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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.