Today’s rageblog is brought to you by sexism and racism in the worst analogy I’ve seen in a long time.
Phil Baty, Times Higher Education and World University Rankings editor, picked up on this piece* on the THE news pages today. Having alerted the Everyday Sexism project, he rightly said that underneath the rubbish in this article lies a perfectly valid point about universities being encouraged to play to their strengths, whatever they happen to be, even if they are commonly overlooked in exercises like league table ranking. However, the analogy used is truly abysmal.
From the title: “Brand advice to rankings also-rans: find your own line of beauty” and sub-headline: “Universities told not to mope like teenage brunettes with blonde ambitions” we see that this is going to be about comparing Higher Education institution performance to expectations of female appearance. Sounds like a great idea! Apparently teenage girls with dark hair tend to “mope” because they wish they were blonde. OK then. I’m not even sure where that comes from, it barely makes sense. Ambitions to have a different hair colour are often easily rectified with some cheap, convenient chemical concoctions. That aside, there’s the assumption that this happens, and that if it does, it’s just what girls do – nothing to do with a sexist backdrop to our culture that consistently tells girls, from day 1, that their being beautiful is the main thing (and dictating what that “beauty” is).
The picture accompanying the piece is also, um, striking. Underneath it says “Back to their roots: universities should make the most of their unique assets” – really running with the hair thing. Girl plays (we assume) mournfully with her impossibly-shaped blonde Barbie doll. Bless her and those unattainable goals of emulating this caricature of femininity. Why won’t she wake up and see that she is kinda pretty, anyway?
Brand advice, you say. We’re sure to find a PR firm involved, then – it’s Frank, Bright & Abel who (according to their website) “specialise in brand identity, brand and marketing communications, and internal engagement“. I’m not sure you’ve been particularly bright in this communication.
Going to Twitter, their HE-focused account has promoted the post. I did correct them to point out that it’s less “brand advice” and more ridiculous sexism, but no response so far.
— FB&A HE Digest (@HEDigest) November 21, 2013
More from the article:
“Universities that are not top of the league tables are marketing themselves like a teenage girl who “spends all her time wearing a wardrobe that doesn’t suit her body shape”, a branding consultant has said.”
That branding consultant is FBA’s Rebecca Price (I haven’t had any response from her yet, either). She seems perfectly content here to run with the ridiculous “body shape” idea (promoted by the likes of Gok Wan and every body-shaming women’s mag you can wave a hot wax-covered stick at), that women should closely inspect all their limbs and pointy bits and inny bits so that they can buy some clothes that fit them just-so, because we’re all out there to model clothes and look pretty for everyone, right?
As if teenagers, and specifically teenage girls, aren’t already bombarded with enough prescriptive image “advice”. Girls grow up in a world where women’s bodies are used to sell entirely unrelated products; are constantly scrutinised by the media, peers and adults everywhere; are appropriated by political movements (it can be a shock realise that actually you can do what you like with your own fertility if you so choose, but quite a lot of people vocally oppose that choice) and used to measure women’s worth. Girls do not need more people pointing out that what they look like is what matters – particularly in the context of higher education!
“It’s a bit like…the teenage girl who’s got black hair and brown eyes who longs to be blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and spends all her time wearing a wardrobe that doesn’t suit her body shape,” she explained.
“Universities…like that teenage girl need to get to the point where they realise: ‘Look love, you may not be blonde-haired and blue-eyed, but you’re lovely, and this is how you’ll make the best of it’.”
I’m sorry, what? This reads to me like a shockingly racist, as well as sexist, line of thinking. Perhaps Ms Price draws on her own experience, doesn’t have blonde hair and wanted it when she was little, OK, but it’s truly dense not to stop and think about what you’re going to say here and realise how it will come across. I can’t avoid Godwin’s law, but holding up the blonde/blue-eyed (not that there’s anything wrong with them) as the ideal girls are aiming for in your professional communications (or indeed any conversation), really?
“Look love…“? Is this how people speak to Ms Price? I’m sorry if that’s the case. ”Make the best of it“? As if anything else is sub par and you’ll have to scrape around to find something, anything, to be proud of when it comes to your looks and as a human being?
I know what the point is, I get it. But as Mr Baty said and, I assume, David Matthews (the THE journalist who published the comments) thought – even if it is a valid point on University rankings and how those who don’t always get noticed could attract more customers students, this was surely one of the worst ways of communicating it.
THE’s Twitter account have half-fairly pointed out: “We are reporting the comments, not making them” and the writer David Matthews has echoed that he is “reporting, not endorsing“. I think Mr Matthews could have made an effort to show some disapproval, shock, question or something about the comments, though perhaps that’s not within his remit in this case. [Edit: he suggests it is up to readers alone to interpret]. I usually enjoy reading THE pieces, they are often refreshingly not devoid of personality – I would prefer to see people picking up on this sort of unnecessary, damaging commentary (as later tweets have done), rather than just re-posting it without criticism. So this blurb is my criticism to attempt to redress the balance.
It’s almost funny that this has come from a supposed “communication specialist” – THE happily confirmed that FBA did not make any payments to have their firm mentioned, nor did any competitor do so (given Ms Price’s comments, it might be surprising if more institutions decided to take brand advice from them).
We are surrounded by sexism, Higher Education is certainly no exception and indeed people are very much trying to address it. Not regurgitating awful marketing “advice” would be a simple a good start. Not having the comments made at all would be even better, but sadly we’re not there yet. Only by questioning and critiquing this tired nonsense can we begin to see it as the odd mistake rather than the standard background noise.
*Available on Freezepage.
Edit: I have been somewhat told off for criticising the writer because he’s just doing news-style reportage. I had a rant about that as well but haven’t added it in because it’s a fair point in a sense. If anyone has something to add on the subject, please continue below in the comments.