Thursday, 6 June 2013

Why do women enjoy shaming Kate Winslet?

The happy news that Kate Winslet is expecting a child by her third husband, a man who likes to call himself "Ned Rocknroll", has attracted some rather catty coverage. In the Mail, Alison Boshoff takes aim at a "celebrity paradox" whose "glossy composure" and "English Rose charm" contrasts with her "spectacularly chaotic private life", the evidence for which is not only that, aged 37, she's already on her third husband but (more significantly, I think) that she will boast a child by all of them.  "Even by the easy-come, easy-go standards of modern showbusiness," claims Boshoff, "to have chalked up three marriages and three children by three different men, all before you hit 40, is going some." 

Indeed, we're told, Winslet has been subjected to online abuse by "middle-class mothers" (the Mail's target demographic, of course) who have been calling her "3x3" and comparing her to Ulrika Jonsson, who has managed the even more striking feat of giving birth to four children by four different men.  It's a sign of the amnesiac times we're living in, incidentally, that Winslet's creditable determination to uphold the great Hollywood tradition of serial monogamy (she has another four men to go to match Elizabeth Taylor's matrimonial tally) should lead to comparisons with a minor television personality.  The woman has an Oscar, for God's sake.

Still, we mustn't imagine that Winslet is a slut.  As Boshoff goes on to explain, "People who know Kate say her problem is simple: she's a hopeless romantic who loves to be in love and as never outgrown girlish dreams of finding a Mr Absolutely Right."  Not that that means she's blameless, though.  "Nothing in her upbringing can be blamed for causing this skittish nature," Boshoff tuts.

The Telegraph's Judith Woods also has her claws out, adding her own charming little concern-porn angle.   In her eyes, Winslet is that worst of all modern sinners, a bad role model.  Won't anyone think of the children?

What her daughter, in particular, makes of Winslet’s revolving-door relationships can only be guessed at. But to the outside world, Kate, it just looks tacky.  Three children by three different fathers doesn’t look good on anyone. To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: to have children by two men may be regarded as a misfortune, to have children by three looks like carelessness.  I know that you are a woman of grand, towering passions and deep, gushy emotion, but you are steering perilously close to clinching the Ulrika Jonsson Dysfunctionality Award for Services to Broken Britain.

Wood goes on to compare Winslet's private life to an episode of Shameless.  But tempting as it is to assimilate a multi-millionairess to a "benefit scrounger" living on a council estate, the type whose taxpayer-funded breeding regularly brings the Mail out in convulsions, the difference is stark.  Winslet's children will lack for nothing.  Her wealth and talent allows her the freedom to follow her romantic star.  She doesn't depend financially on the men she leaves behind any more than she depends on the state.  Therefore she's under no obligation to settle for what she considers second best, or to stay shackled to a marriage after the passion dies.  Lucky her. 

What's really tacky, of course, is all this SEO-friendly moralising.  A response by Zoe Margolis flags up the slut-shaming and double-standards involved in censuring a woman's sexual choices in a way that would never be done to a man.  As she quite rightly says,

Women are routinely chastised for how they look, what they do for a living, whether they have children (or not), and who they are intimate with, with rules that do not apply to men. Can you imagine Woods feeling the need to write an article about a male celebrity describing him as having “revolving-door relationships” that are “tacky”? Or accusing him of being a bad father just because he’s having another child with a different person?

And she goes on to draw a political message:

Writing a personal attack on a woman, celebrity or not, contributes to women’s oppression; these type of comment pieces – which feature all too regularly in the press and across blogs now – impact how women are treated in society: when women fear judgement if they don’t conform to the sexist stereotype of how they should behave, it means they are not free.
But in condemning "this sexist double standard," Margolis omits to mention that the authors of these pieces are almost invariably women.  As are the presumed readers - not to mention the "middle class mothers" making snide remarks on Facebook.  The underlying feminist assumption is not simply that women are oppressed, but that women are oppressed by men and by the phallocentric, hegemonic structures (aka "the patriarchy") by which men have always ensured their dominance.  I don't imagine that most men care two hoots about Kate Winslet's private life. 

Rather as in the case of the fashion industry, which is also said to oppress women but which also appears to an outsider to be largely run by and for women, one is left wonder, then, how it can be that women have so obligingly done the patriarchy's work for it, without any discernible shove from the men?  Is it all a subtle strategem cooked up by the patriarchy's equivalent of the Bilderberg Group?  But perhaps the problem should be put differently.  If, as seems more likely, this sexual oppression of women through the medium of slut-shaming and gossip is a quintessentially female phenomenon, is there anything that can usefully be done to prevent it?

The fashion industry is a useful parallel.  Much is said and written about how fashion imposes certain bodily ideals on women, which leads to a lack of confidence and self-hatred among the vast majority who don't measure up.  Although men, too, are these days increasingly being subjected to some of the same pressures, the fashion industry is frequently denounced by feminists as tool of sexual oppression.  I doubt it.  Few people will have been really surprised by another story the other day, which found that women spend much longer getting dressed and made up for a night out with the girls than they do for an evening with their husband or boyfriend - and, indeed, that most will freely admit the elements of friendly competition and group bonding that these grooming rituals involve.  But of course.  It stands to reason that you'd rather make an effort getting dressed for someone who's likely to appreciate it. 

Homo sapiens is a hierarchical species, and oppression and hierarchy still tend to be intra- rather than inter-sex.  Men oppress men, playing out complex games of dominance that ultimately have very little to do with impressing a potential mate.  Women oppress women, policing their behaviour, punishing deviation and imposing stringent social norms on their sisters (the feminist movement is no exception here). Doubtless there are good evolutionary reasons for all this: the threat posed by "predatory" women eyeing up other women's men, perhaps or the way that promiscuous women might lower the price of sex to men to the disadvantage of "good girls". But given that such rationales no longer apply to the modern sexually egalitarian West, it's surprising that slut-shaming remains such a popular sport.

What is easiest to miss, though, is the sheer pleasure that comes from discoursing disapprovingly on the social and sexual mores of other people, whether they're your friends, those scuzzy people who live down the road, or glamorous celebrities you read about in the papers.  Jealousy, disapproval and the thrill of intimate gossip all come together in an irresistible combination.  In that sense, Kate Winslet is just like that feckless single mother who enters her twenties with four differently-sired infants and a council flat.