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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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