In the wake of the Sunday Times and Dispatches allegations against him (allegations which he vehemently denies), video clips and pictures have resurfaced of Russell Brand perpetrating all kinds of acts on women. In one, he straddles Australian interviewer Fifi Box and, as she squirms beneath him, begins to kiss her forcefully. In another he’s grabbing the news journalist Liz Hayes and forcefully kissing her on the mouth. There’s the clip of him telling his BBC Radio 2 colleague that he’d like to “go under the desk” while she read the news. They’re not rape, obviously, they’re comparably minor, humiliating acts of transgression. They amount to an invasion of personal space, a crossing of boundaries — all sugar-coated in his trademark (ceaseless) torrent of words.
They’re an uncomfortable watch. You can see the unease on the women’s faces as they’re forced to play along while this man makes lewd remarks, grabs them, touches them, etc. That invasion of personal space is an experience most women and girls who came of age in the early-00s will be familiar with. Brand didn’t exist in a vacuum and his jokes — which at that time ran the gamut from a bit about spitting in the face of a lap dancer to asking audience members to form an orderly queue for sex after shows — were only funny because many, many people laughed.
Why did they laugh? A lot of fingers have been pointed this week at the lads’ mags which by the early 2000s were riven with an exploitative kind of humour that legitimised ‘jokes’ like Brand’s. Staying with my boyfriend’s parents last Christmas, I came across an old stack of FHMs and Loadeds in his teenage bedroom, mostly from between 2003 and 2007. These, in the grand scheme of lads’ mags are on the more cerebral end of the spectrum — by the time publications like Nuts and Zoo came along (in 2004 and 2006 respectively), all pretence towards actual journalism had long gone. Features in those included a weekly ‘rate my breasts’ slot, where women were cajoled into posing topless and competitions to ‘Win your girlfriend a boob job’ or ‘win a divorce’.
By comparison, the FHMs and Loadeds I found featured articles like a guide to tricking your girlfriend into giving you a blowjob, a three-pager ‘lifting the lid on what lesbians actually DO’ (‘can a woman really please another woman?’ asked the tag line) and a monthly column called ‘out of the mouth of babes’ — ‘Our endless supply of women spouting shite — a crisp £20 paid for each moronic gem’. Women are shown throughout, though only semi-naked, or in their underwear — the implication being that their only currency is their body and their willingness to be objectified.
That attitude wasn’t consigned to the pages of magazines. At school around that time, I remember a newspaper poll finding that the number one career of choice among schoolgirls was glamour model. At one point, the phrase “I’d definitely rape you” become a casual ‘compliment’ bestowed by boys on the girls they really fancied. An assembly had to be called so that the teachers could explain to the boys and girls alike that no one wants to be raped, ever, and that it should never constitute a term of endearment. When I went to university in 2006, my friends and I embarked on every night out, uncomfortable in the knowledge that we’d be groped at least once, though often multiple times. It wasn’t pleasant, but if I’m honest, we didn’t give it too much thought afterwards, it’s just how things were — men felt entitled to your body, and to your attention and you either brushed them aside and kept walking, or you spent your entire evening on the cusp of a fight. And there were fights! Men were punched, none of us were pushovers.
Outside of men’s titles, the tabloid press also delighted in objectifying and degrading women. This was the era of size zero and Heat magazine’s circle of shame. While on TV, shows like Ally McBeal dominated. One storyline saw Ally’s best friend Renee attacked in her home by a man she was on a date with. Acting in self-defence, Renee uses her kickboxing skills on him — when he sues her, the show dedicates an entire episode to outlining why Renee was in the wrong for inviting him up and “oozing sex.” Her own defence attorney doesn’t allow her to speak in the trial because he deems her too “aggressive”. The whole episode is wrapped up when Renee admits she uses sex as a weapon and has an anger problem — the poor man simply couldn’t help himself. In 1997 Time magazine ran an Ally McBeal front cover with the strapline ‘Is Feminism Dead?’ The answer was, basically, yes.
In terms of sexual assault it was only really when the MeToo movement happened that we began to develop a language to describe why we felt uncomfortable when our bosses made jokes about boobs; or why in hindsight, that relationship we had in our teens with a much older man no longer felt so clear cut or consentual. No one spoke about dynamics of power, no one even used the word ‘consent’.
No woman escaped unscathed from the early 2000s. It’s become incredibly fashionable to sh** on fourth wave, ‘girlboss’ feminism but for all its faults, it felt radical to me, then entering my twenties, to be told that no, you didn’t have to just tacitly accept it when a man grabbed your arse in a bar. To be told that viewing Page Three as exploitative didn’t make you a boring prude. It felt radical to be told that you didn’t need to eliminate all hair before being seen bare-legged in public. It felt especially radical to learn about the gender pay gap (and to have a name for the gender pay gap!) and be told it wasn’t okay, and that you can and should expect more from your workplaces.
Outrage only got us so far — and the sad thing is that now it has become a key weapon used by misogynists to grow their huge online armies
Brand was never just a solo, bad-faith actor with his now-resurfaced on-screen behaviour. He was a man who operated within the parameters of a time where women and girls were under attack, 24/7, body and soul.
Have things improved? In some ways, being more cognisant of the world’s inequalities will always be a good thing. Having awareness is good. Unfortunately awareness doesn’t — and hasn’t — solved the problem of misogyny.
Outrage only got us so far — and the sad thing is that now it has become a key weapon used by misogynists to grow their huge online armies. As Tobias Rose-Stockwell writes in his book Outrage Machine: How Tech Amplifies Discontent, Disrupts Democracy—And What We Can Do about It — the algorithm works on the principle that outrage keeps us clicking and scrolling. And people like Andrew Tate have been quick to exploit that fact to gather huge online followings. Tate industrialised his hatred of women, applying free market principles to gender warfare, and became rich in the process.
In this world, where outrage is a weapon, and people can hide behind online anonymity, the truth is that ever more extreme and dangerous forms of sexism have flourished. So where does that leave us? Probably with many more exposes and scandals still to come.