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20 September 2023

Russell Brand’s career was defined by misogyny – and audiences delighted in it

What a comedian chooses to joke about is revealing – and has a bearing on the world at large.

By Megan Nolan

The Channel 4 Dispatches programme that on 16 September, in collaboration with the Times and the Sunday Times, accused the comedian Russell Brand of rape, sexual abuse and other predatory behaviour over a number of years, was titled In Plain Sight. The full phrase is, of course, “hidden in plain sight” – but very little hiding went on. While Brand has only now been accused of criminal behaviour – which he denies – his misogyny was hardly a secret.

It was for many years – the years that made him famous and wealthy – his most well-known trait. On panel shows and in stand-up shows, Brand routinely made jokes that demeaned women, reduced them to a punchline, and treated them as little more than sexual objects. Derision of women was a feature, not a flaw, of his career. Now multiple women have alleged that Brand treated them as sexual objects within personal relationships, too.

[See also: Russell Brand: In Plain Sight made me sick with horror]

Sometimes you sense the indignation of powerful men when they are exposed, and you can almost understand their outrage. It must feel very strange to be rewarded for something for most of your life and then suddenly be punished for it. Brand bragged about his sexual impropriety for years – but now women are speaking publicly about their alleged sexual experiences with him, he has brusquely acted as though their accusations were an intrusion, offensive, gauche. In a video posted on his YouTube channel responding to the allegations, Brand balked at “this litany of astonishing, rather baroque attacks”. He went on: “As I have written about extensively in my books, I was very, very promiscuous. Now during that time of promiscuity, the relationships I had were absolutely, always consensual. I was always transparent about that then, almost too transparent, and I am being transparent about it now as well.”

I’ve written numerous times in defence of promiscuity, and know many people who have for long periods happily and respectfully slept around. Brand’s promiscuity is not the issue. The issue – even aside from the recent serious allegations against him – is his consistent mockery and belittlement of the women he had sex with. The stand-up routine, played on Dispatches, in which he boasts about his love for blow jobs that cause a woman to gag. The time, on BBC radio, when he phoned the famous grandfather of a woman he had slept with, and, without her consent, joked about it, making up a song that rhymed “consensual” and “menstrual”. The sections in his memoirs where he reduces women to mere numbers (“four in the bed, two in the kitchen, three in the hot tub and still the doorbell rings”) or details “a kind of weary, half-hearted” encounter with a sex worker in which he grabbed the mobile phone out of her hand and smashed it against a wall.

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Brand is obviously bright: he’s canny, and aware of how to wrangle his charisma and magnetism to great effect. And such charismatic, provocative misogyny has long been popular with audiences. I myself dabbled in Brand fandom when I was young – but it never quite took. I do not mean this to suggest that I held any unusual prescience about the allegations (which an unseemly number of men are relishing the chance to claim right now, irritatingly). Rather, although he had many of the qualities I found alluring – effete, wordy, angular, unpredictable – he also possessed an uncomfortable artifice. I laughed along a bit and read his book, but never felt connected to him or experienced the devotion that others did. Part of this was distaste on my part for Brand’s profligate wordplay, which has always felt like a uniquely English indulgence. His tiring over-eloquence seemed to be a well-judged obfuscation for a lack of intellectual brilliance.

But Brand’s banal verbal incontinence was at times met with patronising and even counter-intuitively classist praise. Middle-class, academic leftists congratulated Brand on his working-class background, marvelling that someone with star power should want to join them at their protests, and insisted that his verbose effluence was not only brilliant but capable of radicalising a previously disengaged working-class youth vote.

In this way his working-class background became embroiled in a circular logic with his misogyny, where Brand’s sexism was condescendingly validated by his class credentials and vice versa. Brand can’t help speaking about women that way, that’s just what someone with his background is like, people seemed to shrug – neglecting to recognise that this is not a condition of working-class people. In this way, he was allowed to be openly misogynistic for years, with anyone who objected to his presence dismissed as stuffy, classist or incapable of humour.

But humour is not a neutral concept. What a comedian chooses to joke about is notable, as all artistic choices have meaning and bear relationships to the world outside themselves. This doesn’t necessarily mean you are revealing dark personal truths about yourself when you tell a joke on stage (though both the US comedian Louis CK and now Brand joked about sexual misbehaviours they later stood accused of). It does, however, mean that what we choose to make fun of has meaning. What we may optimistically interpret as satire is often just further propagation, especially when it comes to something as ancient and insidious as misogyny.  

[See also: Inside the mind of Andrew Tate]

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This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers