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A petition (and a disclaimer) August 22, 2006

Posted by Winter in censorship, media.
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I recently received an email asking me to sign the following petition:

“Subject: Urgent: Stop Channel 5’s Sitcom on Prostitution

Sign the petition. Channel 5 are planning to screen a new comedy, set in a brothel. According to a national press article the show, ‘Respectable’, features women who sell sex to pay for shoe collections and ‘beautiful things’. Click here for more information about the sitcom. Eaves Housing have already written a letter of complaint and Women’s Aid intend to write to Channel 5 too. Eaves have organised a petition and are collecting signatures to show that this is not the kind of viewing audiences want.”

I also noticed the below addition:

“The campaign against Strictly Come Pole Dancing in May resulted in the event being withdrawn – it would be great to achieve such a victory again. Please take a few minutes to sign the petition and forward the details to anyone you think will be interested in objecting.”

I want to say a couple of things here, because I’ve decided I can only post this petition if I also express my anxieties. I feel extremely ambivalent about censorship on principle and I really don’t like objecting to anything I haven’t actually seen. So I’m posting this call in the interests of feminist information sharing, as I’m of the view that people are entitled to make up their own minds about what they should do.

Personally, I find this kind of campaign problematic. On the one hand, I think freedom of speech and artistic expression must be protected but, on the other hand, I live in an area where we have a lot of street prostitution and women get brutally beaten up every week. The fact that Eaves housing and Women’s Aid are objecting means that they’re taking this one very seriously and they know what’s going on out there.

I don’t think people should ever stay silent if something offends them, but I wonder is there a difference between protesting, and requesting that something should be banned or prevented from happening altogether? Frankly, I’m delighted that we weren’t subjected to the horrors of Strictly Come Pole Dancing, but if we’re going to demand that the shows which offend us as feminists are actually stopped from airing, how can we differentiate ourselves from all those people trying to stop the Jerry Springer Opera from being shown on TV, or those who got that play about women and Sikhism cancelled in Birmingham?

No doubt I’ll sound like a wishy-washy feminist to both pro- and anti-censorship feminists, but I just can’t come to a simple conclusion on this issue. It’s so difficult to combine the necessity of protecting freedom of speech with the realities of living in an incredibly violent society.

Anyway, you have links, so if you think signing the petition is the right thing to do, go right ahead.

If you’d like to write and complain, letters should be sent to:

Customer Services
Five
22 Long Acre
London
WC2E 9LY

It may also be useful to copy any letters of complaint you sent to five to
Ofcom.

Ofcom
Riverside House
2a Southwark Bridge Road
London
SE1 9HA

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Comments»

1. jo22 - August 22, 2006

You have a point re censorship, but I don’t think comparing this to religious affronts like the Jerry Springer Opera is useful. Prostitution is a human rights issue and promoting it in light-hearted comedy is as dangerous as making paedophilia and child slavery amusing. I don’t think people would have a problem petitioning against that.

2. Winter - August 22, 2006

I have no problem with signing the petition as an act of protest.

Leaving aside the religious examples (I probably could have come up with better ones), my question mark hovers over whether censorship is the way forward in terms of dealing with offensive cultural representations.

3. flea - August 22, 2006

offensive cultural representations

A tricky one. Is a representation of some prostitutes and some clients necessarily a representation of the entirety of the sex industry? Given that some sectors of that industry are so vile, does that mean that no part of it can be represented without doing damage? Would Channel Five cause less offence if they painted a positive picture of abuse-free sex workers (because the distinction is important) or more (because to portray one is to implicitly legitimise the other)? Would any of these questions be answered by seeing the show? Or is the petition saying that a fictional representation of sex workers is de facto problematic?

4. witchy-woo - August 23, 2006

I signed the petition in full knowledge that the ‘show’ won’t get pulled.

I don’t think we’re advocating censorship here, rather a more responsible attitude to broadcasting. jo’s comment says it right.

A ‘comedy’ depicting the ‘fun’ to be had in Abu Ghraib from a toturers point of view?

I don’t think so

5. Winter - August 23, 2006

I’m thinking about writing a letter to express my concerns.

I have now seen a clip from this show and it’s really an engagement with the myth of the “tart with a heart” and is just full of really OLD stereotypes from what I could tell. You’re probably right that this one won’t get pulled, but from what I’ve seen I’ll be surprised if it lasts very long – looks like british comedy at its worst, as well as being offensive on all kinds of levels.

I think the best thing would be to force them to open with a big disclaimer informing the audience that one tenth of the world’s female population work in the sex industry, the vast majority non-consensually. That might put a dampener on things.

6. Winter - August 23, 2006

I also tried to come up with an example that more directly Affects my life. I was thinking about the attempts made by gay activists to stop rappers who use violently homophobic lyrics from touring in this country. While I agree that the lyrics might be potentially dangerous and there must be protest, I still feel ambivalent about the stopping them from touring at all idea. So I guess it’s me.

7. Anonymous - August 23, 2006

I think I’d make a similar distinction to others – if this was a play at the Edinburgh Fringe I’d agree there might be an argument around freedom of expression. But the broadcast media already exercises massive censorship over what we see and it’s advertising revenues that determine what’s shown and what’s not. In other words they hold the power and this is yet another abuse of power to the detriment of women.

8. Winter - August 23, 2006

Interesting point: so the question of whether something should be censored does not only have to do with the content of the offensive representation, but also with how that representation is linked to larger oppressive power relations in society … if that makes sense.

9. Winter - August 23, 2006

Flea,

Sorry for the delay in answering your points.

Is a representation of some prostitutes and some clients necessarily a representation of the entirety of the sex industry?

No. I think people are angry about this one mainly because it represents prostitution as a humorous subject.

Given that some sectors of that industry are so vile, does that mean that no part of it can be represented without doing damage?

Again, I think the objection here is to the representation of the industry as a comedy. I’m going to presume that a lot of readers would not object to “serious” dramas and films on the subject. So it’s not that it can’t be represented, it’s the way it’s being represented that could arguably cause damage.

Would Channel Five cause less offence if they painted a positive picture of abuse-free sex workers (because the distinction is important) or more (because to portray one is to implicitly legitimise the other)?

Well radical feminists would argue that there’s no such thing as an abuse free sex worker, although feminists adhering to other strands of thought would of course disagree. Anyway, the problem with this show is precisely the fact that, as far as we know, it’s representing “happy” prostitutes, which belies the reality of the situation for most people in the industry.

Would any of these questions be answered by seeing the show?

Possibly but that means accepting it will run!

Or is the petition saying that a fictional representation of sex workers is de facto problematic?

I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure it’s the comedy aspect that’s the main problem.

10. alyx - August 24, 2006

No doubt I’ll sound like a wishy-washy feminist to both pro- and anti-censorship feminists

Not at all, Winter.

I feel similarly ambivalent about the petition because I’m opposed to censorship.

Because here’s the thing: Although I hate hate HATE the system that allows men to buy women’s bodies and treat them like disposable Kleenex, I don’t think audiences will necessarily just accept these caricatures of The Happy Hooker as being representative of what prostitution is actually like for the majority of women. Hell, doesn’t the existence of the petition prove that the minds of audiences aren’t just malleable lumps of clay?

I don’t think we give audiences enough credit in terms of their sophistication. After all, it’s not only educated feminists who know that these programs are wrong.

Yeah, there are a lot of people who don’t really have opinions on prostitution at all, and shows like this certainly won’t help. But I’d rather feminists work to create and disseminate media that promotes an alternative view of the industry, rather than attempt to censor depictions that we disagree with. Because that’s all it is: A depiction. There have been comedy shows making light of child abuse and all kinds of nasty stuff, but we as audience members aren’t incapable of seeing these representations for the balderdash that they are.

I hope that feminists will use whatever resources they can to put another perspective out there. We may not be powerful, but we’re not powerless either. I’ll definitely be using my blog, my local youth papers and my mouth to call bullshit on anything that glorifies the trade in women’s flesh. I hope other feminists will do the same. I have faith in us. 🙂

11. Anonymous - August 24, 2006

I have contacted Channel 5’s customer services about this programme and received a standard reply back with the defence that previous sitcoms had been set in Nazi occupied France etc despite the fact that these were serious situations.

My reply to this is that previously sitcoms have dealt with the hilarity of racism (Love thy neighbour) and that presumably Channel 5 would not consider remaking this. I asked if Channel 5 would make a comedy about drug addiction, rape, paeodophilia or domestic violence and pointed out that all these are the reality of the sex industry for most women who work in it – as was recently pointed out by Home office minister Hazel Blears most women who become prostitutes do so under the age of 16.

Prostitution is the abuse of women, but the media portrayal is very different and this sitcom (assuming anyone watches it) will not help. Because it isn’t a subject most people are well informed about, this just reinforces the myth of the ‘happy hooker’ who becomes a prostitute by choice. I therefore think that asking Channel 5 to withdraw is it justified.


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