The nasty noughties: Russell Brand and the era of sadistic tabloid misogyny

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The nasty noughties: Russell Brand and the era of sadistic tabloid misogyny

Post by Stevyn » Tue Sep 19, 2023 8:47 pm

The nasty noughties: Russell Brand and the era of sadistic tabloid misogyny ... d-misogyny

The allegations against Russell Brand that surfaced at the weekend and which he has denied – that he is a rapist, a groomer, possessed of a nihilistic sense of impunity – appear concrete and specific, and could terminate in criminal proceedings. In the end, as fellow hero of the conspiracist manosphere Andrew Tate has discovered, the law doesn’t care about your YouTube rebuttals or how many cheerleaders you have on TikTok.

The media context that created and rewarded Brand doesn’t alter his accountability, minimise any of the accusations or even carry much weight in the establishment of his culpability, but it does demand examination.

When we talk about “hiding in plain sight”, we often understand that to mean a celebrity was protected and enabled by others in the industry, because that is easier to swallow than the material we all watched, all enabled. Brand’s 2006 tour Shame, for example, featured a routine about choking someone during oral sex that had no components of humour. It was only “funny” because we were watching: the humour was created by our collusion, in much the same way as his 2007 memoir, My Booky Wook, dressed up audacity – “I just described spitting on a woman and dared you to react” – as inventiveness, and only got away with it because, no, we didn’t dare.

The writer James Butler remembers the “ironic, nihilist, hypersadist mass culture of the mid-late 00s”, when Brand was doing his first nationwide standup tour, taking part in the Royal Variety Performance and recording a special for Comedy Central. This was a time when tabloids were completely unrestrained in their misogyny, and sexual violence was not just the topic of jokes nor the jumping-off point, but the entire joke. It was considered pearl-clutching, joy-killing, to object to a rape joke, just as it was thought – correctly – to be career-ending to allege sexual assault against someone more powerful, who would be openly joking about it by the next day anyway.

This is frequently traced back to the birth of lad culture in the mid-90s, which itself tends now to be characterised as a reaction against “feminism gone too far”. In fact, the atmospherics and the underlying philosophies of the 90s lad were very different from the 00s version; perhaps the conflation of the two has blinded us to how much changed between the 20th and 21st centuries.

A word, first, on how much has remained the same. Laura Bates, the author of Men Who Hate Women and the founder in 2012 of Everyday Sexism, cautions: “Everybody is talking about this culture of the past, how these moments from the 2000s would be outrageous and unacceptable in the media now. It’s like those people have forgotten that, in the last two years, we’ve seen one of our biggest-selling newspapers wonder whether a senior British politician is uncrossing and crossing her legs to distract Boris Johnson, and has just recently printed a column wishing that Meghan could be paraded down the streets and pelted with excrement.”

But there are things that newspapers did 15 or 20 years ago that they would no longer do today. In 2002, anonymous people on the internet started a countdown to the 16th birthday of Charlotte Church, which was reported in the Sun and the Mirror, with that cloak of plausible deniability that the online world had so recently gifted the mainstream media: “We didn’t make this – we’re merely telling you it happened.” In 2008, photographers lay on the pavement outside the venue where Emma Watson was celebrating her 18th birthday, to take pictures up her skirt that it would have been illegal to print 24 hours before. It is unlikely that the titles would get away with that now. But, likewise, I find it very hard to imagine newspapers skating that sex-offender tightrope in the 90s, still less the 80s. So what exactly had happened?

The phrase “lad culture” was born in 1993, in an article by Sean O’Hagan, but its ultimate poster boy was James Brown, who launched Loaded and recently wrote Animal House, a memoir of his career that is incredibly evocative of the era.

It was explicitly a reaction, not against feminism, but against the way men were conceived by magazine media prior to that. “One of the most central points to it was humour,” Brown tells me. “The perspective of American-led men’s magazines before Loaded was everything was incredibly serious and uptight: you had to look impeccably smart, you had to spend a lot of money on design-led clothing. GQ would have Michael Heseltine on the cover, Esquire would have Martin Amis, and these guys didn’t mean anything to me. I was discovering Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.” Loaded created this unifying cultural edifice around “men who were falling apart a little bit,” Brown says. “Politically aware men” who were “going out, getting pissed, jumping on top of cars”.

Even though it was very accepting of the non-Rolex-wearing male experience, it wasn’t intended to be an exclusive male space and it wasn’t for misfits. “We weren’t those nerdy guys. We would never have run an article saying how to chat up a woman,” says Brown.

Michael Hogan was the features editor on Sky magazine, which went from a style title to being considered part of the lad-mag stable. He describes the reader they had in mind in the late 90s: “He was aged 16 to 25, maybe a student or early in his career, hedonistic and humorous. He probably had a group of mixed-gender friends, lads and ‘ladettes’, hanging out together. That was key at the time. Sky’s unique pitch was that it wasn’t a flat-out lad mag – it was unisex.”

Brown remembers that Loaded would be the first magazine to interview Page 3 models and shoot them with clothes on. I remember from the time precisely why we didn’t object to lad mags, from a feminist perspective. It was partly because they were genuinely funny and surreal, with a comic hinterland that was, as Brown describes, “Withnail and I, the Likely Lads, Naked Gun” – and who didn’t find that funny?

It was also down to the fact that there was no sense of combat between men and women. There was a baseline assumption that we were all laughing at the same thing. This was an era in which the highest value was in not taking yourself too seriously. This reflected the economic and geopolitical context: the debt bubble that would bite us in 2007 was making everything, from flights across the world to pints in a newly liberalised licensing culture, much cheaper, and the cold war had ended. Nobody was singing pop songs about nuclear annihilation – they were singing about zig-a-zig-ah. It was a time marked by its hedonism, the casualty of which was earnestness. None of that would have worked if it hadn’t been genuinely funny.

Hogan says: “With Loaded and Sky, humour was central. Comedians were the new rock’n’roll. All the stuff we liked was tongue-in-cheek and ironic, aware of itself and its own ridiculousness. We worked really hard on headlines and picture captions being really funny. Articles were gonzo-style, goofy, gleeful, wilfully daft.” Brown has few regrets about this cultural era: “Using the word ‘bird’ too much, and constantly going on about drinking, those are the only things that were significantly different about my outlook back then.”

But the conversations we had then were whether or not it was feminist to wear fishnets. There was never any subtext of violence against women. By the late 00s, lad-mag controversies were of a completely different nature. Danny Dyer had an agony uncle column in Zoo that he used to advise a reader to cut his ex’s face to stop anyone else wanting her. Other advice was to set fire to a readers’s girlfriend’s pubic hair that he didn’t like. These were ghostwritten and as such can only really speak to the new mood in lad-mags, but two things had changed. One was a complete normalisation of violence against women and the other was a void where the humour used to be. The norm had been flipped: the argument in the 90s, that anything was fair game so long as it was funny, had turned into: “Anything is allowable, so long as I say it is funny.”

This was an era in which the tabloids were more or less untouchable; the hacking scandal didn’t break until 2011 and, in the meantime, it was much easier to get a ringside seat on disintegrations which would previously have been private. There appeared to be endless appetite for fallen female stories, a whole world waiting for Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears to publicly fail. There was precedent for this in the 90s: Paula Yates, who was persecuted ceaselessly. There was always this rider that she was a charismatic, knowing woman, participating in and even co-creating each scandal (that was the unspoken defence, anyway). By the time the press got to hounding Amy Winehouse, in the depths of her addiction, or Anna Nicole Smith, ridiculed until her death, no such defence was considered necessary.

This new spitefulness was self-perpetuating: the more women were vilified in the press, the more it was used as proof that there was an appetite to read about it. Part of the reason we didn’t react more strongly against that was, as Laura Bates says of today: “People collectively have a tendency to believe things are linear and progressive – that things are always getting better on a social justice scale, because the younger generation is naturally more progressive.”

Social media contributed to this coarsening in complex ways that weren’t easy to discern in real time. As the campaigner Angela Towers remembers, feminist online activism really took off in the early 2010s, with No More Page 3, Bates’s Everyday Sexism and other explosions of solidarity and empowerment that culminated in #MeToo. Simultaneously, though, the manosphere and the “incels” at its violent fringe were also exploding. You could kid yourself that things were improving because the platforms of who gets to be heard had been democratised, while, at the same time, that very democratisation had taken the brakes off mainstream tabloids. They didn’t have to account for their witch-hunts or upskirting; they could merely report that people were doing it on the internet. And – again, as a hangover from the morally relativistic 90s – none of it claimed to have any moral importance.

Nobody was explicitly saying misogyny was OK. Bates says: “I don’t think someone in a predatory position, behaving in an abhorrent way towards young girls, would have looked at the Sun and thought there was nothing wrong with their behaviour, but they would have looked at it and thought: ‘I’m going to get away with it.’”

We are still living with that contradiction, where, on the one hand, we think popular culture has evolved in the past 20 years, in so far as there are things from that era – not least Brand’s own book, My Booky Wook, which is full of images of misogynist violence that you would hope would never be printed in the mainstream now. On the other hand, we now have figures such as Tate who have extraordinary reach – his videos on TikTok have passed 11.4bn views – without having anything to do with traditional media. “The flooding effect is now doing the same job that irony was doing before,” Bates says. “Previously, you got people to engage because it’s just jokes. Now, if it’s being watched 11.4bn times, it doesn’t have to be a joke any more, because the strength is in numbers.”

There is a real-world effect. For the first time, in surveys about social attitudes, the “youngest cohort surveyed have significantly more extreme misogynist attitudes than the oldest”, Bates says. The illusion of progress has masked an accelerating descent into misogyny. If we look at the 00s and think times have changed for the better, we are just spinning ourselves the same false comfort.
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