Credit: Sarah Ditum
BATH, England (WOMENSENEWS)-- Jessie Heather, a Bristol organizer for the Lose the Lads Mags campaign, was ready for the protests outside her local Tesco store in Bristol.
The Aug. 24 protests throughout the United Kingdom -- London, Manchester, Birmingham and other cities -- were held to pressure the retail giant based in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, to drop sales of men's lifestyle magazines with pornographic content, particularly Nuts and Zoo.
Sales of those two weeklies were already flagging before the protests while activists such as Heather and others were gaining momentum, galvanized by growing outrage at media that degrade women
Many had recently been in Birmingham together for the Aug. 17 - 18 UK Feminista Summer School, a gathering of women's rights activists held for the last three years in various cities.
UK Feminista is part of a coalition of British groups--including Object and End Violence Against Women--leading the Lose the Lads' Mag campaign.
Fresh from her UK Feminista weekend, Heather stood outside Tesco holding fliers, a letter addressed to the Tesco store manager to be signed by shoppers and placards reading "Lose the Lads' Mags" and "Every Little Helps . . . Violence Against Women."
The "Every Little Helps" phrasing is a play on Tesco's slogan "Every Little Helps," twisting it to indicate that the chain is promoting abuse through sales of the magazines.
Heather, a 27-year-old restaurant manager, told Women's eNews that her recent concerns about the objectification of women made her a feminist. "I'm very new to it," she said.
'We Thought the Job Was Done'
Another protester at the Bristol store--Johanna Everitt--is 40 and described herself as belonging to a generation that assumed sexual equality had been achieved. "We thought the job was done," she said. But like Heather, she is uncomfortable with many media portrayals of women, leading her to her first feminist direct action that day.
Everitt is careful to point out that she is against the magazines, not their readers. "The opposition isn't men. It's giant commercial interests."
Nuts and Zoo were both launched in 2004. The two magazines' mix of bantering tone and glamour shoots found instant success.
In 2005, Zoo's circulation was 260,000 and Nuts' was 300,000. Today, they are in drastic decline with Zoo's current circulation just 35,596; Nuts' 58,781.
That commercial collapse makes the magazines vulnerable to pressure from campaigners.
Even before the day of action, Lose the Lads' Mags had enjoyed two successes.
One came through the Manchester-based Co-operative, one of the UK's smaller supermarket chains, following a petition from Lose the Lads Mags and the presentation of legal advice suggesting the magazines could breach equality law.
Under that pressure, managers of the Co-operative requested that the publishers either tone down their covers, or be sold in opaque, sealed "modesty bags." Nuts and Zoo both refused, and the Co-op said that it would no longer stock the titles.
The second success came on Aug. 3, when Tesco announced that three of the titles in question (Zoo, Nuts and the monthly Front) had agreed to tone down their covers.
The diminished strength of the two magazines has led some to question whether it makes sense to pursue them at all. "The world long ago overtook lads' mags, which is precisely why they're failing," Hadley Freeman recently wrote in The Guardian, arguing that the attitudes the magazines embody have long been adopted by mainstream media.
A young female Tesco employee in Bristol refused to sign Heather's letter to the manager criticizing Nuts and Zoo, arguing that women's interest titles appear to be equally complicit in negative attitudes about women's bodies.
"No, my love, and I'll tell you why," the young woman told Heather. "The women's ones are just as bad."
Lose the Lads' Mags organizers, however, consider Nuts and its ilk to be particularly pernicious in promoting violence against women.
In 2010, actor Danny Dyer bylined a ghostwritten advice column in Zoo. When a reader asked for help in overcoming a breakup, the column told him to "cut your ex's face, and then no one will want her." (Both Dyer and Zoo made it clear that this was the work of Zoo editorial staff, and Zoo issued an apology.)
That shocking example is not isolated. A 2011 study published by the British Psychological Society indicated that subjects had difficulty identifying whether sexist statements originated with convicted rapists or lads' mags.
Not everyone sees the connection between the media and attitudes in society at large.
Peter Lloyd, in an opinion piece for the Daily Mail, calls Lose the Lads' Mags "a sexist assault on healthy masculinity."
In Bristol, one female shopper angrily demanded to know whether the protesters thought that "every man who reads these magazines becomes a rapist."
Lose the Lads' Mags makes no such claim.
Promoting Sexist Views
However, the British Psychological Society research suggested that magazines could promote sexist views that readers might then enact in their own relationships.
The 2011 study found that when a sexist statement from a rapist was attributed to a lads' mag, readers were more likely to identify with it.
In other words, while the content of the statements was almost indistinguishable, association with magazines such as Zoo and Nuts made the attitudes more acceptable.
Some who oppose the campaign say it denies the agency of the models.
In the Telegraph, Catherine Scott (a freelance journalist and feminist) accused the Lose the Lads' Mags campaign of "patronizing assumptions that every woman who appears on the cover is a brainless victim."
The response to the Bristol protest was generally warm. Within an hour, about a dozen campaigners collected more than 70 signatures from men and women of varied ages and backgrounds.
Everitt was particularly pleased by how many young men in the target demographic for the magazines were supportive. "People were receptive," she said. "You really got the feeling things could change."
Sarah Ditum is a journalist living in Bath, U.K., and a blogger for the New Statesman and regular contributor to the Guardian.
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