Belfast Telegraph

Feathered friend shines spotlight on key issues: Front page headline 'Anger as topless woman speaks at Stormont' raised some eyebrows

By Paul Connolly

Oh, my. We do sometimes tend to get ourselves into a lather over sex, don't we? The front page headline in the Belfast Telegraph – 'Anger as topless woman speaks at Stormont' – certainly raised some eyebrows over the cornflakes on Monday morning.

The first paragraph of the story did its best to raise the ante even further: 'A feminist has sent unionist politicians into a chest-beating frenzy after she appeared at a Stormont event with her breasts exposed.'

Ignore, if you will, the awful pun that is the phrase 'chest-beating frenzy'.

God, if I read a more dreadful quip than that during the rest of this year, I'll eat my proverbial hat.

To those who missed it, the fuss was sparked on Monday by coverage of an International Women's Day reception at Stormont.

Derry feminist Cara Park, one of 25 speakers, wore an exceptionally revealing outfit that included a large necklace of goose feathers that covered her front, but left nothing to the imagination from the side, instantly captured for posterity, of course, by photographers.

It was Cara herself who drew attention to her semi-nudity. "I am wearing very little clothing," she said in her speech. "By dressing like this, does that immediately make me a 'slut', a 'slag', a 'dolly bird', a 'whore', a 'loose' woman?

"Am I letting the side down by wearing lipstick, fake tan, dyeing my hair, showing my nipples?

"I am expressing my femininity. My sexuality. My youth. My body. Does that make me superficial?

"Should I be able to dress how I like and not face discrimination?

"This may seem like a superficial, trivial matter, but it is not.

"Men and women have fought and some have died in the suffragist struggle to award me such freedom of expression."

Reaction to our decision to 'splash' the story across the front page effectively came in two shades.

The first, and most common, was why some of our politicians would react so negatively.

The DUP's Jonathan Craig said it was a "cheap publicity stunt" and the TUV's Jim Allister said he would raise the issue of "indecent exhibitionism" with the Assembly authorities.

The Belfast Telegraph's comment sections and Facebook page were littered with advice to our MLAs to calm down and not take sex so seriously.

The other reaction was criticism of the Belfast Telegraph for highlighting the matter and focusing on one speaker – and her breasts – at the expense of the other 24.

Well, yes, to a point, but it is a newspaper after all, so it's newsworthy things that get reported. And, by all accounts, Cara Park was the most provocative and entertaining speaker there.

Happily – and I appreciate this will not be an opinion shared by all – the Telegraph did not report the Stormont 'incident' in isolation, but took up the issues as well. Monday's splash was accompanied by an analysis piece from Lindy McDowell on the pros and cons of beauty contests/alternative beauty contests and the long tradition of radical feminists using their bodies to make political statements, a strategy hotly disputed by many mainstream feminists.

And, the following day, the paper had a longer interview with Cara Park, in which she set out her political beliefs in a longer fashion, letting the reader make up their own mind about this colourful campaigner and her political agenda, which include demands for affirmative action and a "revolt against misogyny by the state".

The thing is that her strategy – flashing her boobs at dour, old patriarchal Stormont – worked as it was meant to, putting feminism, misogyny, discrimination and a host of other issues at, or near, the top of the news agenda for 48 hours, when normally they wouldn't get heard at all.

Is that really such a bad thing?

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