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 .

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.