of people’s worried, but hopeful minds: the connection between alcohol and sexism, are women under a new kind of surveillance due to social media, are educational spaces such as the library at risk of becoming threatening and what are the best ways to respond to sexism which is disguised as “humour”? Despite the somewhat overwhelming recognition of the challenges facing us and their frustratingly enduring quality, the event was inspiring and filled a sense of respect and pride for Feminism. Dr Davies’s closing words at the event showed the communal willingness to protest and the optimistic spirit within the room: “Let’s fortify ourselves for the fight with cake!”

About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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