By Jennifer O’Connell
You’ve got to hand it to Michael O’Leary. He knows what sells. Cheap airline seats sell. Lottery tickets sell. In the right context, even €4 greasy paninis sell.
Sex always sells.
Or, more precisely, the annual Ryanair calendar, featuring faintly blue-skinned employees of the airline dressed in cheap underwear and lounging around a swimming pool, sells.
At least, I presume that’s the real reason for it, and not its chief executive’s newly-discovered enthusiasm for furthering the cause of female empowerment.
Accused last week by the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) of being "irredeemably old-fashioned" in its now-annual foray into Richard Desmond territory, O’Leary responded by announcing that the NWCI did not have "a clue how young women empower themselves".
I’m not sure O’Leary knows much about this either, but he does have a good track record in empowering his own, and his shareholders’, wallets.
So he probably already knows that Irish internet users Google the words ‘porn’ and ‘escorts’ more often than any other nation. He probably knows – or could guess – that we are the fourth most enthusiastic googlers in the world of ‘prostitutes’, after Pakistan, India and Lithuania, but ahead of the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Singapore and the United Kingdom.
According to Google Trends, we rank third in the worldwide league of ‘brothel’ seekers; second for ‘lapdancer’… You get the picture. Sex sells, and so – by extension – will a readers’ wives-style Ryanair calendar.
This may merit me immediate admittance to the ranks of what O’Leary describes as the “loony groups like the various Institutes for Ugly Women (who) are simply jealous of our good-looking girls”, but the calendar has as much to do with the empowerment of young women as I’m A Celebrity has to do with celebrities.
I’m no prude, but being photographed in a bra and thong by your employer, so he can flog the pictures to the very same groups of leery stag parties you may well end up serving beer to on their 99 cent (plus extras) flight to an airport somewhere near a city in Europe, is not empowering.
Nor is selling yourself for sex in order to fund your PhD so you can go on to become a respected specialist in developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology, no matter what you may have read in other Sunday newspapers last weekend. And no, not even if your life story ends up as a drama starring Billie Piper.
It’s a funny old thing, our attitude to female sexuality. When the same newspaper which unveiled Dr Brooke Magnanti as the high-class prostitute and blogger, Belle de Jour, outed sexblogger Zoe Margolis – who wrote a book about her sexual exploits under a pseudonym - against her will three days after its publiction last year, it pontificated that “with such a shameless interest in sex it is no surprise Margolis has gone to great lengths to try to conceal her identity.”
Magnanti, however, was described by the same Sunday Times as “our very own second wave Happy Hooker’.
Journalist India Knight, who was latterly one of Belle de Jour’s sternest critics - mainly because she didn’t believe she was for real, but also because she believed she made prostitution appear glamourous - seemed to have forgotten her earlier misgivings. She seemed entranced, observing how: “She has the tough-breakable thing that’s so hard to manufacture and that I also recognise in Belle.”
So a women selling sex for money – as long as she’s the right kind of woman, of course - is empowering, alluring, seductive. A woman having sex because she enjoys it is shameful.
This contradiction is at the heart of the troubling post-feminist legacy; the phenomenon feminist Ariel Levy has called the ‘raunch culture’.
In her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Levy debunks the idea that “the new raunch culture … was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved. We'd earned the right to look at Playboy; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes. Women had come so far, I learned, we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny.”
We had come so far that we even could buy our boyfriends Ryanair calendars for Christmas as a way of showing how unthreatened we were by it all; we could cosy up with him for a night in front of Billie Piper playing a PhD student turned high class hooker, and admire her innovative solution to her cash-flow problems.
But is this really a reflection of how far we’ve come? Or is it actually a measure of how far we still have to go?
What, I often wonder, do the parents of the girls I see in South County Dublin hanging around bus stops on Friday and Saturday evenings make of their little ones’ ‘empowering’ dress code?
A couple of weeks ago, on a windy night in October, I had to do a double take as I drove past a girl of about 15 or 16, standing with some friends as they waited for a bus into town. Her friends were pretty in that braces-and-Ugg boots kind of way. She was taller than the rest, glossy-haired, with long, gleaming limbs and a stunning figure. But that wasn’t what made me look twice.
At first glance, I mistakenly thought she was wearing a swimsuit. When I looked again I realised there was, in fact, the merest hint of a red skirt flapping around the cheeks of her bum.
The funny thing is, she’s part of the generation who reportedly believes feminism is ‘irrelevant’ to her life. And maybe she’s right. Because if this is the best feminism could have done for her and her friends (and their brothers and boyfriends) – won them the right to wear the Playboy logo and hang out in lapdancing clubs - then it has indeed been an utterly wasted exercise.
Really, it’s no surprise that lots of people believed at first that Belle de Jour was the product of a fevered, male imagination.
She was, after all, the ultimate fantasy of a generation reared on porn – the kind of boys who are amazed when they first get intimate with a girl, to discover that females have pubic hair too. Belle had the lacy knickers, the sexual tricks, the Chanel nail polish, the big brain and the bigger boobs. She was a walking, talking, anal sex-performing Jessica Rabbit with a doctrate. But best of all – she was yours for just stg300 an hour!
When her true identity was revealed as a top research scientist, I felt slightly devastated. I’d have been happier if she was really a sleazy male journalist who spent his days in a dressing gown and a haze of cigarette smoke.
As role models go, give me Jessica Rabbit any day. At least she knows she’s a cartoon.
First published in The Sunday Business Post on Sunday November 22, 2009