Do you know why girls don’t run the world? The Mirror’s columnist Fleet Street Fox does, and it’s one of those truth bombs so powerful, it can only be dropped from the protective cage of a saucy-sounding pseudonym. The problem is that we’re all such goddamn bitches. It’s women, not men, who run other women down, according to the Fox – in a piece that’s substantially dedicated to running other women down:
“Another woman will think it’s all right to sleep with a man who’s already taken. Another woman will compete with you – whether you like it or not – to wear the nicest shoes, the best dress, and be seen as just better according to the unwritten set of rules females carry around in their heads.”
This women-beware-women stuff is textbook. Here’s a version of it from Forbes. Here’s Esther Rantzen in 2006, declaring that she “will not remain in silent solidarity with my sex” to cover up the issue of workplace bullying by women. And let’s not forget (or link to) the Samantha Brick “why do the other girls hate my beautiful face?” neverending opus.
If female aggression is a dirty secret, then we’ve hidden it badly – a pair of grubby knickers floating around on the carpet somewhere between the laundry basket and the washing machine. The fact that there’s a specific word to describe (and deride) female aggression makes it obvious that the Fox isn’t breaking new frontiers in anthropology when she accuses other women of bitchiness.
But she is a pioneer in hypocritical misogyny. Jump back to that quote: “Another woman will think it’s all right to sleep with a man who’s already taken.” Whose sexual propriety is under attack in that formulation? The other woman’s. Who’s a helpless victim of the woman’s floozy lure? The “taken” man – never mind that he would be the only one in this imaginary coupling with any obligation to be faithful to anyone.
The column tips a pair of implied expectations upside-down. Women? Not as nice as they’re supposed to be. Men? Nice. Really, really nice. Men listen. Men are supportive. The Fox makes a few token references to some female friends with whom she isn’t engaged in perpetual psychological warfare, but the overriding impression is that she sees herself as a man’s woman.
She’s not like the other girls, who smile sweetly as they drag each other down by the hair extensions to get ahead. She tells the truth about intra-gender warfare. She’s opening a window so the lovely boys can look into our savage female hearts – and see her, um, pulling down other girls by the hair extensions, or in this case armpit hair.
The topical motivation for the column is this: Amanda Holden has said that she watched Tulisa’s sex tape after Alesha Dixon sent her a link. “How grubby, how bitchy, how many new tips did they pick up?” sneers the Fox. Holden participating in the invasion of another woman’s privacy is unpleasant (as an exemplary tabloid journalist, I’m sure Fleet Street Fox has never done anything so grubby as watch a celebrity sex tape), but if you watch the chat show where Holden discusses this, it’s obvious that this isn’t just a girl-on-girl crime.
David Walliams makes a joke about the tape, Holden sniggers, and host Alan Carr gigglingly urges the conversation in that direction – the exchange lasts about 90 seconds, and the men are just as active as Holden. In the same way the Tulisa sex tape has been portrayed as an amusing instance of female sluttiness, rather than the betrayal of a very young woman by a vicious ex (as Tulisa explained, in a composed and affecting YouTube response), the actions of the men who shared the stage and the sniggering with Holden are ignored – they get off lightly in Barbara Ellen’s take too. Who gets the blame? The women in the picture. Because men are just so nice, aren’t they?
The Fox’s second example of lady scapegoating comes from disgusted Twitter reactions to the brilliant Vagenda writer Emer O’Toole’s display of armpit hair on This Morning. (The Fox claims that all the bile came from women, but one of the tweets pictured seems to be from a man, so bang goes that generalisation. Again.) “I too felt a little queasy… and caught myself thinking that she wouldn’t be able to get away with it if she weren’t pretty,” writes the Fox – and even though she goes on to argue that women need to give up the pretence of physical perfection, she also stresses that “It’s not going to change any time soon, because humans have been removing ‘uncivilised’ body hair since the days of Ancient Greece.”
In other words, don’t worry boys: this Fox is hairless and in no way a threat to your gender conventions! Right the way through, Fleet Street Fox is claiming two contradictory but dependent things: that she’s a typical example of femininity (which by her account means bitchiness with a Ladyshave), and that she’s standing outside the mass of women by telling the truth. In other words, this is a massive wink and wiggle at patriarchy: love me because I’m an exception, and love me because I won’t challenge any of your beliefs about gender. She is a fox, after all.
That pseudonym reminds me of something else Tulisa related: the singer’s nickname is “the Female Boss”, because (Tulisa told the Guardian) “[the band] used to say if there was any other girl in this group, they would just get walked all over from head to toe”. It’s another version of the not-like-all-the-other-girls manoeuvre pulled by Fleet Street Fox, and by Margaret Thatcher before her in her “Iron Lady” guise.
Femininity is endemically associated with weakness, but a woman whose strength is interpreted as unfeminine becomes a despicable non-person. One way for women to succeed in ferociously male environments (politics, grime music, tabloid journalism) is to become a kind of hyper-feminine “female-plus”: sufficiently girlish that you don’t threaten the underlying principles of boy club, but with an edge that explains why you’re the one-off who should be allowed in.
If the Fox genuinely thought women were being held back solely by their attacks on each other (or genuinely thought it mattered), then she wouldn’t have written a column attacking other women. The fact that she’s done so tells us either that she doesn’t really think “the only reason we’re not running the world is because we’re so busy running each other down”, or that she doesn’t care. After all, there are plenty of rewards for women who’ll rip strips off each other, just as there are for male bullies and sociopaths, whether or not they’re representative of the rest of the population.
Sarah Ditum is a freelance journalist. She lives in Bath and blogs at her website.