Razer: lads' mags and bad girls aren't the problem

At last count, there were just seventeen women of poor character remaining in the wild and to each of them, I offer the customary gift of a bourbon and semen-soaked brunch coat at the holy codeine temple of Tallulah Bankhead. Our redemptive age has all but succeeded in the devastation of the bad girl and it now takes no little moral strength to be thought of as lazy, evil or a whore and it is sadly impossible to become a lazy, evil whore. Transgression has become some very hard work.

This is not to say, of course, that one can no longer be a wayward lady in the west. There are thresholds and a price for crossing them. But, these are not as plain as they were in the era of the whore and a girl doesn’t really know how she might do feminine wrong until she does it.

There is, it seems to me, one sure-fire route to lady-evil and that is simply to fail to declare opposition to the bad girl. To say both that you don’t really care that there are women posing for men and for money in the altogether and you doubt that such depictions will end in particular harm to your gender is unladylike.

Well, colour me Tallulah if I don’t see the value of another campaign that opposes Bauer stick-mag ZOO Weekly.

This “lads’” publication has provoked consistent protest since the internet made the matter of protest a push-button affair and recent months have seen change.org pages created to protest its various tacky promotions, likely devised just to create publicity in the form of change.org page creation. The magazine’s search for “Australia’s Hottest Asylum Seeker” prompted a petition and its Anzac day sexy-digger cover was censured both by certain proper feminists and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Last week, a young activist decided to petition the whole gauche lot and asked that major supermarkets Woolworths and Coles remove the title from shelves on the grounds it was a tool of “rape culture” which both prevented young women from “navigating” their way around the pop culture and endorsed the crime of rape.

Various studies are cited in the petition and the writing around it that claim “the language of rapists” is indistinguishable from that of the copy in ZOO. While I have no truck with the kind of PUA motivational cant of the magazine and worry for those subject to its cheap and horrid echo, I think the assertion that certain similarities in expression between convicted rapists and copy editors will provoke crime is as legitimate as every other media effects argument about imitative violence. Which is to say, not very.

To be very clear, this scepticism about the real-life power of unpleasant materials is not a vindication for rapists. Nor is it a call for a narrower definition of rape and nor is it to be read in any way as an endorsement of ZOO or of mass culture titles more broadly. It is, however, an urging to rethink the currently popular doctrine of media effects and a call to re-examine the potential for disruption by the “bad girl”, discussion of whom we have all but forgotten by consigning her to victimhood.

Before that, though, I would like to offer a brief critique of the common strategies employed in this particular case and suggest that they are doomed from the outset to fail.

First, there is no doubt that ZOO craves and courts such attention. Across the last decade, magazines aimed specifically at men through the use of images of women have either ceased publication or suffered drastic decline in circulation. Radicalised “rapist” language or the Charlie Hebdo-like anti-clerical parody of the “Saint Mary Mac and Her Holy Rack” piece on Mackillop are designed less to engage readers than they are to create cheap publicity. If you suppose for one second that the editors of this failing title are not counting on feminist opposition to buoy their miserable sales, you haven’t been “navigating” the culture with a compass. The exploitation of social media networks to advertise a brand is common. When Carlton beer released a low-cost social media campaign depicting women as slaves to the ironing board, I called an advertising acquaintance to address my suspicions that this had been created particularly to incite the prominent outrage of the then newly created activist group Destroy the Joint. “Yep” she said. “Oppositional marketing works like a dream”. Just as Carlton cheaply became the lager of choice for anti-feminists, ZOO becomes the official reading material. Certain men don’t read ZOO or drink Carlton because of the products’ use-value but due to the fetish created, free of charge, by clear feminist opposition. The advice to “Ignore the bullies, all they want is your attention” is frustrating and, in many cases, poor. But when your attention has been factored in as a low-cost advertising model, you might want to think about withholding it. ZOO is doing a good job of fading into market irrelevance all on its own. If you don’t believe me, check those circulation drops.

Second, and as some feminist thinkers have opined, this is not a moral problem but a problem of mass culture. Magazines aimed at a large market are almost exceptionlessly shit. Exploitation is not an optional extra for the culture industry but, rather, its stock-in-trade. As we have recently learned, the supermarkets that sell these titles depend on the exploitation of bodies in a much more material way than ZOO itself. There are few titles aimed at men or women that do not have the unattainable object as the centre of much of their inquiry and, frankly, if you’re going to object to pornographic depictions of women ensnared by male primacy, then you might want to start with Modern Bride.

This is the thing, innit? If you’re going to say that the culture industry causes rape, you don’t legitimately get to choose which parts of it are the most inflammatory. There is a current view that overt sexism in a culture corresponds with higher numbers of conviction for abusive crimes against women. Then, someone always mentions Scandinavia. Even if this correlation can be adequately demonstrated, then it discounts a number of other factors influencing the lives and crimes and conviction principles of those in progressive social democracies and it fails to offer us a more meaningful basis for analysis of violent crime than “magazines cause it”.

As I have no forensic expertise whatsoever, I have nothing meaningful to offer on the origins of sexual violence. But, what I do have is a great impatience with the gratingly simple public conversation whose terms, even if we accept them, seem to be inadequate to describe the mechanism that starts with a ZOO subeditor and ends in horror. Even if we accept the simple doctrine of media effects and say that rape is caused by disrespectful depictions of women, then let’s burn down the whole damn lot including Modern Bride. If men see women content in the fancy dress of the institution that once permitted them unfettered, legal entitlement to rape, then surely that’s an endorsement?

Personally, I have little time for media effects hypotheses and I don’t think bridal titles cause crime any more than I think sticky books do. I don’t like that there are widely available manuals for male and female behaviour and if I had my way, we’d all be reading Marx Monthly. Available free-of-charge to the united workers of the world who had seized the means of production and taken as read Adorno’s theory of the culture industry as always and necessarily a vehicle for the deployment of mass ideology. And petitions and social media campaigns have begun to fulfil the same role. Even though these moments of anti-porn feminist activism appear to interrogate a mass view, however much the unpopular ZOO has ceased to reflect a mass view and persists only because readers feel they are doing something illicit, they bolster an orthodoxy.

And that is: bad girls must cease to exist.

I utterly understand the need and the will to detonate the virgin/whore dichotomy and it is from this basis that such feminism proceeds. But, rather than redeeming us all from the tedious choice of two feminine roles, activism of the type continues the work of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union and tries to make us all good.

It may be “good” but it is not especially useful to take what amounts to a moral, and not an anti-market, stance against “vice”. The idea of vice and of cultural materials that cause specific harm overlooks the fact of a broader complex of events that necessarily exploit and cause harm. It is a fiction to think of “vice” and it is a fiction to be morally good within the market. You can’t ask publishing companies or supermarkets or any part of this complex to act morally because, well, capitalism just doesn’t have a human face. We should stop the dangerous presumption that the market has a heart.

And, we might think about our unspoken revulsion for the “bad girls” who appear in the titles that attract so much censure. We think of them, at best, as workers and, more commonly as victims and in so doing, we fail to see their potential to transgress.

27 responses to “Razer: lads' mags and bad girls aren't the problem

  1. Helen, I hold a BS and I’m happy to get into the nuts and bolts of it if you want to go down that path–I wasn’t referring to sociobiology or any of the social….’sciences’ *cough* and my suspicions are not ‘socially created’, they are objective observations. I would wager that whatever studies I presented to you would be considerably more methodologically salient than…well, whatever it is you’re reading. My only point is that is that there are consistent behavioral trends and features associated with sex that are owing to hormonal differences (there’s a good amount of evidence to be found when looking at people on replacement therapies, for example), and these are represented in various ways in what people refer to as stereotypes. To suggest otherwise is irrational. Your emotionally charged reaction is confusing to me.

    1. “Erm”, how do you detect an emotional charge through the internet? By means of “BS”?
      You could offer, without recourse to the “nuts and bolts” I am probably too emotional to grasp, a simple link to a compelling authority that states there is biological and genetic origin to explain gender difference.
      Or, you could concede that the evolutionary biology claims that gender as it is experienced and codified in mass culture has a basis in physiology remains an unproven hypotheses.
      Anyhow, Sweetie. Calm down. I know how you guys can get at certain times.

  2. I’m sort of over all the ideologies and isms. I’m not sure if this agrees with what HR is saying, but I suspect that studying anything and pigeon holing into broad theorems, basically everything that the academic communities in the fields of Arts do, isn’t itself just another category error.

    Feminism seems to be in danger of losing itself, caught in the idea that to be a feminist you must be against the male patriarchy, again just a category error. As a male, believe me, I feel no more ’empowered’ than pretty much anyone else around me. As a proto or post-feminist, I can’t tell, I suspect that liberation for women might just arrive at the same time as it arrives for men, which may very well be never. The stereotypes that men deal with are just as powerful as the godawful stereotypes that women have to battle with.

    But I’m a big fan of people who refuse to bend to social dogmas, so the ‘bad girls’ get admiration from me.

    I suspect, as others have alluded to, that magazines like Women’s Weekly and Modern Bride are far more damaging to the ‘feminist agenda’ (as if I have the slightest clue what that might mean) than anything put out by Zoo magazine.

    But as I started with, I have largely given up. I tried to understand, up to the point where I realised that the ‘feminist agenda’ seems intent on departing from reality, and as soon as reality becomes an optional extra I tend to do with it what I have done to every other agenda, dogma, ideology and ism. I depart from it.

    It would really be worth people understanding what that statistical gender pay gap actually means, and how it is compiled. As someone who contributes data to it, I can tell you, virtually nobody understands what it is saying. You should be aware that as statistics go, these are not clear windows to the reality but another mirage you have to see through to understand.

    One day I might just write something for Crikey on it.

    1. As I have written repeatedly, this belief in the ability of media and representation to improve or impede the world is not a problem peculiar to feminism.
      And, even though you may feel that your life experience is not particularly different as a man, your Personal Lived Experience is, to be frank, not the most valuable thing to write about.
      To deny that there remains great and measurable gaps between white male and white female experience is to deny clear evidence. That you happen not to be one of these statistics is really not the point. Personally, I don’t happen to encounter a lot of sexism in my life but I would be an idiot to conclude on this basis that sexism doesn’t exist. I am just not the statistical norm. Lucky me.
      The problems with feminism are just the problems with the world more generally.

  3. Dear Helen, you always give my brain a thorough workout. Sometimes, as with this article, I start off thinking hmm, I’m not sure. And, where is she going with this? But by the end (and after one or two darts back to earlier parts) I’m thinking hard about it. Not fully converted to your viewpoint necessarily, but you’ve added to the subtlety and breadth of my world view. Re bridal magazines: I studied them and their history as part of my phD on weddings. They sit squarely in the ‘bride as commodity’ and ‘bride as brainless manipulable twit’ models that have evolved through the history of the big white wedding since the 1820s. Could discuss this for hours, but not here. Thanks for the article. Your knowledge and analytical skills leave me amazed. Minor correction – it was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Forgive me, I’m a Virgo historian.

    1. Nope Rudy, you’ve got that wrong.
      Feminists – the 21st century version of people who are STILL waiting for equal pay for equal work (currently 70-something cents in the dollar across the western world).
      Oh, and the right to not be raped.
      Nothing wowserish about it. We still like sex, and art. And men, BTW.

      1. Well, Collective Shout are certainly wowserish. And so were many of our suffragette foremothers who sought to ban vice in Australia. Certainly, large numbers of feminists believe that removing offence from the popular culture will improve their lot. But, I’m also a feminist and I think this is hooey. And that Rudy has an understanding of feminism that is not terribly literate.

  4. ‘I don’t think anyone is proposing a lack of gender difference. Personally, I’ve given up the naive hope that gender will cease to exist because it exists in the pre-social space. (Which is not the same as the biological. This is difference feminism, FYI, Kristeva and co)
    But you just can’t go about saying “vive la difference!” as a justification for total bullshit. There is nothing at the natural or even psychoanalytic level for justifying gender stereotypes which are just as “grey” as anything’

    Erm, this isn’t really accurate. There is in fact quite a bit of evidence to suggest that gender attitudes are underwritten by biological values. I remember one particularly interesting study undertaken at a skate park in which it was found that the risks taken by men/boys increased in proportion to the amount of women present and how skimpily they were dressed, which I suppose is a pretty sad indictment of my sex, but well….it is what it is. However, it was also found that women reported increased attraction to those males that took the greater risks.

    That’s the game, apparently.

    1. “Erm’. Is that the noise that signifies learned condescension these days?
      I’ll refrain from emitting it myself as I remind you that a handful of studies does not constitute “evidence” and that the very dodgy, often maligned science-lite of sociobiology has done little more than observe behaviour in large scale complex societies and tried to find an evolutionary rationale for it.
      While it might comfort you to dream that there is some “science” to justify your socially created suspicions about sexual difference, I’d, erm, keep that ti myself if I were you.

  5. Come on,classic ocker culture. Got any ideas how many work related toilet breaks have been suplimented by this highly regarded rag. And seriously is it any worse than some of the tabloids who I read in their editorial produce free & fearless reporting

  6. You need no forensic skills to determine whether electronic or print media should carry any blame or have any motivational role in sexual abuse of any person. Ask the media critic to date the advent of radio, TV, telephone, print and internet technology. Print – you could have a stab at the 18th century. The rest? Around for, at the most, a little over 100 years. Is anybody going to try arguing cruelty and sexual abuse or ‘deviance’ – and on a massive scale in cultures covering the planet – didn’t exist before then? I bet neither Gengis Khan or Caligula ever read The Story of O. Maybe we should start to re-consider and appreciate the ‘unnatural’ powers of artists, musicians and story-tellers to control our lives. Finger painting and oral (aural?) sex backed by an A Capella group – a titillating cabaret to shake the world? I can also remember someone warning my Jurassic-era teenage self that Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones were the spawn of Satan. Actors were depicted in that medieval church-inspired ‘arc of life’ (or some such) woodcut as belonging with the devils, rocks and black peoples on the very bottom rung of life-forms. It’s all coming together

    1. Fantastic points, Michael. I think you would agree there is a healthy range of deviance (don’t knock stilettos till you’ve tried them….) but despite some “purity of ancient cultures” nonsense which still circulates from time to time, it is inarguable that the treatment of women and children before the advent of modern media was at least as shocking in most cultures (and, in many cultures, statistically far more shocking, to the point of being completely accepted), than it is today.

      That doesn’t let all the (mainly) male creeps and monsters of the last two centuries off the hook, not one iota, particularly since many of the creeps and monsters had the benefit of a far better education and surrounding environment than their predecessors.

      But we can separate the two issues: continue to encourage a healthy attitude towards the full range and expression of victimless, healthy human sexuality (did I mention stilettos?) but at the same time continue to stamp down on the creeps and monsters engaging in sexual activity in respect of which there are, objectively, “victims” (which can generally be defined in terms of lack of real consent and/or substantially unequal power relationships).

  7. My art history is atrocious, but this reminded me of all the nudes of antiquity, and whether there had been much debate back then about their negative influence. Probably not, because many narratives seem to suggest that many of these cultures were going at it like rabbits. So which came first, the nudes or the rabbit-like activity?? A bit of both, no doubt.

    As a parent of a five year old daughter (and I really should be just as concerned about my seven year old son), I think I’ve now more or less accepted that they will grow up surrounded by digital nudes doing various things, some of them rabbit-like. I actually think they will end up finding it ho-hum after all of the excessive exposure: “Oh, not another stiletto fetishist while I’m having breakfast. Please…..”

    There is a good, very generalising argument that Gen X, which I belong to and I understand you also belong to, Helen, had relatively the most unexciting coming-of-age period back then in the late 80s and early 90s, in substantial part due to relative and necessary sexual conservatism created by the tragic HIV/AIDS issue emerging at that time. Also, we didn’t have all the dating apps, dammit! Cruising clubs, gyms and book-shops is so inefficient!

    So, I think some Gen Xers might have a bit of envy for all of those other generations: (some of) our parents, Gen Y, and the cultural-specific generations of antiquity who just enjoyed the whole show but hopefully exercised enough good judgement along the way…. But sometimes good judgement is over-rated…. ;)

  8. Hi Helen,

    I wholeheartedly agree with your take on simplistic media effects arguments and your skepticism about ‘role models’, whatever the hell they are. Many people are swayed by these arguments and beliefs, and they are wrong and intensely irritating.

    When I try to prosecute this argument with friends, they often point to culture as a whole to try to undermine the point. I.e. they argue that my viewpoints, beliefs and ideas are to some extent shaped by the culture I live in. Which I can’t deny.

    I guess what I’m getting at is how do you think the common aspects of culture are transmitted? The evidence for media effects is unconvincing, but clearly there are cultural/ideological effects that are being transmitted.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Also, which Adorno would you recommend on mass culture?


    1. Hey Ben. Those helpful Marxists have the relevant chapter from Dialectic of Enlightenment (Horkheimer and Adorno) here for your reading pleasure online https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1944/culture-industry.htm
      It’s not that the culture industry (and I’d include social media in their early analysis) doesn’t transmit meanings. It’s just that it ultimately transmits the same meaning and that is: liberal democracy is functional. Mass culture exists as ideology. It exists to mime the fiction of democracy and just as we are now all excited about the “power” of social media, we were once excited by the putatively democratic nature of television.
      IN short, mass culture perpetually promises “democracy” even as it perpetually kills the possibility of this idea. It’s too frigging complicated to explain here but this chapter is the goods. I wrote something on Q and A a while back in The Saturday Paper which explains it, too.
      The Frankfurt School is really great on this stuff. Also see Marcuse and Benjamin.
      So, the mechanism of mass culture (and social media) is ultimately prevented from doing anything but keeping the market and the ideology that sustains it stable. Even if it says “equal pay for women!” it is ultimately positing that the market can deliver an idea like equal pay. Which, if you adhere to a fairly socialist world view as I tend to, it really can’t. Capitalism doesn’t work without inequality.
      The idea that media can form or reform us as it currently exists as an irreversible ideology machine is pants. It’s like women asking for “real models” on catwalks. The lack of real women on catwalks is not the problem It’s the catwalk itself. Cut down the catwalk. Smash the mainstream media, Sort of thing.
      A difficult position for someone who can only make money producing content for mainstream media but whatevs. Viva.

  9. I’ve just been having a think about all this.
    Not that I’m really familiar with either publication (and mine’s a Free Inquiry, please, not a Marx Weekly), but I think you could mount a decent case for Modern Bride and its high-rent sisters actually being worse than Zoo and its lowbrow brethren.

    While I completely agree that mass culture doesn’t cause rape, murder, pillage or angst, it certainly has its role to play in reinforcing the social norms that indirectly contribute to any or all of those things.

    On that basis, for the serious policing of gender conformity and conservative, backward-looking social structures, I reckon Modern Bride must leave Zoo dead in the water. It’s glossy and expensive, it’s meant to be taken ‘seriously’, it’s aspirational, and it’s actually aimed at women. It wouldn’t be seen dead trying to stirring up controversy for some free publicity courtesy of the twitterverse. Zoo’s a deliberately idiotic mag for men who don’t mind identifying themselves as idiots. It’s basically ‘That’s LIfe!’ with more tits and fewer prizes.

    But on the other hand, there’s nothing to be done about either of them, really. Oh, unless anyone wants to sign my Change.org petition to get Coles and Woolies to stop carrying bridal mags?

  10. Agree with Disfocus.
    I also wonder what a grey world we’d live in if girls and boys weren’t allowed to be ‘bad’ or play with their sexuality – whether displayed through the contrivances of clothes and dance or, indeed, actual behaviour.
    I can’t help but imagine a Chairman Mao-inspired unisex uniform and a lot of deep soul-searching during moments of what should be unbridled passion.

    1. I don’t think anyone is proposing a lack of gender difference. Personally, I’ve given up the naive hope that gender will cease to exist because it exists in the pre-social space. (Which is not the same as the biological. This is difference feminism, FYI, Kristeva and co)
      But you just can’t go about saying “vive la difference!” as a justification for total bullshit. There is nothing at the natural or even psychoanalytic level for justifying gender stereotypes which are just as “grey” as anything.

  11. “… Magazines aimed at a large market are almost exceptionlessly shit …”


    Opined content of all persuasions and platforms (which may or may not overtly masquerade as news) is the cerebral equivalent of arse gravy.

    It does seem to be getting worse though ….

    I wonder if it is just the insatiable need to feed the bottomless cyberbeast that is the internet !

    1. Part of it is the ceaseless need for content. More of it, I think, is to the need to believe we have agency. At the core at a lot of protest, both progressive and neolib, is a faith that liberal democracy provides the means for us to change things. Actually, I think such protest, which is so uniform and uniformly ill-thought, provides a means for this ideology to prosper. As long as we pretend to believe in a Santa Claus who can offer us real possibilities for change, we will.

  12. Nice article. The reason I’m commenting, though, is to thank you for all the articles of yours that I’ve been reading lately. You dropped off my radar for quite a while after I used to listen to you on Triple J (I vaguely remember reading that there where some fairly unpleasant reasons for that), but now you seem to be popping up everywhere!

    Great style, and I also appreciate the way–to mix a couple of metaphors–you burrow down to the core issues and slice through the Gordian knot of neo-post-modernist (for want of a better term) angst.



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