Josie Cunningham. Photo: @JosieCOnline
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Josie Cunningham and the Big Brother abortion: why do some women volunteer for a witch-burning?

Josie Cunningham became famous for revealing she had her breasts enlarged on the NHS. Now she says she wants an abortion to go on Big Brother. In her determination to incite outrage, Cunningham is basically Abu Hamza with a double-D cup. Why do it?

Because the Middle Ages in Europe were a long and tedious era to be alive in, and because humanity was not happy to just hang around waiting for gifs and Buzzfeed quizzes to be invented, we learned to make our own entertainment. One of our main sources of fun was charivari, which was when the village decided that someone had done something the village didn’t like – often, though not always, something involving being a woman and having sex – and would get together to show its disapproval by banging pots outside the miscreant’s house.

Now we have smartphones, which means that we can leave the stockpot in the cupboard. We barely have to take half an eye off the newest farting otter or skateboarding goat when it’s time for a bit of charivari: we can just type “LOL SLAG” into Twitter and then get on with what we were doing, knowing that communal justice has been served. Which is a long way round of saying that the internet pasting being given to Josie Cunningham, after the aspiring celeb told the Mirror that she would have an abortion in order to get into the Big Brother house, isn't much of a cultural novelty. What is remarkable is that she seems to have very deliberately set out to be loathed.

 

 

Everything we know about her, we know because she's volunteered it. Her privacy hasn't been invaded, her words haven't been twisted. She sat down, with a camera on, and said things like: “I’m not having the abortion for the money, because I could get more money for the baby pictures.” Whether Cunningham is likeable obviously doesn't have anything to do with her right to an abortion – although if you listened to some columnists, you'd think that foetal personhood existed in inverse proportion to the personableness of the pregnant woman, so the more they hate Cunningham, the more likely they are to talk about the "innocent baby" or "unborn child". But in her determination to incite outrage, Cunningham is basically Abu Hamza with a double-D cup.

And Cunningham's chest is further evidence that she knows what she's inciting, because her previous moment of greatest fame (and the reason she's even under consideration for Big Brother) involved having a breast enlargement on the NHS, then talking to the papers about it. On her website, you can find a picture of her posing with nothing but some NHS tape over her cannonball tits to conceal the nipples. Her public career, such as it is, consists of trolling through elective medical procedures. And the media loves it. The Mail, the Sun, the Mirror, now me in the New Statesman – Cunningham gives everyone something to talk about. She fits our purpose.

In the Mail, Jan Moir calls her "another silly, silly young woman who has been encouraged to believe in her own specialness and suffering". For the Mirror's Carole Malone, she's "the poster girl for all that's dirty, immoral and sick in our society". And maybe she is, though not exactly in the way these writers intend. Like Moir and Malone, who are paid to "say the unsayable" and take the consequences, Cunningham is evidence that "hate figure" is tantamount to a valid profession for a woman.

A montage of news coverage, from Cunningham's website.

There are obnoxious male journalists, of course, ones who revel in their own unpleasantness – the Liddles and the Littlejohns. But there's no male equivalent of, say, Samantha Brick. A man writing a column might intend to offend, but when it's a woman offering the outrage, her very existence becomes part of the affront. Men can make careers directing hate at other people; women find it easier to channel it towards themselves. Sometimes, as in the case of Katie Hopkins, they do it so well that they make the jump from reality show monster to tabloid monsterer. If Cunningham needed to refine the art of saying something appalling and then turning public revulsion into profit, Hopkins would be the perfect place to look.

The demand for these permanently burnable witches seems easy enough to explain: it's down to cultural misogyny. Less obvious is why women show such alacrity in taking on the role, but perhaps there's an answer in Cunningham's backstory. According to her account, she was ferociously bullied by boys at school for having small breasts. "I may not have been suffering in a visable [sic] manner, but mentally I was suffering for over a decade," she writes on her official site. Maybe once you've learned to be hated, and learned to be the best at hating yourself, it begins to make sense that you should get some benefit from it. #

Bring on the pots and pans; Josie Cunningham is apparently ready for all the noise you can make, as long as you pay her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism