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This Love Island cliché is having an unexpected impact on our careers

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Susan Devaney
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Dany Cotton, the head of the London Fire Brigade, has criticised Love Island for its damaging sexist portrayal of firefighters. 

There’s an episode of Sex and the City where Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha take a trip to Staten Island to watch the New York Fire Department’s annual male calendar selection. As the men (yes, they are ALL men) take to the stage the firefighter cliché comes into play: shirts are whipped off, muscles are flexed and the ‘women need to be rescued’ scenario plays out. 

You might think that this scene was a product of its time. However, it’s 18 years later and that cliché is still being shown on the small screen, thanks to Love Island. In the ITV2 show’s ‘fireman challenge’ episode, Love Island fans will remember that the aim of the task was for male contestants to strip down to their underwear and pretend to save a woman from danger.

Now, London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton has warned that such “offensive” stereotypes are discouraging women from joining the service.

“I’m especially concerned about how many young people think firefighting is for men,” she said.

“When popular shows like Love Island roll out every offensive cliché possible with their so-called ‘fireman challenge’, it reinforces the misconception that all firefighters are musclebound men. No wonder so many young women are put off by that.”

“I’m especially concerned about how many young people think firefighting is for men”

Cotton’s comments come after a recent YouGov survey commissioned by the mayor of London, found that a quarter of women think men are better equipped to be firefighters.

In comparison, just 7% of women thought the same of police officers when asked: “Do you think men are more able to do the job, women are more able to do the job, or they are both equally able?”

Writing for the Guardian to highlight the brigade’s #FireFightingSexism campaign, deputy assistant commissioner Keeley Foster detailed her decision to leave the creative industries at the age of 31 for the fire service. In doing so, she has also witnessed the lack of women entering the profession.

“Reaching out to under-represented groups is key to spreading the message that this is a career for everyone and bringing in the next generation of firefighters,” Keeley wrote. “When I visit schools I find it sad that so many young girls see it as a job for men. I see myself as a role model who can encourage all women that nothing is out of their reach.”

She continued: “Nearly 80 years on, female firefighters are still comparatively rare and their achievements mainly overlooked by the media, which still talk about firemen rather than firefighters – something the London brigade changed 30 years ago.”

Dany Cotton with Prince Harry in 2017

And LFB are taking things further by backing proposals by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to ban sexist adverts. The brigade’s research found that a Suzuki advert featuring Ant and Dec mentioned “fireman training”, and an advert for Harpic toilet cleaner saw female characters objectifying a male firefighter.

Cotton, who is the first women to hold the LFB’s most senior position, commented further: “It was 30 years ago that people were shocked to see women police officers and it’s frankly embarrassing that the public are still shocked to see women firefighters today.

“The armed forces and the police force have all been enriched by having women better represented across their ranks and it’s time the fire and rescue service caught up.”

Out of the LFB’s 5,000 operational firefighters just 6% are women.

She continued: “Role models like Juliet Bravo and Jane Tennison changed people’s perception of women in the police force. Now it’s time for advertisers, journalists and marketers to stop relying on lazy clichés and help change attitudes which will in turn encourage more women to embark on a wonderful and fulfilling career in the fire service.”

Like Foster, it’s never too late to change careers.

Images: Getty / Unsplash 

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Susan Devaney

Susan Devaney is a digital journalist for Stylist.co.uk, writing about fashion, beauty, travel, feminism, and everything else in-between.

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