I was in London giving a talk when I went on Twitter and read Jeremy Clarkson’s comments about Meghan Markle, where he wrote in the Sun that he was “dreaming of the day when she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant, ‘Shame!’ and throw lumps of excrement at her”. Even though the internet has erupted with condemnation of Clarkson, and rightly so, I read his comments with a sort of melancholic hopelessness rather than shock or astonishment.
Of course, I am appalled, too. I had a sleepless night thinking of how words such as these from someone with such significant media influence could legitimise the violent thoughts of other men, men who have until now not dared to speak or act out their violent fantasies and hatred against women. An extreme misogynistic ideology is on the rise, with incel culture intersecting with the hyper-nationalist, anti-feminist movement of the alt-right in promoting active hatred of women. In 2021 a gunman who shot down six people in Plymouth, Devon, including his mother and a three-year-old girl, was a dedicated follower of the incel movement. A report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) has shown that on average, a post about rape was published every 29 minutes to a prominent incel forum that has more than 17,000 members and 2.6 million visits a month. In the UK a woman is killed by a man every three days: just in the last two years, we have seen the violent killings of Sarah Everard, Zara Aleena, Megan Newborough and Sabina Nessa, all by men.
Such writing feels irresponsible. Brown and black girls around the world are at a higher risk of being murdered and killed. While we have seen collective outrage over these comments against Meghan Markle, she has status and a public platform: there will be many women who face similar abuse – or even worse – as a result of a well-known media figure making such misogynistic comments. We will not hear these stories.
Many of these violent acts of hatred against women of colour often go unnoticed due to “missing white woman syndrome”, where the pain and suffering of white women carries more weight in the media and in social consciousness. This is why we did not see much media coverage of Sabina Nessa’s violent murder, or those of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman (as compared with, say, that of Sarah Everard).
Words in the media can enable those with extreme views – evident everywhere from the hyper-sexualisation and objectification of women to the persistent stereotypes of black women that are seen in the tabloids. Last year, the Society of Editors, which represented British newspaper editors, went so far as to claim that the UK media was not racist or bigoted, and was forced to withdraw its comments six months later after it became clear that there was widespread disagreement. The media is uniquely placed to stop the violence before it starts, but instead it has encouraged aggression and disrespect against women of colour, amplifying and reinforcing ideas about white supremacy and hegemonic ideals of masculinity.
This is a systemic problem, and it seeps into many of our institutions. Clarkson’s words have only made the unspoken explicit and the unseen visible: an unequivocal admission of how women are perceived by many men and much of the media.
I am not surprised. I am saddened and afraid. But I’m also a tiny bit hopeful that the reaction to events such as this might mean that things can finally change.