Invasion of the body snappers
VETERAN JOURNALIST Eva Chan Sik-chee no longer eagerly scans the newsstands. Professional interest and simple curiosity used to draw her to the variety of newspapers and magazines, but now she says she's upset by the sordid depths being plumbed by many publications.
'Every woman who walks by should consider herself gravely insulted,' she says. 'But when I hear so many women describe this stuff as harmless entertainment, my heart sinks. Is what's being splashed on the covers really innocuous?'
Chan isn't just referring to the recent issue of Easy Finder magazine featuring peep photos of pop singer Gillian Chung Yan-tung undressing backstage at a concert in Malaysia. Her frustration stems from a wider trend: the slew of tabloid weeklies that trade on suggestive images and equally risque stories.
The row over Easy Finder has mainly focused on the legality of publishing such photos and media intrusion into celebrities' privacy. Less has been made, however, of the social climate that helped spawn such exploits. A former editor at Next Magazine (for the issues-driven 'Book A', she stresses), Chan is well-placed to observe how women are largely exploited as sex objects in such publications. But she acknowledges most women do not share her views.
'Both men and women consider this good, old celebrity gossip. I've never heard of women readers being angered by the stuff published in these magazines,' Chan says. 'The reaction of women's groups simply doesn't equate [to] the opinions held by the ordinary woman reader. A lot of women friends ask me, 'Why are they making such a big fuss out of the Easy Finder incident?''
A recent poll by the Women's Rights Association shows that people who condemn tabloid magazines' sexploitation are also their regular readers.
Of the 139 respondents who read one or more of the publications each week, 47.5 per cent find the use of women's bodies on covers unacceptable, and nearly 70 per cent of the women polled deplored such marketing tactics. Yet, in what the association describes as a read-and-reproach attitude, 27 per cent of respondents still expressed a wish to see the controversial issue of Easy Finder - a fact demonstrated by how a 15,000-copy second print run was quickly sold out.
Many women's rights activists have been galled to see how tabloid magazines have found a core readership among women. Available statistics don't provide a breakdown of the gender ratio, but a casual survey of the magazines' advertising content is instructive. Advertisements for cosmetics, skincare products and diet programmes - items aimed at the female market - fill most pages, rather than those that might be deemed as catering to male readers, such as mobile phones, watches and electronic gadgets.
The latest issue of Easy Finder - which hit the streets yesterday - carried seven ads for diet programmes and skincare products in its first 20 pages. Another tabloid magazine, Oriental Sunday, promotes itself as 'the number one women's magazine in Hong Kong', despite frequently carrying stories that zeroes in on the physical measurements of female celebrities.
The association's deputy director, Ng Yuen-ting, says the bulk of the entertainment magazines' readership is female because 'leisure reading tends to be consumed by women'. While Ng says the figures don't indicate women readers agree with such content - 'they might buy Easy Finder for its restaurant guide, for example' - she says it's worrying.
'We need to find a way to let them know that if they support these magazines, one day they might be the subject of harm,' she says.
Patricia Tam Ka-ying, external vice-chairwoman of the Association for the Advancement of Feminism, says the language in the magazines is such that they have inflicted violence on women for years, although no one has done anything about it. 'It's only when there's an actual victim, when a celebrity comes out and weeps in public, that people take notice and act,' she says.
Focus group surveys show housewives and female office workers form a significant part of the readership, Chan says.
'[Publishers] think women love to see some saucy stuff,' she says. They would not reflect on whether the material may be ethically reprehensible, but 'they know what they are doing - and they would definitely avoid things their readers dislike'.
The Easy Finder affair is just the latest in a series of acts of blatant sexual harassment in the mass media that have largely been shrugged off by the public.
When Commercial Radio DJs Sammy Leung Chi-kin and Kitty Yuen Siu-yee asked listeners to vote for the female celebrity they most wanted to molest, several 'candidates' initially declared themselves 'honoured' to be included as an indication of their sex appeal. A number of young women also voiced support for Leung, saying critics were being too uptight about what was nothing more than a joke.
It was only after complaints flooded in from community and women's groups that show business personalities took a more critical stance. Commercial Radio subsequently suspended the pair for two months, and paid a penalty of HK$140,000 for their misguided stunt.
Most women have little awareness about the harmful effects of these so-called pranks, Tam says. In a popular culture that views gender equality partly in terms of women's willingness to get down and dirty, they easily get a twisted idea of how women should perceive their bodies, says Tam, echoing an argument made by feminist writer Ariel Levy in her controversial book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.
'Some people these days believe that to be in charge means whether you can profit from your physical assets,' she says.
As an example, Tam cites Beautiful Cooking, a popular TVB programme in which sexily attired women artists are tested on their culinary skills while the three male hosts provide a running commentary peppered with double entendres.
'It's so evident [the participants] were subjected to rounds of verbal harassment, but they still have to laugh it off in order to be accepted as part of the gang, and for the sake of their careers.
'The conduct will brush on to viewers, who would think that it's an acceptable thing to do in their daily lives,' says Tam.
'Such views perpetrated daily through the mass media are much more effective than all the educational activities we undertake to promote sexual equality - we just can't beat them.'
Ng says a lack of respect for the individual is sometimes defended in the name of tolerance. 'The woman may just swallow everything, worrying that she might be accused of upsetting the harmony in a group, or of being a small-minded prude. Worse, they might not even be aware that these jokes are a problem,' she says. 'Some people might just be testing waters with [sexually suggestive] jokes. But they might go even more out of line if they sense no opposition towards what they say.'
Such moral ambivalence shapes the developing minds of teenagers, says Choi Kwok-kwong, chairman of the pressure group Education Convergence.
Choi, who is also vice-principal of Yan Oi Tong Tin Ka Ping Secondary School, worries that cavalier attitudes towards the opposite sex can lead from teasing insults to unwelcome advances. 'The line [of respect] that used to exist [between] male and female students is becoming increasingly blurred,' he says.