How many women does it take to upset a minister?

Patricia Hewitt, who branded an ad for the Birmingham motor show as sexist, may not have a post-feminist sense of irony, but Iain Murray says that he certainly has

As Hallowe’en neared and spooks and hobgoblins readied themselves to affright the land, a terrible vision was seen. Briefly, but no less alarmingly for that, the corpse of radical feminism twitched, and, so it is said by witnesses whose blood ran cold, flickered an eyelid. More appalling still, it gave voice from the other side, using as its unlikely medium Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt.

The cause of this ghastly resurrection was a poster advertising the motor show in Birmingham. It depicted an attractive young woman wearing a lacy bra and bore the caption “The other way to your man’s heart is down the M6 and off at junction 4”.

Ms Hewitt opened her mouth and through it spoke in an ancient tongue. “Sexist!” she cried. “Hopelessly out of date. Just confirming an old stereotype. Pathetic!”

Dear me. Fire and brimstone. Buckets of blood. But now the fuss has died down we can take a closer look. The first thing to be said is that one’s heart goes out to anyone asked to promote an event as tiresome, predictable, and boring as a motor show. Technology is now so advanced there is little to choose between one model of car and another, and few activities can be as irksome, expensive and dangerous as motoring. Hardly surprising, then, that the answer was picked off the shelf. Sex, it is said, sells. But even when it doesn’t, it beats pictures of a four-door family saloon.

Since the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, it seemed to me that the poster’s sole inventive twist was that a woman should take off her top before knocking up a hearty plate of steak and chips. This seems both silly and dangerous, and it is surprising that the Health and Safety Executive didn’t step in.

I blame Nigella. Single-handedly she has promoted the notion that the act of cooking should be accompanied by sultry, under-the-eyelids simpering and suggestive finger-licking. Even she, however, draws the line at tight jumpers and would not, I think, step before the smouldering hobs in a low-cut lacy bra. Not unless the viewing figures were falling away alarmingly.

The second thing to note is that, like a deus ex machina, Miss Jackie Daley emerged from the wings and nailed down the coffin lid, silencing the ghostly voice of feminism past. Miss Daley, you see, revealed herself as the author of the poster that had so troubled Ms Hewitt. The ad, she said, was not aimed at unreconstructed, slavering males, as the Secretary of State had erroneously supposed, but designed by a woman for women. “It’s part of a series intended to show the motor show isn’t just for petrol heads, but for ordinary people who like cars,” she explained. All a bit of fun, in other words.

That view was endorsed by columnist Sarah Sands who pointed out that advertising and marketing are “female-populated professions and women have immunity from sexual offences”.

Patricia Hewitt, she added, is not familiar with the ironic nature of contemporary sexual politics. “This poster is not sexist; it is post-feminist. We have passed the stage of wishing to be indistinguishable and now seek the comedy of difference.”

That would be all very well if the adherents of political correctness were accessible to irony. Sadly, experience suggests the contrary. When Woolworths sells Mother Christmas outfits, when an education minister says musical chairs is too violent and should be replaced by musical statues, when Wiltshire libraries ban Punch and Judy books because of Mr Punch’s “sickening violence”, when a Job Centre bans the words “hardworking and enthusiastic” as insulting to the disabled; when a head teacher in Glasgow changes her school’s 125-year-old motto, “Each Aids the Other”, because she thinks it is suggestive of the sexually transmitted disease, when care workers in Yorkshire are advised not to call elderly residents at a nursing home “love”, “dear” or “sweetheart” without written consent, what chance has the delicate flower of irony?

Mind you, it flourishes as the green bay tree at the Advertising Standards Authority where a spokesman said just one complaint about the motor show poster was received. “We judged it to be tasteless, but not offensive,” he added.

What Ms Hewitt fails to see is that in this post-modern world bad taste is no longer offensive; in fact, it is probably in good taste. Slowly the ASA is working towards a wider understanding that will permit its spokesman to declare: “We judged this advertisement to be repellent, but not offensive.”

I have to admit to an irony gap of my own. Until Miss Sands pointed out that, in the female-dominated world of post-feminist advertising we should take nothing too literally, I had assumed that someone had got it in for the male of the species.

I now see that all of those television ads in which savvy, sassy women patronise doltish men are not what they seem. The men are just pretending to be open-mouthed, vacant and stupid and, in doing so, are artfully exposing the prattling, know-all, smart-arsed women for what they are: a pain in the neck. I hope I’ve got that right and my post-feminist sense of irony has kicked in. If not, I suppose I might be guilty of sexism. Oh, to be a woman and have immunity from sexual offences.

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