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.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.