Censorship is not a magic pill to boost young women’s confidence

In the Evening Standard newspaper this week, Labour politician and London mayoral hopeful Tessa Jowell declared that images of “emaciated and unhealthy-looking models” will be outlawed on the public transport system if she becomes Mayor. She claimed that sexist ads could “destroy women’s confidence” and affect both their mental and physical health.

Tessa Jowell’s theory, apparently, is that in the absence of the oppression of ‘sexist’ advertising women will be more confident and thus better able to live happy and successful lives. What will she conclude, I wonder, when after some time of younger women being free from the ‘tyranny’ of sexist advertising thanks to her virtuous act of censorship, there are still those with little confidence and less than good mental and physical health? Will she admit that her theory was wrong and her experiment untestable and invalid? Unlikely. Onto whose shoulders will she attempt to offload the moral responsibility for the well-being and success of younger women then?

Telling young women that advertising has the power to destroy their confidence and to be a significant determining factor in whether they lead happy and successful lives is an assertion that, for all those who accept it, will become their biggest barrier to actually doing so. Effectively telling women that their happiness depends on factors entirely out of their control can only make them feel powerless and hopeless, not powerful and hopeful – which is how everyone, male or female, needs to feel in order to feel confident, secure and to be best positioned to achieve their aims in life.

Furthermore, if young women believe that their success and happiness in life depends mostly upon politicians having the power to ‘protect’ them from advertising aimed at them, then they will instinctively become advocates of the erosion of freedom of speech, which to them will appear to be socially progressive – and not regressive.

Everyone would think it nonsensical if Jowell had suggested that the physical health of women would be improved if men were required to do forty push-ups a day, but it’s equally ridiculous to claim that censorship of advertising aimed at younger women will somehow magically and permanently raise their confidence and self-esteem such that they never feel insecure or less than good about themselves ever again.

Despite what Jowell seems to believe, there are plenty of women in the world who are confident in themselves and who are leading successful and happy lives, despite constant exposure throughout their lives to ‘sexist’ advertising featuring models with ‘unrealistic’ bodies. How do women achieve this apparent miracle? Do they walk around with their eyes and ears covered? Of course not. They must have arrived at the conclusion, through experience and/or wise counsel from good role models, that confidence and self-esteem is something they create for themselves through their own thinking and actions; it’s not something supplied to them by the men in society who can take it away whenever they feel like it – as Jowell implies.

Jowell told the Evening Standard that: “Women ought to be able to travel in an environment which doesn’t constantly demean them or present an unrealistic image of women’s bodies.”

This is quite staggering. She is essentially claiming that women have a right, enforceable at the point of a government gun, to exist in a society of individuals that never say anything that a woman may have a negative emotional response to. Perhaps we would all like to live in a society of individuals we never feel inferior to or envious of, that only say things we agree with and whose sole purpose in life is to serve our egos, but that’s only possible in video games and dreams – otherwise it’s total fantasy. (And anyway, such a society for anyone but a narcissist would be a nightmare, not a dream).

Such a ‘right’ as inferred by Jowell’s “ought” is utterly incompatible with the principle of freedom of speech and with free society in general. In order to give women this right the State must prevent free expression in advertising. After that it will seem absurd not to censor all other mediums of speech and expression to the same end – radio, television and the Internet. It would seem only fair, also, to censor speech in public places too, lest a women’s ‘rights’ be violated.

Jowell accuses society of constantly demeaning women, but her conception of the female mind and spirit is utterly demeaning itself. What could be more belittling and frankly insulting than claiming that women can only be as confident, happy or successful as men under a totalitarian government that forces everyone to obey them? That women can’t possibly achieve great things or live good lives solely through the application of their reasoning minds, but must have the brute force of government lurking menacingly behind them like Big Brother watching over his feeble little sister. If that’s not demeaning then I don’t know what is.

What is also demeaning is Jowell’s implicit assertion that young women are intellectually incapable of disagreeing with something said in an advert and then dismissing it from their thoughts. She appears to assume that young women believe everything they read, which reveals her belief that young women have the same cognitive abilities as young children. Again, this is highly demeaning, not to mention plain wrong.

Genuine sexism is still a problem in society, although I think most people of my age would agree that it is much less socially acceptable than it was, say, thirty years ago. Sexism has been greatly diminished through peaceful means such as debate, activism, boycotting and ostracism; essentially by virtue of people being free to choose who they have economic and social relationships with.

Sexism, like other social problems, is being successfully overcome through the exercise of liberty and reason by individuals, not, as is all too easy to believe, through government action. So much so, in fact, that some feminist groups and politicians like Jowell are having a hard time finding it anymore, which is why they’re starting to ‘see’ sexism where it isn’t – i.e. where women are being paid less than men in some roles in some industries, and in advertising that features women with slim figures or that makes a joke at the expense of women.

Jowell’s proposals to censor male orientated expression through advertising is sexist itself because it’s premised on the belief that women are incapable of controlling their emotional responses to things or using reason to disagree with something said and therefore ought to have special rights that men don’t have to protect them from harm. More sexism cannot be the solution to sexism, it can only reverse the role of victim and perpetrator. Perhaps, deep down, that’s all people like Tessa Jowell really want.

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