In public break-ups, why is the woman always painted as the howling victim?

Chantelle Houghton has provided the latest demonstration that the social media overshare is now the ultimate relationship no-no.

It's an undeniable fact of life that every relationship ends. Whether it's dumping your boss and workplace in a spectacular manner (although, let's face it, no one can beat the air steward who announced his resignation over the tannoy before sliding down the emergency slide), breaking up with your puppy-love teenage boyfriend to "find yourself" in your early twenties, or accepting that your therapist is never going to cure your irrational fear of kumquats, goodbyes are inevitable. Yet somehow, knowing that things will probably go tits-up, and definitely will come to some conclusion, just doesn't make it any easier. You still end up sobbing into your ex's boxer shorts of an evening shortly following a breakup as you imagine him swanning off into the sunset with his newest Facebook friend or, in Rhiannon's case, find yourself giving a tearful, tone-deaf rendition of Carly Simon's You're So Vain to a half-empty London pub. C'est la vie.

When you're in the public eye, that post-breakup Saturday night self-pitying session takes on a whole new level. Celebrity magazines chase their prey down the street with a seemingly limitless appetite for post-break up tears, every publication from woman's weeklies to national newspapers speculate about the reasons behind the split, and social media goes into hyperdrive. Reality TV contestant Chantelle Houghton, who famously partook in Celebrity Big Brother as the "normal person" wild-card, is this week's example of what a relationship meltdown can become in the face of instant online connections. She chose to "set the record straight" on reasons behind her split with cage fighter Alex Reid on a Twitter account with over 278,000 followers. What followed was a shocking "tell-all" account of cross-dressing, money-wrangling and infant-raising, culminating with the tweet "whole world ripped apart in an instant".

Despite the pathos evident behind these comments, and the fact that this was clearly a person at their lowest point, the internet (including this magazine) went predictably haywire.

Has the social media overshare become the ultimate no-no in the relationship stakes, even replacing the late-night drunken phone call as the classic mistake you'll always regret? In sassy empowerment tune Survivor, Destiny's Child sang: "You know I ain't gonna diss you on the internet, coz my mamma taught me better than that". Yet it was but a few years later (admittedly decades in pop-land) that Lily Allen had no qualms in gleefully admonishing public post-break-up destruction, saying in her song Not Big: "I never wanted it to end up this way, you've only got yourself to blame. I'm gonna tell the world you're rubbish in bed now, and that you're small in the game", adding for especially brutal effect: "Let's see how you feel in a couple of weeks when I make my way through your mates." Ouch.

Lily's song played up mercilessly to the classic male fear that a woman will take revenge on him by using her wiles against his nearest and dearest, and its celebration of bitterness and cold-blooded vengeance was in direct opposition to the "go for it, girlfriend" anthem of Survivor (or, indeed, their band member Beyoncé's later solo tune Single Ladies.) But is it really true that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? Like that oft-quoted adage, the media presentation of women in the throes of a relationship breakdown probably comes with a hefty degree of prejudice.

Take Grazia magazine's seven year pity-fest following Jennifer Aniston's divorce. Even if you're not a reader, you've probably come across the cover in your local Londis while buying beans: the snatched paparazzi photograph of Aniston (or any other female celeb) getting out of a car, her eyes downcast, face blank enough to provide a convenient mirror for whatever emotion hacks want to project on it that week. Then you have the text, which is always large, glaring, and hysterical: IT'S OVER! The magazine's dogged need to constantly present the star as on the verge of a relationship crisis, even in the face of contradictory evidence, resulted in an embarrassing faux pas for Grazia earlier this year, when it went to press with a similar cover just after Aniston had announced her engagement to Justin Theroux. "Totes cringe!" as they might say themselves.

That the narrative of the heartbroken woman plays itself out again and again doesn't just say something about the media, but also about us.

Namely, why is it that so many of us give so much of a toss? It appears there is some need there to see the fairytale end suitably destroyed, to see these beautiful, rich, famous mega-stars get their comeuppance, and yet it is so often the woman who is painted as the howling victim, the one for whom the wound will take months to heal. Meanwhile, the bloke usually gets right back on the horse again and is papped leaving a nightclub with a harem of strippers the very next evening. Just look at the Demi Moore/Ashton Kutcher split. Demi got rehab, an alleged eating disorder and accusations of poor parenting thrown at her, while Kutcher got Mila Kunis and a role in Two and a Half Men. It's hardly fair.

What makes this breakup reportage all the more ridiculous is that the "heartbroken" woman in question is, more often than not, doing everything she can to retain a stoic silence in the face of immense media pressure to throw a public tantrum. In reality, we have no clue what she's feeling.

That she maintains her dignity and yet is still painted as a hysterical mess speaks volumes about the roles we still assign to one another. Woman is volatile, emotional, unpredictable, and weepy, while man is cold, indifferent, and unfeeling. Perhaps people loved Chantelle's Twitter outburst so much because it reinforced their own ideas about breakup behaviour, namely that women are a Bridget-Jones-style neurotic mess, and men are off immediately to hump the nearest thing with a pulse. It's not just insulting to us, but to men too, as any man who has lost the person he loves will tell you. Heartbreak doesn't discriminate - and indeed, neither does the total lack of giving a shit. Sometimes, post-breakup, a woman likes to don her cowboy hat, get back in the saddle and ride off into the sunset herself. It's common sense, but nowadays it just isn't portrayed enough. So, tequila, anyone?

Chantelle Houghton made waves with her "tell-all" Twitter account of her break-up. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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.