Thursday, 15 August 2013

The third Thursday of August

It's that day of the year again! Yep, it's the day when 300,000 teenagers across the UK all open an envelope and then jump up and down in the air while photographers from every newspaper from the Times to the St. Neots Town Crier look on with glee. A-levels! There are some letters involved too, and often the small matter of your entire future, although it sounds like they've made clearing not quite as awful for everyone above ABB which is something. Gosh, hello non-English viewers, I promise I will start making sense again soon!

It's been a good few years since people first pointed out the obsession newspapers have with finding a particular type of student to go in their A level coverage. Young, hot, female, beautifully straightened and volumised hair (is volumising what kids do to hair these days? My hairstyling amounts to "wash, tie up, leave to dry, untie, CURLY BOUNCY HAIR!, dramatic mess, oh well". The newspaper hair is nicer), wearing some of that lovely low-cut "business casual" that sixth formers are into ‒ ideally with a twin, although hot groups of successful friends are also acceptable. Pose is most often elated leaping, although tears of joy and hugging girlfriends are also hot favourites. Boys are only allowed either as part of a twin set (provided they are sufficiently tall and fit) or if they have some kind of adversity story attached to them. Rules are relaxed for local newspapers which probably have less leeway to just go to every girls school in the country taking these photos. Because otherwise, you would think that A-levels are just the exam for girls school alumni who are conveniently off to a wedding reception in the afternoon and had to doll up specially.

I'm probably jealous, because I never got an excited leap, although I did get my picture in the Hunts Post ‒ that link is their offering from this year though, not me. There's a picture of me right there in the corner, go look at that if you must! Anyway, my school had a record year of Oxbridge acceptances ‒ the record was 4, I did not go to that kind of school ‒ and three of the four of us who got in had to line up on a wall and wait around for the fourth, until it became clear that she was avoiding coming in when other people were around so we had to take the photo anyway while sitting on a wall and pretending we didn't mind having our time wasted. This was also while I was trying to work out why OCR had casually just not graded an entire exam, which hadn't affected my overall situation but was causing problems for friends who had also sat it, and which was also just not a nice things for them to do. Thanks for that OCR. Still waiting for my apology. The point of this whole silly story is that I was not a particularly attractive 18 year old, and the photo included the ridiculous good-at-everything sporty boy, so actually out there in the records for 2007 is a "weird looking girl partially hidden by conventionally attractive boy" photo which is highly subversive and proves that I was already destined for great things. This year I doubt we would have made it. Competition for hot exam photo girls is just too high.

The girls who are photographed to go into newspapers have done nothing wrong of course. They are great, and I admire everything about them, including their grades, their volumised hair, their excellent fashion sense at 18, what is not to love. Incidentally I am not including any pictures in this entry both because I am exceptionally lazy today and because I would be utterly horrified if I were an 18-year-old girl and I discovered my picture being used to prove some point on an angry shouty hairy twentysomething feminist blog, I would be mortified and I don't want to subject anyone else to that. But here are some links if you need to go find the stories for yourself. You will note that there is a "gender gap" being reported on which you might think I'd want to talk about! But you'd be wrong because talking about a gender gap aggregated across all subjects for one year of results sounds like a very stupid thing to talk about. What was this paragraph going to be about. I forget.

We have known for years that this (and also the RISE! and now the FALL! of the GRADES! Like the sea and also it was much harder in my day, none of this A* nonsense) has been the favourite tactic of newspapers all over the country. They know we know. I am pretty sure that the Guardian has had a HILARIOUS self-aware feature at some point or another. But they keep doing it, for much the same reason as the Sun keeps printing women in small knickers every day and the Telegraph peppered their "hot weather" coverage with pictures of girls sunbathing topless in London parks. Because it sells and if they know and we know and it's all just in good fun and also look, they're so happy! Aren't we happy for them?

At a time when we should be most impressed with these young women for passing one of the first big milestones in their lives (well, GCSEs, but GCSEs are just illustrated with pictures of kids in school uniforms sitting at identical desks, because they are only 16, so less of a problem there), what newspapers are actually doing is reinforcing the fact that their only value is visual. The "beautiful girl gets A levels" picture is so cliched now that it doesn't actually add to our understanding of a story, and the fact that stories are revolving around this suspiciously underresearched gender gap actually detracts from the results of the individual girls by suggesting they're not representative. Yes, that hot girl did well, but so did more boys! What do you say to that, silly liberal female-intelligence theorists?

Women as decoration starts young, pervades everywhere and doesn't go away. Getting photogenic teens into your A level shoots isn't a sexist act on its own, but placed into a context where so few women don't write the news or appear in it on our own terms, where we are eye candy or victims (and as the latter, always white), it's just one more microaggression in the endless torrent which newspapers in particular seem to throw at us every day. The assumption that women can be decoration is so pervasive that when the Irish Sun decided to drop topless models in favour of "clothed glamour" shots, this was celebrated as a victory instead of with scepticism and disdain. Oh, you've covered up the boobs on your blatant objectification page! Well clearly as a woman my only problem there was seeing boobs (I always put my bra on in the dark and never look down when wearing a low cut dress), so now you have completely fixed that. Excellent, carry on sirs.

Ah, A level girls, I'm sorry. I'm sorry your pictures in the paper are tainted with this nonsense, and that you can't enjoy being fit and jumping around without it being part of the systematic oppression of your gender. That really sucks for you. And now you're about to go to universities where lad culture is getting scarier, rape is not getting a whole lot better, and I don't fancy your chances of a job at the end unless something changes pretty dramatically in the next three years. The answer? Join WomCam, or your women's student union, or your feminist society. If there is not one, start one (message me about if you want, I'd totally help). Learn about yourself and become one with the movement and achieve a state of awesome sisterhood and then come join us! It'll be worth it. And when you do, you can let me know how you do that to your hair. I'm always so impressed.