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2 June 2016

The story of Brad and Jenny: why boyfriends humiliate girlfriends for social media fame

Brad Holmes rubs chilli on his girlfriend Jenny Davies’ tampon and becomes a media sensation – but why does she put up with it?

By Amelia Tait

Jenny Davies is “Britain’s stupidest female”. At least, that’s what the Google search result for those three words would lead you to believe. The top result, a video of her failing to answer a series of trivia questions, has been viewed nearly 93,000 times in six months. But her stupidity isn’t that she thinks the capital of Belgium is Finland, it’s that the video – and indeed its title of Britain’s Stupidest Female – was conceived, filmed, and uploaded by her own fiancé.

Jenny is just one of many women whose apparent ignorance has made headlines around the world. From “Boy stumps his girlfriend with simple maths question” to “Watch as mother-of-two is stumped by this one simple question (in a video posted by her fiancé)”, there are a plethora of popular videos and articles featuring females being humiliated by their other halves.

However, 23-year-old Jenny is slightly more ubiquitous than most. She has variously lamented that she doesn’t want Donald Trump “to be our prime minister”, got angry at algebra, and been forced to answer trivia about WW2 before her boyfriend would propose. Recently, she was in the news again after her now-fiancé, Brad Holmes, “pranked” her by rubbing a chilli pepper on her tampon. But as the world collectively gasped, “Why would anyone do that?”, they forgot to ask one question: “Hey, yeah, actually, why would anyone do that? Especially to someone they love?”

“Recent evidence shows a trend of increased desire for fame among younger individuals,” says Dr Sharon Coen, a senior lecturer in media psychology at the University of Salford. “In the UK, 16 per cent of children between 16 and 19 years old believed they would be famous, and 11 per cent planned to stop formal education in pursuit of fame.”

It doesn’t seem to matter, to Brad or the countless others like him, that they risk humiliation alongside this fame. In actual fact, it seems as if having – or being – a “dumb” girlfriend isn’t actually that humiliating at all. “Whenever I need cheering up I just ask her a general knowledge question,” Dave Mapp told the Daily Mail after his fiancée, Lauren Macklin failed to figure out how long it would take to drive 80 miles at 80 miles an hour in a viral video. In the same article, Lauren says she is happy to be called “ditzy”.

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Dr Coen therefore theorises that, at least for Brad, the risk of humiliation is actually quite low. “Pranks are a way for Brad to claim his superiority to the the fiancé and display his ability in conducting the pranks, so I would say, yes, the benefits of fame would override the threat,” she says.

And with 711,103 Facebook followers, and coverage in all the major British tabloids, it seems Brad’s quest for fame is paying off. But as Jenny herself is often referred to as merely “his girlfriend” in the headlines, and only has a tenth of his followers on her own page “Brad’s Girlfriend” (a name which is troubling in itself), it’s easy to wonder: what’s in it for her?

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“Research shows that people who have a strong need to feel like they belong to a social group tend to be more attracted to fame in general,” says Dr Coen. “Maybe she thinks that once she gets famous (no matter how) she can negotiate her image while enjoying the advantages?”

Of course, there’s a precedent for why Jenny might seek fame in this way. From Marilyn Monroe to Paris Hilton, the trope of the brainless beauty has always been popular in western media. But whereas these women have made millions from playing dumb, Jenny seems to profit only by posting sponsored, pay-per-click links to her Facebook page. Even then, with his hundreds of thousands more followers, it is Brad who is earning most.

But beyond worrying about the consequences for Jenny, who after all, continues to have a starring role in both Brad’s videos and life, the modern iteration of this trope also has its effects on the public.

“Stop fucking with her head and shag her ffs,” says the second most liked comment on a video in which Jenny fails to answer the question, “What relation would your father’s sister’s sister-in-law be to you?”.

“If u have a man you best kno how to cook fuk dat,” says a comment with 92 Likes on a clip of Jenny trying to mash raw potatoes. Brad himself often makes an appearance in the comments section. “Those people calling her a thick cunt or whatever, she knows, loves it & so do I,” he wrote under a Pancake Day video in which Jenny forgets to add flour to the mix.

Comment sections are never a fun place for feminists, but these examples alone are a particularly painful insight into the gender prejudices that are alive and well today. Countless studies have shown that exposure to gender stereotypes in the media correlates with both stereotyped behaviours and attitudes in real life. Dr Coen believes Brad’s videos reinforce existing negative stereotypes and could inspire copycats, but whilst it’s difficult to say outright whether the videos can generate sexist beliefs, they certainly don’t challenge them.

This is particularly important now that traditional media is shying away from “bimbo” and “ditz” stereotypes. In 2004, journalist Alec Fogle lamented “The return of the dumb blonde” in his article of the same name, discussing the popularity of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Jessica Simpson. Two years later, men’s magazine FHM released “Out of the Mouths of Babes”, a book collating their popular feature in which readers shared the stupid things their wives and girlfriends said. But it’s 2016 now, and things have changed.

From the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, to rumours of a female James Bond, the mainstream media is definitely riding, if not leading, the wave of modern popular feminism. The TV Tropes page for “Brainless Beauty” shows that this character had its heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s. In a media landscape where traditional gender stereotypes are constantly being challenged, Brad and Jen cater for the audience that still crave them.

From the three million people who viewed “The Most Stupid Girl Fails” on YouTube, to the 637 subscribers of the subreddit r/RetardedGirlfriend, to the skyrocketing popularity of revenge porn, the public have a huge appetite for female humiliation. Masses of people are enjoying the new media keeping old tropes alive.

After the chilli tampon debacle, many people online claimed that writing about Brad was only giving him the publicity he desired. But this argument ignores one crucial fact. Brad doesn’t need the traditional media to make him famous. As long as the public enjoy watching women being humiliated, he will have an audience. The real question isn’t, therefore, “Why would anyone do that?”. More pressing is the question: “It’s 2016. Why is anyone still watching?”.