Jeremy Meeks’s mugshot, shared online by authorities in Stockton, California.
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Laurie Penny on attraction and sexism: Why can’t we fancy Jeremy Meeks, the “fine felon”?

The idea that women might not just be supporting characters in men’s stories, but rather individuals who are free to fancy bad boys, or weird guys, or women, is still unaccountably threatening.

Jeremy Meeks is a very bad man. The entire news media is keen to remind us of this, after a photo of the convicted felon’s mugshot failed to have the desired effect when authorities in Stockton, California, shared it on social media and women noticed that, criminal or no, Meeks is really quite attractive. Apparently that observation makes women idiots, or evil, or both.

I’m familiar with Meeks’s face – that carved jaw, those steely blue eyes, the single tattooed teardrop making him appear at once very dangerous and just a little bit vulnerable – because my Facebook feed has been full of nothing else for the past week and a half. Yes, he may have done a great many terrible things, but, much to the distress of that part of straight dudekind that lives online, women fancy him anyway. Because he is pretty. I’m not typically even into studly guys, but objectively speaking, this is a very pretty man. It seems that saying so makes me not only a fool but everything that’s wrong with “girls” today.

Alexia Lafata of Elite Daily bewails in rather Biblical terms the fact that Meeks’s mugshot caused woman everywhere to “writhe in infatuation and lust. Lafata proposes that we turn our attentions instead to young marine Kyle Carpenter, who was awarded the Medal of Honour at the same time Meeks was being arrested for armed robbery. A photo is helpfully provided.

The message Lafata and a great many others are sending is: rather than this black man arrested for “gang-related offences”, you should fancy this morally upright, slightly homely white guy. Or Benedict Cumberbatch. Or really anyone else at all.

Men have largely grown up being told that if they do all the things men are meant to do and don’t get in too much trouble, they will be rewarded with a hot woman. If they are good guys, nice guys who mean well – and who isn’t a nice guy who means well? – they will eventually find the girl or girls of their dreams who will bear and raise their children and subtly overhaul their personal grooming routine, not in a gay way, just so they look a bit more grown-up and sexy. 

The idea that women might not just be supporting characters in men’s stories of personal development, that they might be their own people with their own desires – free to fancy bad boys, or weird guys, or women – is still unaccountably threatening. It rips right through to the plaintive core of the manosphere, the distress that women’s sexual attention isn’t being distributed justly, that women are evil and stupid for making the “wrong” decisions. At best, it’s the Nice Guys of OKCupid. At worst, it’s Elliot Rodger

Has there ever been a world where women expected sexual attention from men – wanted or unwanted – on the basis of their accomplishments and moral character? I don’t think so. Character of any sort is considered, at best, a fetching accessory, and at worst an active impediment to attraction. There is yet to be an accepted social narrative whereby homely but morally accomplished or heroic women get rewarded with the hot dude of their choice. Personally, no charmer has ever yelled at me in the street, “Hey, girl! I hear you’re a really nice person!”

New technology, same old rules: men are meant to be judged on their moral and personal worth while women are bodies and nothing more, and our sexual preferences, our personal desires, are condemned if they don’t serve the tired old narrative of boy-gets-girl, with boys do the getting and girls getting got. 

Comparing Meeks to Kyle Carpenter as a better model of internet crush, Ms Lafata suggests that “once we see someone’s appearance as more valuable or important than their character, it’s time to re-evaluate”. That’s what women have been saying over centuries of being judged on looks alone, and it’s what we’re still saying today. Could it be that payback, as they say, is a bitch?

Laurie Penny will be in conversation with classicist and author Mary Beard on 30 July at Conway Hall, London. More details and tickets here.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.