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HBO's Divorce is uncomfortable viewing for feminists

Sarah Jessica Parker's new TV series which charts the decline of a marriage is no laughing matter.

In Episode 2 of HBO’s Divorce, Thomas Haden Church’s cuckolded husband Robert visits his friend Nick in hospital. Nick has had a heart attack following a violent row with his wife Diane.

“Seems like it’s open season on men around here,” notes Robert, before adding that it must be “hell” for Nick to be lying there, “can’t speak, clucking hens all around you.”  In case Robert’s anger at womankind has not yet been made clear enough, he then tells his own wife’s friend to “get the fuck away from me you old harpy.” As far as Robert is concerned, women are the enemy.

One could say he has good reason to be mistrustful. He has just found out that his wife, Frances, has been having an affair with a granola-making academic. Having changed the locks on their home, he asks Frances whether she ever slept with both her lover and him on the same day: “Because officially that would mean you were gang banged.” He tells Frances that he is going to make her miserable: “And more to the point I’m going to make our children hate you.”

Divorce is written by Sharon Horgan and executive produced by Sarah Jessica Parker, who also plays Frances. It would be difficult – and unfair – to argue that this is a dramedy in which female perspectives on relationships have been sidelined. Even so there’s something about Robert’s embrace of misogyny, almost as a form of liberation following years of repression, I find deeply discomforting. It’s not unfamiliar territory in TV shows or films relating to the topic of separation, but still it leaves me, as a viewer, on edge.

I grew up with an awareness of late 20th-century films – Kramer versus Kramer, The War of the Roses, Mrs Doubtfire – in which the divorce of a heterosexual couple was presented as, at best, a war between two equally matched opponents, and at worst as the cruel victimisation of a hapless man by a vindictive woman. More recently my children watched 2006’s Night at the Museum, in which Ben Stiller plays the poor divorced man whose mean ex-wife can’t see that he’s doing his best for their son.

Whether it’s intentional or not, I can’t help getting the feeling that all too often stories of heterosexual divorce are being used to present a counter-narrative to feminism. In Divorceland there’s no such thing as structural oppression. On the contrary, perhaps men are finally showing themselves to be the real victims of the so-called gender wars while women have too many rights.   

In many ways this isn’t surprising. Marriage has traditionally been a means by which men appropriate female domestic and reproductive labour — divorce has become a means by which women can withdraw it (a recent US study showed almost 70 per cent of divorces are initiated by women). While studies suggest that marriage is more beneficial for men than for women, the reverse is true for divorce. Divorce and child custody laws have thus been the central political focus of the men’s rights movement. While women fight for basic bodily autonomy, men scale buildings dressed as Batman, railing against the injustice of women and children being treated as anything other than the spoils of their own personal battles.  

Feminism has meant that men’s assumed rights both within and after marriage have eroded. A couple’s children are no longer presumed to be the husband’s property and marital rape has been illegal in the UK since 1991 and throughout the US since 1993. Still, the assumptions of what marriage should mean for a straight man remain deeply ingrained. In her essay In Praise of the Threat: What Marriage Equality Really Means, Rebecca Solnit suggests that same-sex marriage will help straight women by transforming “a hierarchical relationship into an egalitarian one.” I am less convinced. I think it will take more than an awareness of the incoherence and illogicality of their demands to stop straight men subconsciously expecting submission from their wives and partners.

In Horgan’s script Frances is, ostensibly, the baddie due to her affair. Robert even makes this role reversal — and his own feminisation — explicit by telling her “you’re the villain here […] you’re Jesse James and I’m Sandra Bullock.” Perhaps there’s no means of capturing and conveying the gendered context of a relationship that has spanned many years. Does an affair erase a million daily assumptions regarding work, childcare and emotional caretaking? How much does the “henpecked” husband still benefit from his public status within a gender hierarchy? How much can a woman do before millennia of dehumanisation become an irrelevance?

At one point Frances and Robert try counselling. In the waiting room Frances encounters a woman with a black eye, with the suggestion that this is from her male partner. Is this a nod to the broader power imbalance between men and women? Or a reinforcement of the idea that Frances is self-indulgent and never realised how lucky she was to be with a man who did not hit her? 

Women are not natural victims. There is no reason why, in fiction as in life, they cannot be the person who does most harm within a relationship. Yet I wonder about the way in which our understanding of “fairness” feeds into assumptions of when and where it is acceptable to pretend social hierarchies no longer exist. Frances’s friend tells her Robert is “a monster”: “You need to destroy him before he destroys you.” This may be a darkly humorous comment on exaggerated emotions, but it’s one that pushes the viewer into a corner where sympathy for Frances starts to feel like a form of extremism. We need to tread more carefully than that. There is a real battle of the sexes, with real blood and real deaths. The stories we tell each other matter.

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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