"Great Rack" Girl's Sexy Campaign Draws Criticism
Madeline Grant's "great rack" campaign at Oxford University has started a firestorm of criticism that she is engaging in sexism, and voluntarily sexualizing herself to get cheap votes for a librarian position.
Is her campaign slogan of "I don't hack, I just have a great rack" sexist? Or is it just harmless satire? Should she be applauded for pushing the bounds of normally dry campus elections? Or chastised for exploiting her body?
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Added: 2 years ago
[scene opens with footage from the The Young Turks' college-themed YouTube show, as co-hosts Ana Kasparian and John Iadarola are talking]
ANA: Nineteen-year-old Madeline Grant goes to Oxford University, and she wanted to get a job as a Union librarian. And as a result, she had her own little campaign, and the slogan of her campaign, if you will, was "I don't hack, I just have a great rack."
[the audience laughs, as "'Great Rack' Causes Sexism Row" appears on screen]
ANA: Um ... So, women at Oxford University are upset at this because they're saying, "Look, this is sexist, it's pushing the idea that sexualizing women is okay." And even if she was trying to be light-hearted and fun, it's unacceptable and she shouldn't have done this. So, she then changed her slogan to "I don't hack, I'm just here for the craic."
[the audience laughs]
ANA: But don't ... Hold on, listen. I know that sounds even worse, but "craic" in this case is spelled "C-R-A-I-C," and it means like gossip, news, information, that kinda thing.
JOHN: Still, I love that when her first slogan is shot down, and they say that you really need to show better judgment, she comes back with a "crack" joke!
ANA: I know, I know! It's hilarious ...
JOHN: She really stuck it to them. Look, there's a couple different things I wanna say about this, but I actually ... I understand their problem with it. You don't want, as a woman at a university, you probably don't want another woman overtly sexualizing a serious race for a position. But she says "I hope no one is offended by my manifesto, it was only meant to be a light-hearted satire on an organization which is often seen very seriously."
[a photo of Madeline is shown on-screen]
JOHN: I think that that's ... I think she's being genuine there.
ANA: Yeah. Look, I don't think that she meant any harm by it, and I think she's naive in thinking that, like, men will read that and like take her seriously. What'll happen is, look, she's sexualizing herself, right?
JOHN: Mm hmm.
ANA: And if she wants to do that, then she has the right to do that, right?
["Satire or Sexism? Do You Buy Madeline's Explanation?" appears on screen]
ANA: But that has consequences, and the consequences are no one's gonna take you seriously. They're just gonna be like, "Oh, it's that librarian with the good rack!"
ANA: Um, at the same time, the only person who would be a bad guy in this situation is the person who hires her based on that slogan.
JOHN: Who, remember, it's not "hired." They're basically elections.
JOHN: Like, they're campaigning for the position.
ANA: Right. So, people who vote for her just based on that, I guess, in this case would kinda be--
JOHN: It would probably be pretty successful, I would imagine.
ANA: Of course.
JOHN: She has done a little bit of other shady stuff in her past. She was involved in an article in the Daily Mail about being turned away from London Fashion Week for being too fat. She seems like an entirely skinny girl, I don't understand what that's about. And she also was quoted as saying that she had dated a shady Japanese businessman for Union Ball sponsorship.
ANA: [pause] Wow.
JOHN: She called him shady, so that's interesting ... Here's the interesting part that I want to comment on, and we can always cut this out if Ana has a problem with it. This is another reason why I think she might've been being ironic.
ANA: Uh huh.
JOHN: Her thing is, "I don't hack, I just have a great rack" ... but you can see from the photos that she is a very skinny fit girl.
ANA: Right, and she doesn't really have a great rack.
JOHN: The fact that she's emphasizing a rack that does not appear to be there makes it seem like it's even more jokey.
ANA: Uh huh. Yeah, well--
JOHN: I mean, is she ... an A-cup, I would imagine?
[the audience laughs]
ANA: Well, I think ... Oh geez. I think so.
JOHN: Look, she's beautiful, but she does not have a great rack!
ANA: Well, yeah. Um, I think that she was just trying to be funny.
JOHN: I think so, too.
ANA: I think she needed a little attention, and you know, her past would indicate that she likes that attention. So, yeah--
JOHN: So how do you rule on this?
ANA: [pause] On her rack?
JOHN: No ... Well, yeah, that too.
JOHN: But no, on ... should she get in trouble? Is this okay or not, that she ran this campaign?
ANA: No, she shouldn't get in trouble!
JOHN: Okay, so you're ruling in favor of her?
ANA: I think she was ... she was trying to be funny. Some might call it, y'know, lapse of judgment. I'm not even that offended by it, to be honest.
JOHN: Repeated lapse of judgment.
ANA: Yeah ... Look, she wanted attention. I don't think that she should be punished for it in any way, shape, or form. Punishment is the judgment that people are gonna have.
ANA: Y'know, because of this.
JOHN: Now, the funny thing though, is her second manifesto ... "I'm just here for the craic," the gossip. She's definitely getting that now.
JOHN: There's tons of gossip about her all over the internet!
ANA: Yeah, she loves the craic ...
JOHN: And on our show.
It was perhaps ironic that the interrogation should take place under the stern gaze of former president William Gladstone, a judgmental politician with a liking for 'rescuing' fallen women.
Last week, in the claustrophobic confines of a committee room at the Victorian Gothic buildings of the Oxford Union, a young undergraduate was subjected to a four-and-a-half- hour ordeal in which she was accused, cross-examined and, she claims, humiliated.
Madeline Grant, a 19-year-old who is reading English, was forced to defend herself in front of a grim-faced panel of three, with her accuser – the current president, Isabel Ernst – at her side.
Her 'crime'? When writing her election manifesto for the position of librarian of the Oxford Union, Madeline and a friend came up with the now infamous slogan: 'I don't hack, I just have a great rack.'
As a result, the tribunal she endured on Wednesday evening fined her £120 for 'bringing the Union into disrepute'.
With her brazenly politically incorrect mission statement, Madeline had hoped to puncture the self-importance of the 189-year-old debating society.
She had watched its student officers run their campaigns with all the desperate ruthlessness of the Prime Ministers many hope to become, using whatever weapons – mental and physical – they have at their disposal.
But the fallout from Madeline's campaign has left her angry and bewildered. She has been labelled sexist, a claim she dismisses as ludicrous. She has fallen behind in her work because of the stress and has been placed on academic probation.
Yet despite it all, she does not regret the manifesto. 'It's been an interesting experience – a learning experience,' she says, smiling ruefully.
'I wanted to make a point about the people who run the Union taking themselves far too seriously, and their response has proved that point.
'I've also found it very interesting that I was being accused of sexism, but they went to great lengths to punish a woman for making a joke about her body. I can't help thinking that seems strange.
'Bright, articulate, polite and, yes, pretty, Madeline, a former part-time model, is an unlikely poster girl for rebellion. But the controversy that has engulfed her since that manifesto went public in March has opened her eyes to the archaic attitudes towards women in the elite world the Oxford Union represents – particularly towards women who are independent-minded and, heaven forbid, funny.
The august debating society was founded in 1823 and counts many past and present members of the political establishment – from Gladstone through to Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath and Boris Johnson – among its former presidents.
In recent years, women have played a more prominent role, but the Union still retains the air of a gentlemen's club, in which women are permitted to participate but are tacitly expected not to draw attention to themselves, and especially not to their sexuality.
It is a world in which glamour model Katie Price was recently booked to speak, ostensibly to reflect the different viewpoints of modern women – but was the real reason, ask cynics, to give her the chance to be patronised by the politicians of the future and to generate controversy in a carefully controlled environment?
And it is one in which, when a young woman shows a sense of humour, she is punished. Indeed, Madeline's humourless treatment over the past few weeks calls to mind The Scarlet Letter, the 19th Century novel in which a woman is forced to wear a symbol of her sin.
According to Madeline, she was referred to as 'the defendant' throughout the disciplinary hearing, during which she was grilled forensically by the panel.
'It felt exactly like a trial,' she says. 'It was ridiculous. They were treating it as though it was a scene from To Kill A Mockingbird; some sort of moral crusade.
'They read out about four pages of charges, referring to all the parts of the Union rulebook I'd contravened with my manifesto and when I'd later tried to defend myself.
'It just went on and on with them clearly relishing the chance to show off their legal skills. 'They were relentless and totally unsympathetic – in fact, quite cruel.
'I tried to explain how stressful the entire thing has been, but someone said I was clearly enjoying all the attention.
'They wanted to make an example of me because I was honest about the way the Union works and expressed my views about it – which is ironic for a society that constantly cranks out a Harold Macmillan quote about being a “last bastion of free speech”.'
The day after the tribunal, Madeline resigned her membership. The daughter of John Grant, a retired civil engineer, and Sally Jones, a BBC journalist and former world champion in real tennis, she was a straight A student at King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham before winning a place at St Hilda's College, Oxford.
In her first year, she juggled her studies with playing netball and real tennis for the university.
She paid the £200 for voluntary lifelong membership to the Union, which has attracted speakers from Albert Einstein to Michael Jackson, because, she says: 'I just wanted to see famous people speak there.'
It allowed her the chance to debate on issues including the London Olympics and Israel, and to meet celebrities including actor Johnny Depp.
It was when a friend of a friend ran for president that she became interested in the Union's election process. The four officer roles – president, treasurer, secretary and librarian – attract the most ambitious students who hope that securing one of the posts will make them more attractive to future employers.
Former Union 'hacks' – so called in Oxford slang for their confidence and ambition – include newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky and Tory MP Louise Mensch.
Of course, Madeline has been witness to what she calls 'casual sexism' several times since she has been at Oxford, which attracts more than its share of overly confident public-school-educated men.
All-male drinking societies go hand in hand with condescending attitudes towards women. Madeline had hoped the Union, which claims to be all-inclusive, would be different, but has been badly let down.
Having won a position on the Standing Committee, the first rung on the ladder, Madeline quickly grew to despise the archaic rules and the traits it encouraged in those at the top.
'The system has barely evolved since 1823,' she says. 'There is an enormous book of rules which everyone is aware are being broken, but never change. It's all so pompous.
'For some reason, it's strictly forbidden to canvass for votes, aside from writing a manifesto and at the official hustings – but everybody does it.
'Hacks often spend all day hanging around outside colleges or in bars, desperately flirting with people to get votes for themselves and for other people on their team, which is called “lining” and is also banned.
'It's all so they can put it on their CV and get an internship with a bank. I think it's awful and there are a lot of students who feel the same way.'
She says she didn't even particularly enjoy her time on the Standing Committee, which involved long weekly meetings about the administration of the Union. But a week before the applications had to be submitted, she decided to run for librarian as a joke at the expense of the whole pretentious system.
She says: 'I wanted to do something to show how I felt about all the hacks, and a couple of friends from my college were also running – so I thought if I campaigned I could help them, too.'
Her last-minute manifesto was written with the help of a male friend.
'He actually came up with the "rack" slogan. We wanted something that rhymed with "hack", and when he suggested it we thought it was hilarious,' she says.
'I didn't think anybody would look at it and think I was a serious candidate. I was saying, look at the lengths the hacks will go to for votes – they might as well say, “Vote for me because of my breasts.”?
'Prior to the manifesto being printed, she took it to be approved by a team of Union officers, who listened solemnly to her as she read a letter from the St Hilda's drinking society explaining how her breasts met all the criteria of a 'great rack'.
'They didn't crack a smile,' she says. 'I did wonder if I'd gone a bit too far with it, so I changed the final wording to “I'm just here for the craic.”?' It was too late.
An earlier version of her manifesto was posted on a wall and spotted by a journalist for the Cherwell student newspaper, who ran an article quoting unnamed sources as finding her tactic 'deeply offensive', adding that it was 'saddening to see women objectifying themselves'.
The story hit the national press, and Madeline was devastated. Not only was her joke being treated seriously, but she now had to suffer her body being scrutinised to see if it was worthy of her claim.
'There have been so many comments about my breasts on websites, which is creepy and horrible,' she says.
'On one, they ranked my looks with marks out of ten. I found it disturbing how casually a young woman is dissected.
'One paper ran a picture of me in a bikini, which was taken when I was 16 and had been snatched from my Facebook page.
'At the time, I was modelling and I was very skinny, so it became, "Oh, the joke is that she's saying she has a great rack but she actually doesn't have one at all."
'In the week the story broke I found it hard to leave the house. I was scared. It affected my work. I've been late with two essays so the college put me on academic probation.'
Madeline insists it was never her intention to draw attention to her figure, and that, having attended one of the country's leading girls' schools followed by the last Oxford college to open its doors to men, she is a feminist.
'Everything I've achieved has been through hard work rather than my looks,' she says.
'My mum also had a fantastic career and taught me the importance of women working. It's hurtful that anyone could really believe I'm this reactionary anti-feminist, when the opposite is true.'
In the end, Madeline came a close second out of three candidates, winning 400 votes, which she says proves how sick other students are of the hack mentality. However, her troubles were far from over.
When approached by a newspaper, she defended herself against the charge of sexism, which is when the Union president, Isabel Ernst, issued a formal complaint about her behaviour. Madeline says it is only within the Union that her manifesto has been deemed offensive.
'Everyone else said they find it funny, thankfully.'
Interestingly, some of the fiercest criticism of her campaign has come from other women in the society – not because they loathe sexism, Madeline says, but because her manifesto was 'too close to home'.
'It's well known that some of the women in the Union flirt and sleep their way to the top, basically doing exactly what I was sending up with the slogan,' she says.
She questions why nobody even commented when a candidate from a previous election, Jack Sennett from Lincoln College, used his own looks as part of his campaign, vowing that he was 'bringing sexy Jack' – a reference to the Justin Timberlake lyric, 'I'm bringing sexy back'.
'I think it's sad that men can say what they like, but a woman joking about her body is now seen as the worst thing imaginable,' she says.
She now intends to concentrate on her studies and is contemplating joining the International Relations Society.
'They get a lot of heavyweight political names, but without any of the outdated pomposity.'
Ms Ernst said Madeline had broken the Union's rules by speaking about the controversy.
She said: 'It is the president's task to make sure the rules are upheld and the president is thus obliged to bring action against her.'