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A prison of public derision: High profile women and victim blaming

By November 21, 2020No Comments

Emily Hourican on victim blaming and how vulnerability in high profile women is treated…


When I was in my late teens, my friend’s boyfriend broke her nose. Well, you should have seen the flurry of activity that triggered. An entire group of us – her girlfriends – busily got together and made it all okay.

For the guy.

‘What did she do?’ we asked. ‘She must have done something…’ we said. ‘He shouldn’t have done that, but he wouldn’t unless she did something really crazy.’

At the time, it was excitement, drama, a brush with very adult things. That’s what it felt like, anyway. Now, it’s clear that it was something else entirely: physical abuse and victim blaming.

We didn’t have those words then, so we made do with what we did have: a very confused series of social messages around women and what they were, and were not, entitled to. Acceptance, belief, a fair hearing – they weren’t entitled to any of those things. Nor were they entitled to ‘innocent until proven guilty’ – “she must have done something…” They weren’t even entitled to a presumption of sanity. Women, we knew because we had been told it so many times and shown it so many ways, were ‘hysterical’, ‘demanding’; they provoked situations and men – poor men – just reacted.

That friend is still a friend, and yes, I have apologised to her. She has been decent enough to forgive me. But I can’t believe how long it took me – and the whole rest of society – to wake up to the vicious, shameful sleight-of-hand perpetrated on women. A kind of vile Catch-22 whereby, “You’re not interesting unless you’re involved in some kind of male-related drama (affair, cheating husband, new love interest, divorce, custody battle etc); but the minute you are, you are wide open to the cat-call of ‘crazy lady.’” Unless you show strong emotions, you’re ‘icy’ and ‘controlling,’ but when you do, you’re nuts.

‘Crazy’ women were the mainstay of the red-tops right throughout the 90s and early 2000s (arguably, they still are). How many photos have we seen of famous women looking distraught and dishevelled, make-up streaked across their faces, staring out from those hideous photograph-as-ambush front pages? When Britney Spears shaved her head and went on a distress walkabout, the press were with her every step of the way, feeding disturbing images of ‘Breakdown Britney’ back to an avid public. Ditto Rose McGowan, Whitney Huston, Amy Winehouse and her bloodied ballet pumps. In fact, Winehouse was such godsend that it was worth it, financially, for camps of paparazzi to stand outside her apartment all day and night, waiting for her to emerge, looking dazed, and do something strange.

The pictures of Princess Diana everyone wanted? Not the ones of her looking happy and beautiful, god knows. The pay-dirt was Diana sad, lonely, preferably in tears. And, in order to silence any niggles of doubt any of us might have had about the unwholesomeness of all this – the backing track was ‘she colluded with this.’ ‘She asked for it.’ But now we are having to face the fact that she didn’t. Not exactly. The BBC have launched an investigation into the famous Martin Bashir interview that was the foundation stone of the whole ‘she colluded’ argument, because it looks as if Diana was manipulated into the interview, tricked with fake documents that suggested her closest confidants were spying on her, for the people her brother, Charles Spencer, has called ‘her enemies’.

How is it possible, in retrospect, that the sheer glee with which the tabloids published those photos and stories didn’t rub off on our fingers; a mark grubbier even than newsprint, an indelible stain on us for reading and consuming this particular form of human misery?

Somehow, by loudly insisting on the ‘craziness’ and ‘instability’ of these women, they made our voyeurism ok. A modern form of bearbaiting, if you will – it doesn’t matter, they’re not human.

These women were at moments of intense vulnerability in their lives; and some of them, like Britney, were suffering from serious mental illness (since 2008 she has been in something called a conservatorship, whereby her father has the legal right to oversee decisions about her estate and health, including negotiating business deals and restricting who can see her. A recent bid by her to end this arrangement has been declined). Or, like Amy Winehouse and Whitney Huston, they were in the grip of hardcore addictions. But instead of their plight inspiring compassion, society did what society has long done to ‘crazy’ women – cast them out, jeered them, locked them into a prison of public derision.

One of the early victories of the MeToo movement was the long overdue rehabilitation of Monica Lewinsky. A woman so demonised that, in a piece for Vanity Fair two years ago, she wrote “I was diagnosed several years ago with post-traumatic stress disorder, mainly from the ordeal of having been publicly outed and ostracized back then. My trauma expedition has been long, arduous, painful, and expensive. And it’s not over.”

Somehow, Monica – just 22 at the time of her relationship with Clinton, remember – survived a once-in-a-generation kind of public shaming that involved powerful men, and women, mocking and caricaturing her looks, her voice, her hair, her dress-sense; questioning her morals, credibility, intelligence and family. If you didn’t know what grown-up bullying looks like, look at what happened to Lewinsky. These days, we can see her for what she is – an astonishingly courageous woman who has emerged from relentless, widespread, undeserved public abuse – but that took 20 years.

The ‘lucky’ ones – Lewinsky, Rose McGowan, Janice Dickinson – get their due when society finally catches up with where it should have been all along. When we all reach an understanding that the media played us false as well as them – pitched us a vicious, shitty version of their lives that we were ignorant enough to swallow. For those women, there is an opportunity to apologise, try to make amends (though no amount of mea culpas is going to make up to them if we’re honest).

The very unlucky – Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Marilyn Monroe – don’t make it. They die. And then the media gets another shot – this time with the ‘revealing’ documentaries that show ‘the real story’. These invite our compassion rather than our derision. Once they are dead, we are invited to watch and wonder and breast-beat – how could we have mistaken all that pain for attention-seeking? How could we not have seen the cries for help that were interpreted as bids for notice? How could we not have cared more? Been more compassionate? Seen beyond spectacle to tragedy?

How indeed? The real question is, will we spot the truth the next time?


Image from Instagram