Fleet Street Fox's hypocritical misogyny

Women should stop denigrating women, says columnist. In a column denigrating women.

Do you know why girls don’t run the world? The Mirror’s columnist Fleet Street Fox does, and it’s one of those truth bombs so powerful, it can only be dropped from the protective cage of a saucy-sounding pseudonym. The problem is that were all such goddamn bitches. It’s women, not men, who run other women down, according to the Fox – in a piece that’s substantially dedicated to running other women down:

“Another woman will think it's all right to sleep with a man who's already taken. Another woman will compete with you – whether you like it or not – to wear the nicest shoes, the best dress, and be seen as just better according to the unwritten set of rules females carry around in their heads.”

This women-beware-women stuff is textbook. Here’s a version of it from Forbes. Here’s Esther Rantzen in 2006, declaring that she “will not remain in silent solidarity with my sex” to cover up the issue of workplace bullying by women. And let’s not forget (or link to) the Samantha Brick “why do the other girls hate my beautiful face?” neverending opus.

If female aggression is a dirty secret, then we’ve hidden it badly – a pair of grubby knickers floating around on the carpet somewhere between the laundry basket and the washing machine. The fact that there’s a specific word to describe (and deride) female aggression makes it obvious that the Fox isn’t breaking new frontiers in anthropology when she accuses other women of bitchiness.

But she is a pioneer in hypocritical misogyny. Jump back to that quote: “Another woman will think it’s all right to sleep with a man who’s already taken.” Whose sexual propriety is under attack in that formulation? The other woman’s. Who’s a helpless victim of the woman’s floozy lure? The “taken” man – never mind that he would be the only one in this imaginary coupling with any obligation to be faithful to anyone.

The column tips a pair of implied expectations upside-down. Women? Not as nice as they’re supposed to be. Men? Nice. Really, really nice. Men listen. Men are supportive. The Fox makes a few token references to some female friends with whom she isn’t engaged in perpetual psychological warfare, but the overriding impression is that she sees herself as a man’s woman.

She’s not like the other girls, who smile sweetly as they drag each other down by the hair extensions to get ahead. She tells the truth about intra-gender warfare. She’s opening a window so the lovely boys can look into our savage female hearts – and see her, um, pulling down other girls by the hair extensions, or in this case armpit hair.

The topical motivation for the column is this: Amanda Holden has said that she watched Tulisa’s sex tape after Alesha Dixon sent her a link. “How grubby, how bitchy, how many new tips did they pick up?” sneers the Fox. Holden participating in the invasion of another woman’s privacy is unpleasant (as an exemplary tabloid journalist, I’m sure Fleet Street Fox has never done anything so grubby as watch a celebrity sex tape), but if you watch the chat show where Holden discusses this, it’s obvious that this isn’t just a girl-on-girl crime.

David Walliams makes a joke about the tape, Holden sniggers, and host Alan Carr gigglingly urges the conversation in that direction – the exchange lasts about 90 seconds, and the men are just as active as Holden. In the same way the Tulisa sex tape has been portrayed as an amusing instance of female sluttiness, rather than the betrayal of a very young woman by a vicious ex (as Tulisa explained, in a composed and affecting YouTube response), the actions of the men who shared the stage and the sniggering with Holden are ignored – they get off lightly in Barbara Ellens take too. Who gets the blame? The women in the picture. Because men are just so nice, aren’t they?

The Fox’s second example of lady scapegoating comes from disgusted Twitter reactions to the brilliant Vagenda writer Emer OToole’s display of armpit hair on This Morning. (The Fox claims that all the bile came from women, but one of the tweets pictured seems to be from a man, so bang goes that generalisation. Again.) “I too felt a little queasy… and caught myself thinking that she wouldn't be able to get away with it if she weren't pretty,” writes the Fox – and even though she goes on to argue that women need to give up the pretence of physical perfection, she also stresses that “It's not going to change any time soon, because humans have been removing 'uncivilised' body hair since the days of Ancient Greece.”

In other words, don’t worry boys: this Fox is hairless and in no way a threat to your gender conventions! Right the way through, Fleet Street Fox is claiming two contradictory but dependent things: that she’s a typical example of femininity (which by her account means bitchiness with a Ladyshave), and that she’s standing outside the mass of women by telling the truth. In other words, this is a massive wink and wiggle at patriarchy: love me because I’m an exception, and love me because I won’t challenge any of your beliefs about gender. She is a fox, after all.

That pseudonym reminds me of something else Tulisa related: the singer’s nickname is “the Female Boss”, because (Tulisa told the Guardian) “[the band] used to say if there was any other girl in this group, they would just get walked all over from head to toe”. It’s another version of the not-like-all-the-other-girls manoeuvre pulled by Fleet Street Fox, and by Margaret Thatcher before her in her “Iron Lady” guise.

Femininity is endemically associated with weakness, but a woman whose strength is interpreted as unfeminine becomes a despicable non-person. One way for women to succeed in ferociously male environments (politics, grime music, tabloid journalism) is to become a kind of hyper-feminine “female-plus”: sufficiently girlish that you don’t threaten the underlying principles of boy club, but with an edge that explains why you’re the one-off who should be allowed in.

If the Fox genuinely thought women were being held back solely by their attacks on each other (or genuinely thought it mattered), then she wouldn’t have written a column attacking other women. The fact that she’s done so tells us either that she doesn’t really think “the only reason we're not running the world is because we're so busy running each other down”, or that she doesn’t care. After all, there are plenty of rewards for women who’ll rip strips off each other, just as there are for male bullies and sociopaths, whether or not they’re representative of the rest of the population.

Sarah Ditum is a freelance journalist. She lives in Bath and blogs at her website.

Amanda Holden attends the launch of at BFI Southbank on March 22, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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