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Why Do We Hate Some Women Celebrities? / For women
Do Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller, Victoria Beckham and others deserve the vitriol? And how do we decide who to hate?
Think of Keira Knightley. Now, what are you getting? Pretty in The Duchess? Ravishing in that green Atonement dress? Nope? Didn’t think so. Because, if you are like 90% of the female population, you thought of Keira Knightley and went straight to irritation, even hate. “Ugh! I can’t stand Keira,” is the customary reaction. It’s so common, in fact, that even Keira has spoken about her reputation for bringing women together in bonding bile-fests. “Well, I’m doing a good thing for women all over the country, then,” she said this summer. “I think that’s a very positive thing.”
In modern life there is an official list of likes and dislikes, and Keira is somewhere near the top of the dislike list, along with seal-clubbing, bendy buses and . . . a heck of a lot of other women in the public eye. We loathe these women. And when I say “we”, I don’t just mean teenage girls flicking through Hello!, but ordinary women, including mothers of girls Keira’s age. I was busy blithely “hating” Keira the other day (though not nearly as much as I’ve been known to “hate” Minnie Driver), when it dawned on me that something is not right if it has become perfectly normal to call up a girlfriend and, at some point, have a good bitch about a totally blameless stranger.
Rewind a month, and pole position was occupied not by Keira but by her friend Sienna Miller. (Someone, and you know it definitely wasn’t a man, even felt moved to sneak out in the night and spray-paint “slut” across the wall of her north London house.) Before that, it was Victoria Beckham. Then there was Rebecca Loos, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ulrika and Kate Beckinsale. Sometimes we attempt to identify good reasons for all this hostility — Keira is too skinny and therefore a bad role model; Zeta-Jones too spoilt — but none of them ever rings true. “I think if you put yourself in the public forum, then that’s what you put yourself up for, I guess,” said Knightley. But why her, as opposed to, say, the ever-lovable Kylie? And how do you explain the level of vitriol?
“It’s all about insecurity,” reckons the PR guru Max Clifford. “You get a pretty girl, and the women will say, ‘Look at the size of her bum.’ It’s getting worse, because it’s increasingly difficult to be a woman these days — there are so many more opportunities for self-improvement, and the more pressure women feel, the nastier it gets.”
The media has to take some of the blame, with gossip magazines encouraging us to focus on women’s looks, bodies and clothes, rather than on the attributes we should be celebrating, such as kindness and wit. “Feminism provided the culture to admire women for their qualities, not their visual appearance,” says the psychologist Jacqui Marson. “Now the whole celebrity-magazine culture has given us permission to direct our gaze at women’s minute physical flaws and choices, and to pick them apart. There has been a big shift, and the feeling of sisterhood we used to have doesn’t exist any more.”
So who are the sort of women who find themselves in the firing line? Maureen Rice, the editor of Psychologies magazine, whose recent cover stars include Marcia Cross, Julianne Moore and Jerry Hall (all women we love), claims there is a definite checklist of do’s and don’ts. “We don’t like it if women have success very easily. We like talent, tenacity, savvy, a woman who has earned it. And we like a journey — women who have been through the mill and back.” This element of struggle is the key. We can celebrate beauty and success, but only if it has been hard won. “Look at Victoria Beckham. She has been hated, and recently won us back, because we love a woman who gets knocked down and keeps on getting back up. The problem with Keira is it all looks too easy. Where is the suffering? Where is the implicit recognition that she owes it to us?”
Rice’s journey theory explains why few people can muster animosity towards Amy Winehouse, why Katie Price has such a monster following, and why the older woman is more likely to meet with our approval. Helen Mirren was not universally adored, but now she’s our favourite sexy sixtysomething. Meryl Streep — how annoying was she circa The French Lieutenant’s Woman? — is now Fabulous Meryl who gets to the core of what women are all about.
For Mary Portas, it is also to do with accessibility. “Deep down, women know that very few of us can be a Sienna or Keira, and if that is what men want, it is very scary for women, so if we knock it, we feel better. It’s much easier to ‘love’ someone like Meryl Streep, because they are kind of accessible and much less of a threat.”
Jennifer Aniston, according to Rice, typifies the kind of woman who gets it right: “We know her and her problems; she’s pretty but she’s also quite vulnerable, and she always looks to girls to help her out.” Kate Moss — through bad boyfriends and terrible life decisions — continues to have our support, because she’s a girl’s girl. They are all women who, as Rice puts it, “never turn their back on women”, and, in times when our sense of sisterhood is under threat, this is crucial.
Our loves and hates can quickly change. We hated Angelina for stealing Brad, but she redeemed herself through a combination of good works and sidestepping the LA rat race. We loved Debbie Harry, but now she’s had surgery, we’re suspending our approval until further notice. Lily Allen was cuteish, we thought; now we think she’s a pain . . . and so on. The game for us is deciding who is in and who is out, because we like to think that we know these women and can read them the way we read our friends. “We are hypercritical of ourselves and of the women around us,” says Portas. “We are interested in what makes other women tick, and criticising is what we like to do.”
Rice reckons we use women in the public eye to sort out our own thoughts: “Very little of it is about the women themselves; it is a way to clarify our own shifting opinions.” So, if we slag off Sienna for sleeping with a married man, it’s a way of testing how we feel about this in our own minds. Would we? Could we? Plus, it allows us to work out where our peers stand in relation to us. From this perspective, “Oh, I hate Victoria Beckham too” isn’t just idle banter, it establishes that you have a connection.
“I think women’s lives are so diverse now that we need to make these connections,” says Portas. “We want to find people who are PLU [people like us].”
Still, this doesn’t quite explain the level of vitriol poured on these women. I may be bonding with my sisters when I tut-tut about Peaches Geldof’s marriage, but what is happening when Fern Britten is vilified for not publicising her gastric band*?
Fern’s only crime, remember, was to lose weight by means of surgical intervention. But then Fern is not just any woman on TV: she is a woman whose appeal hinges on being normal, fun and, above all, herself. So while on one level the gastric band was just a dietary aid, on another it represented the heinous betrayal of all those women out there who were relying on Fern to keep it real and give them permission to be themselves. The response was extreme because her audience feels extremely uncertain of who they’re meant to be.
“If you line up behind someone and then they change the rules, people don’t like it,” says Rice. “Madonna’s meant to be the feminist warrior, and then she has all this plastic surgery, and people are furious with her for looking desperate.” The same confusion was behind the backlash against Kate Winslet when she dared to slim down. Nothing is guaranteed to irk us faster than a woman we thought was one of us turning out to be something completely different.
One thing is certain, whatever the motives, we do ourselves a disservice by attacking one another. We tell ourselves we have our reasons, yet the truth is that you can never guarantee who is going to win women over and who is going to wind them up. Sarah Palin, anti-abortionist and bear-killer — how has she ended up on the rave list? Where exactly did Gwyneth Paltrow slip up? Angelina Jolie is surely no friend to women, yet we’d rather save our sniping for the harmless toy-dog-owner Geri Halliwell.
There is no credible defence for the way we dislike. Even Max Clifford — a man rarely surprised by anything — is “astonished” by how the female mind works, and never more so than during the Beckham-Loos affair, back in 2004: “I thought, for once, Victoria Beckham would get sympathy. But what actually happened was nobody criticised David, everyone criticised Rebecca, and it was Victoria who ultimately got the blame. It was all her fault: if she had been over there, looking after him, it wouldn’t have happened. I think that typifies how women are.”
Maybe, in the end, there is no mystery: we just need to be nicer to each other.