In lockdown, I finally stopped experiencing everyday sexism. But on TV, misogyny is everywhere

I had been having an enjoyable evening with a silly movie, and then – boom – misogyny. 

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If misogyny had a slogan (not that it needs one, it hasn’t fallen out of fashion for thousands of years), it’d be: “Misogyny! It’s everywhere!” It’s in the street when you’re walking to an important meeting in a new top, and it’s in that meeting when a male colleague repeats the same point you made, only apparently, this time, it’s interesting.

Like every woman, I’ve experienced my fair share of misogyny and sexism over the years. As an intern at a reputable ­Sunday newspaper, a withered and rotting old man told me a story about a reporter whose ­nipples had been photographed for the ­paper and then asked: “Would you be ­willing to do that?” Now, as a successful non-nipple-flashing technology reporter, I’m called a bitch and slut by countless men on the internet.

Then the global pandemic put everything on pause. Many things disappeared when we went into lockdown earlier this year: hugs, parties, McNuggets. As meetings went virtual, and I stopped walking down busy streets, my encounters with sexism, misogyny and sexual harassment disappeared, too. I no longer had to worry about the man at my volunteering job who insisted on hugging me (and only me) ­hello. Sexists even had to retire their favourite catchphrase: “Smile, love, it might never happen.”

Instead, I’ve spent a lot of this year watching TV. According to the UK’s media watchdog Ofcom, screen time has risen by more than a third compared to 2019, and the average adult spent nearly 45 hours a week watching online content during the height of lockdown. Streaming services such as ­Netflix and Disney+ experienced a boom, while BBC iPlayer attracted a record 570 million viewers in May. As I imagine many others did, I turned to TV for a bit of escapism – but I didn’t always find it.

During the pandemic, I’ve become ­extremely sensitive to on-screen ­misogyny, perhaps because it’s some of the only misogyny left in my life. The other night, I watched the 2015 action-comedy Kingsman: The Secret Service and enjoyed it up until the last five minutes. The final gag in the film (which is an homage to, and satire of, the silly spy movies of the 20th century) sees a Swedish princess promise our heroic spy anal sex. Before the credits begin to roll, we see the princess – who, as the only world leader to resist the thrall of the movie’s villain, has been in captivity for weeks – roll over and reveal her bum.

It was a throwaway dirty joke, sure, but it was a throwaway dirty joke that reminded me that men hate women, all from the ­comfort of my living room. At the time, ­the film’s director Matthew Vaughn responded to critics by claiming to be satirising James Bond’s antics of old, but he could’ve done so in a way that didn’t, yet again, reduce a woman to a sex object. To put the sexist icing on the sexist cake, Vaughn then told Entertainment Weekly that the scene was “a celebration of women” and lamented: “Some bloody feminists are accusing me of being a misogynist.”

My reaction to the gag was visceral and immediate: I just felt really, really sad. I had been having an enjoyable evening with a silly movie, escaping the reality that our world is, literally and metaphorically, on fire, and then – boom – misogyny. But Kingsman isn’t the only piece of pop culture that ­reminded me of how men view women during a time that I, personally, was experiencing less sexism.

Take, for example, Below Deck, a reality show that follows a group of crew members who work and live on a yacht, as they cater for wealthy guests. The show, which has been running for seven years, exploded in popularity over lockdown thanks to the first and second seasons being put on Netflix. Shamefully, I’ve watched seven seasons of the stuff over not nearly as many months, and thus I’ve been able to spot a pattern: when a woman rejects a man’s ­advances, he often responds by insulting and belittling her.

In season five, chef Matt takes out stewardess Brianna. Their beach date doesn’t go well and when Brianna gently rejects Matt (“I don’t want to make things awkward”) he flips, calling her “a horrible date” and “an asshole” (not five minutes earlier, he’d said, “I consider myself very lucky to be here with you”). In the first series of spin-off Below Deck: Mediterranean, a deckhand named Bryan kisses a stewardess named Tiffany. When she is then reluctant to “bang” (his words), he calls her a “hood rat”, “a crazy dragon” and a “drunk bitch”.

We already know that some men respond to rejection with anger and violence – we’ve seen the headlines, read the studies and statistics, been called bitches and sluts. But to see this so starkly on screen, repeated over and over again (these are far from the only instances of this kind of behaviour on Below Deck), is shocking and uncomfortable. If you were being generous, you could say the show sheds light on problems faced by women in the yachting industry, but it does so by making its cast social media stars.

One crew member who featured in the show’s last series (which finished in January) now has more than 154,000 Instagram followers. He has been filmed forcing kisses on a stewardess, punching a window out of anger, and asking another male crew member: “Did you slap her with your dick?”

Reality TV is a misnomer: more often than not, viewers are watching structured and sensationalised scenes. Yet the misogyny in Below Deck was all too real, as it was in Kingsman. This is to say nothing of what goes on behind the scenes, or how many critically acclaimed films continue to feature few women with even fewer lines. In lockdown, TV and film reminded me of a world I’d left behind. As the slogan should read: Misogyny! It’s everywhere! 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent

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