“I do it because he’s paranoid and wants to have me branded.” These are the words of Kourtney Leigh, who has the name of her boyfriend, Ryan Wibberley, tattooed across her forehead.
According to Wibberley, she is not the first of his girlfriends to have his name inscribed on their bodies, although none of the others have gone for quite so obvious a location. “It’s a laugh,” he tells the Sun, “It’s not taking advantage because they want it done.”
Should we be judging Leigh for consenting to be, as Wibberley puts it, “branded like Heinz Beans”? Or is it an act of devotion, perhaps not all that dissimilar to Johnny Depp’s famous “Winona forever” – now “wino forever” – tattoo? There might be a gendered context to this, but isn’t getting your partner’s name tattooed on your forehead on the same continuum as changing your name to his? Or reassuring him that the children you bear are definitely his? It’s all about ownership.
I’ve been with the same male partner for 16 years. I haven’t taken his name but our children have. Wasn’t my decision to mark them out as his also a form of Heinz Beans-eque branding? Certainly I consider it an un-, if not anti-feminist decision on my part. It’s a concession to a culture in which men’s obsession with paternity comes at the cost of female sexual and reproductive freedom.
Nevertheless, my sons will come to see their names as their own, in the same way that I see my name as mine, not my father’s. The compromise I have made has symbolic repercussions but does not come at a high personal cost (which is all the more reason for me to feel bad about it). I don’t think this is the case with Leigh and Wibberley. What is happening here is far more disturbing.
While both The Sun and Metro have adopted a light-hearted, “aren’t people funny?” tone in their coverage of this story, I don’t find it amusing at all. On the contrary, I think what we are witnessing is the sanitisation of coercive control. Wibberley met Leigh shortly after leaving prison for affray, making threats with a bladed article and theft. The tattooing is something he carries out himself (“I just get pissed up and I get my tattoo gun out”). In Leigh’s own words, “he thinks it’ll put other men off.”
Leigh and Wibberley have already appeared on the Jeremy Kyle show under the headline “Why would I cheat on you? I’ve got your name tattood on my face!” Just like the men who storm on stage screaming at “slags” who “need to prove that baby’s mine”, Wibberley is treated as a part-villain, part-jester. Leigh, meanwhile, is relegated to the role of comedy dupe. Male jealousy is treated as an amusing quirk, not something which leads to men abusing and even murdering ex-partners and children. What happens to women such as Leigh when the cameras stop rolling is of little interest to the baying studio audience. She chose to be with Wibberley; she chose to have that tattoo; why should we care? (And as for all the other women who make similar choices, even the ones who end up dead, why care about them, either?)
But we have to care. I am tired of the way in which the compromises all of us make with male power are used to indulge a lazy, hands-off moral relativism which dismisses actual abuse as a woman’s free choice. Living with a jealous, possessive man who wants me to tattoo his name on my forehead may not be my own, personal “lived experience”; I still reserve the right to judge what is happening here as wrong.
No man who boasts of branding his partner “like Heinz Beans” should simply be dismissed as a figure of fun. He is not some comical detail in life’s rich tapestry. It’s time for newspapers and TV producers to stop trivialising the abuse that is right there in front of us.