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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle