Friday, August 24, 2007

Don't make me laugh

Women should not be afraid of condemning Wag culture for fear of being called humourless

Decca Aitkenhead
Thursday August 23, 2007
The Guardian

In the canon of popular culture, the crimes of feminism have ranged all the way from man-hating to hairy armpits, but one particular sin has always been singled out for unrivalled derision. It is often said that feminists can't take a compliment. They can't fit into size zero jeans, either, and probably can't even cook. But worse than all of that - they can't take a joke.

The charge of humourlessness has stalked the women's movement from day one, and it is, in my experience, a uniquely effective weapon. The most committed feminists I know can withstand any amount of abuse - ideological, personal, political. But call them po-faced, and watch them dissolve into girly froths of giggles, desperate to prove they're not. It was in this strategic spirit that many women, myself included, resolved a while ago to find the phenomenon of the footballer's Wag not offensive but amusing.

Blanket coverage of the Wags' World Cup excesses last summer familiarised us all with the central tenets of Wag-world - the insatiable shopping sprees, the catty rivalries, the coldly calculated fashion wars. But we told ourselves it was just a bit of harmless fun - a tongue-in-cheek self-parody. If we still struggled to summon much plausible affection for Posh, there was always Coleen McLoughlin to fall back on - Liverpool's rags to riches girl-next-door who drives a Bentley, shops for a living, but is universally adored for having remained, so it is said, "down to earth".

So we perhaps shouldn't be too surprised to learn that the Foreign Office has employed Spurs striker Jermain Defoe's fiancee, a model called Charlotte Meares, to write A Wag's Guide To Travel for the FCO website, dispensing invaluable tips to the female traveller. It covers every conceivable emergency, from breaking a Jimmy Choo heel to packing the wrong in-flight beauty products.

With their unerring instinct to bark up the wrong tree, the Tories have condemned the guide as "a waste of taxpayers' money", and "frivolous". As Meares's fee was "nominal", this is hardly a public financial scandal - and if it really were "frivolous", it would actually be fine. But in fact, as the FCO itself reports, "These pages are the most used part of the website, getting hundreds of thousands of hits. We are trying to reach young travellers, in particular young women. We want to get their attention, and this has proved very successful."

I bet it has. For a lot of aspirational young women, the Wag identity and lifestyle represents the ultimate in feminine achievement, and as such their highest ambition. In reality, Wag culture is not that unlike the world of the 18th-century courtesan - a ruthlessly competitive trade between beauty and sex, and wealth and position - and only confirms many men's long-held suspicion that women can be bought, and are only really good for shopping.

Roy Keane got it quite wrong last week, when he claimed that Wags were becoming too powerful. A kept woman who depends on her man for everything, and on her looks for keeping hold of him, is less powerful than almost anyone I know.

Wag culture can be read as the logical conclusion of a whole range of trends - lad mag porn, celebrity culture, rampant consumerism, commercialisation of football, and so forth. But it is, above all, a lesson in what happens when we don't take ourselves seriously enough, for fear of looking uptight.

At some point we will have to stop laughing. When teenage girls can dream of no higher achievement than to be someone's girlfriend, and the government issues advice on how to act accordingly, it's not funny any more. If the choice for women must be to lack either a sense of humour or a sense of their own dignity, it should be pretty simple to choose. I would rather, on balance, be humourless than vacuous.

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