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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.