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Why ogling Poldark star Aidan Turner is just sexism reversed... and equally wrong

The obsession over seeing 'Poldark' star Aidan Turner topless feels more like reverse sexism than an innocent preoccupation. Isn't it time we learned how to stop treating each other like sex objects, argues Sean O'Grady

Published 10/09/2016

Turning heads: Aidan Turner in Poldark
Turning heads: Aidan Turner in Poldark
Screen pin-up: John Travolta

A female actor (not, you'll note, styled here an "actress", called Beatie Edney has not attracted the attention, indeed derision, she deserves for describing her fellow star of Poldark, Aidan Turner, "guy candy". A trivial remark, yes, but hardly untypical.

Allow me to quote her in full: "We'd chatted about sexism against women in the industry and the following morning I walked into the makeup bus and there he was with his shirt off.

"I couldn't help doing a double take and he caught me and said 'that's the same thing," Edney said. "I know how he feels. It'd make me uncomfortable if people were ogling me." Which at least suggests that Ms Edney, who plays Poldark's servant Prudie, has a modicum of self-awareness about gawping around the set.

Sadly, she is hardly alone in her unquenchable desire for the Turner torso, and it makes "normal" ie non-Adonis blokes like me feel just a little unhappy. I mean I don't have a six-pack (except the one in the fridge) and abs are alien to me. It's the most I can do to stay on the right side of obesity and I have heard the phrase "I don't go for looks" a little too often for my self-esteem. (To which my quickfire reply, by the way, is "Neither do I", which does the trick satisfyingly).

For the past few weeks, as Poldark fever has built, Britain's menfolk, lithe and chunky alike, have had to try and get on with their lives through a blizzard of sexist language and imagery every time the idea of the shirtless Turner flitted across the consciousness of womankind.

Of course there's nothing that new about the phenomena; we've had to live with past episodes of mass hysteria about various beefcakes and heartthrobs. John Travolta and Robert Redford still move many to paroxysms, while Johnny Depp and Matt Damon (left) have as devoted a following as any commanded by Cary Grant or Clark Gable. Once upon a time Prince Charles was thought sexy. Still, familiar as it is, there's nothing welcome about this sexism against men, treating us as though we were no more than sex objects, without minds and ideas of our own. The time has come to stop it, surely?

Perhaps the only good thing about all these periodic hysterical phases over ripped abs is that, if they didn't already, it makes men realise how bloody awful it must have been to be a woman in the high noon of sexism, which I take to be the years between about 1950 and 1979, when the consumer society and mass communications collided with well-established traditions of sexism.

From Pirelli calendars to the Benny Hill Show, from naked women draped over the bonnets at the Motor Show to "I'm Cheryl, Fly Me" and the (still extant) Page 3, women were assaulted every hour of their waking lives with images and attitudes that dehumanised them.

For those of us looking back at the years they grew up in, there's an unexpected sense of shame about all of that. Or at least there should be. I say 1979, by the way, because it was the year that Fiat ran a poster campaign for their 127 hatchback with the slogan "If this car was a woman, it would get its bottom pinched" - but on which was added the graffiti "If this woman was a car, she'd run you down".

Plus the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street, who didn't do much for feminism, I grant you, but was a sort of example, and who a few years later provoked the Greenham Common women's peace protest and the militant feminism of that time.

In some ways, I'd even argue, from a position of no great authority, I admit, the immediate post-war decades were even worse than the era when women were denied the vote and almost entirely excluded from the professional work. Actually, those times were all appalling, in their different ways, and there's not a competition about which is worse.

The more we (men) look back the more we ought to realise why women were angry about their lives, and why they resented being patronised by men in power as to why they could not be trusted to participate in a "democracy", prejudice dressed up as pragmatic arguments.

Anyway, you know all that, and you know what women had to put up with for millennia. Still, that doesn't make anti-male or reverse sexism against males any more excusable, because two wrongs don't make a right, do they? It might be fun to take the vote off us chaps for a few hundred years, and ban us from taking degrees, but that just goes to show how absurd the argument that men should have a taste of their own medicine really is.

The uncomfortable thing is that these sorts of attitudes are so commonplace and so longstanding, on either "side" that you wonder whether there's not something inevitable, even "natural" about it. Maybe, your mind drifts to "it's not so bad. Just harmless fun". I don't really think so, though.

We used to think that there was nothing wrong with women being paid less than men for identical work.

We used also to believe that there was nothing wrong with seeing them ridiculed and abused for being, basically a normal shape, let alone a bit fat? Let alone the inexcusably lax way the police have investigated sexual assaults and "domestics". While the "apology culture" has probably gone too far, and usually is about gesture politics, I do wonder whether women are owed an apology by men.

Not so long ago there was a whole generation of female actors, the predecessors of Ms Edney, whose whole careers were spent playing ugly, neurotic spinsters, sometimes too fat, sometimes too thin, comic props.

Now we are more enlightened, I'd hope, and while I'd never expect to have my bottom slapped or pinched, I do feel a very minor victim of reverse sexism every time there's some awful gushing stuff published about some Poldarkian beefcake. It's enough to turn me into a feminist.

Belfast Telegraph

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