Your choice of "wifestyle": be like Kate Moss or Kate Middleton

According to Grazia, being like one of the Kates is the only way for a married woman to behave.

What does it mean to be a wife in a world where your local market abounds with T-shirts displaying reluctant husbands at the altar above the words "Game Over"? Well, according to Grazia this week, a wife can be many things, united by the fact of all being heavily stereotyped and unrealistic. In case you didn’t catch it (horror of social horrors!), their three-page editorial "Rebel vs Regal: A Tale of Two Wives", in which the differing approaches to "wifeliness" on the part of Kate Middleton and Kate Moss were compared in mind-numbingly tedious detail, ended with a question that we’re sure you’re all dying to answer: which wife-style are you?

"The Kates have become more significant to us as wives than they were as single women", bleats Grazia, who claim their false dichotomy has generated furious debate the length and breadth of the country. Everywhere you go, from a builder’s caff to a dole office to a queue of irate and pay-chequeless Natwest customers, people are talking about whether or not they’re "team Kate" or, er, "team Kate".  Both, according to the nameless staffer who wrote the article, epitomise the extreme versions of "modern wifehood" and as such have made us think more deeply about, like, what it means to be a woman and to be married and stuff.

Except it hasn’t. People couldn’t care less. They’re worrying about their mortgages, or their job security, or the cost of childcare, or whether they’ll ever get housing benefit or a pension or where their next shag is coming from. No one is sitting in their house weighing up the relative merits of two women they’ve never met in terms of their marital attributes, except possibly everyone who works for Grazia. We’re all too busy. And that’s the way it should be. Equally, teenage girls haven’t looked at Kate Middleton’s life and immediately been transformed into "smart, well groomed, demure ladies", as a nameless poll in Grazia suggests. Whoever conducted the poll has obviously never been to Watford on a Saturday night - and to suggest that teenage girls are in any way concerned with what some posh lass does of an evening (run William a bath, apparently) is sheer lunacy. What they’re actually doing is worrying whether you can get pregnant off a blowjob or where they put their lip shimmer. Teenage girls, as you were.

According to common social perception, however, a wife is something that every little girl wants to become. Disclaimer: you can only navigate this treacherous path if a man asks you first, and he in turn will only ask when cultural pressure reaches a fever pitch and he runs to the jeweller’s in a sweat of peer-pressure-induced commitment. As the girlfriend (wife-in-waiting), you will of course be sat at home during this time, plotting your latest series of subtle manipulations to make him ask you, with your lonely left hand outstretched. He will run back, panting with the shock of blowing three months' wages on a shiny piece of earth dust, and present you with a ring. Immediately, your sex life will be blown to pieces (in the bad way) and you’ll magically transform into a carbon copy of - God forbid! - your mother.
  
Where does this leave us women, so often referred to as the "ball and chain" in a wifely context? We know that in the fifties, the ideal was to bake beautiful cupcakes and smile sweetly at dinner parties while refraining from expressing any controversial views, as per the well-known Harry Enfield sketch (women: know your limits!) Since then, we’ve seen movements that have discouraged women from "becoming wives" and entering into such a traditionally patriarchal institution altogether. We’ve also seen a resurgence of what we might deem "cupcake culture", which celebrates the sugar-centred, insufferably twee qualities of fifties housewifery and attempts to recast them in a world where women also have jobs and more meaningful responsibilities. Finally, we’ve seen the rise of and reaction to the "have it all" imperative, which we discussed in detail in last week’s column.

None of these choices are without their respective downfalls, and all of them reflect the day-to-day lives of 90 per cent of the population about as much as the two "wives" to whom Grazia have taken such a "liking" (read: the linguistic equivalent of a rusty machete). Here are two women: a supermodel and a princess, both of whom have traded on their looks to get where they are today, and who are supposed to be telling us something significant about the role of women in modern times. (Clue: the real significance lies in the first part of this sentence.) The suggestion that the rest of us should somehow be aspiring to either one of these "wifestyles" is as out of touch as appointing a well-known tax evader as a government spending advisor (ahem).

As per usual, this false debate surrounding a pair of straw wives says just as much about class as it does about female equality. Perhaps if more young couples were able to afford their rent or mortgages on a sole income, more women would choose to devote themselves to wifely duties - or indeed, men to husbandly ones. While K-Middy may appear to fit the bill of "humble wife", the suggestion that La Moss, a woman who built her own multimillion-pound career from nothing, has somehow become "more significant" since getting married is deeply insulting. Her only crime is to have refused to compromise her lifestyle. The implications in Grazia that her independence means she is somehow falling short assumes that there are modes of behaviour that should come into play the minute a ring is placed on a woman’s finger. Sod that.

Surely it’s as simple as loving one another enough, warts and all, to be able to build a life together? Suddenly becoming a simpering, submissive, desexualised bath-runner the minute you chow down on the marzipan-coated fruitcake means you’re probably not the woman he married anymore. If becoming a "wife" means not only losing your name (and why do that?) but a part of yourself so fundamental that you need to reassess your day-to-day behaviour, then it’s a sacrifice that we’re not willing to make. And guess what, Grazia? Our mothers weren’t either.
 

Which kind of wife are you - Middleton or Moss?

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder