Madonnas and Whores

Argus title : The tabloid attacks on Heather are hypocritical and sexist

I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard the Beatles. It was 1963 and I was 11 years old.

I was travelling with my family to Cape Town on an Italian boat which carried passengers and cargo up and down the East coast of South Africa. We were all crammed into one small cabin, the sea was rough, the boat had no stabilisers and I was terribly seasick.

The one redeeming feature of the holiday was that the Beatles’ music was played every evening. I heard “I want to hold you hand” and, as far as popular music was concerned, nothing was ever the same again. I remained a fan for years, collecting photographs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, making myself familiar with every available fact about their public lives.

As I grew older I stopped listening to the Beatles, but kept an eye on the news. When John met Yoko Ono and Paul took up with Linda Eastman, I noted the press criticism the two women received.

It was never quite clear why they attracted such opprobrium or why John and Paul’s previous partners remained free of it, except that they – unlike their successors – were English and seemed content to stay in the background. Cynthia Lennon appeared, and probably was, a stereotypically dutiful wife.

Jane Asher was an established actress, but in her public persona appeared girlish, demure and even virginal. Both women appeared to know their place.

Yoko and Linda were neither girlish nor virginal. Yoko was older than John. Linda had a child from a previous marriage. Neither was stereotypically pretty and both had established careers. They were uppity women and the media never quite forgave them.

Linda had to endure a battery of insults, being attacked in the media for her looks, her voice and her apparent refusal to stay at home while Paul travelled.

However, over the years and despite the press Linda earned the respect and admiration of the public both for her devotion to her family and for her unwavering support for animal rights.

Many people expressed surprise that Paul McCartney, who was obviously devoted to his wife, found another partner quite so soon after her death. However, people deal with grief in different ways. What was entirely predictable, was that the person he chose would be subject to media attack, just as his former wife had been.

The attacks upon Heather Mills began almost as soon as her relationship with McCartney was publicised. She was described as a fantasist and self-publicist. Former ‘friends’ lined up to accuse her of disloyalty. As time went on she was increasingly often described as a ‘former glamour model’.

However, so long as she was with Paul McCartney, the tabloids avoided printing the most embarrassing allegations.
Now she has left him there have been allegations about her past which Heather has denied. She now says she is taking legal action against the newspapers concerned.

However Heather has recently revealed that even in the early stages of their relationship, she and her lawyers were confronted by similar accusations.

Now the marriage is at an end the allegations are in the public domain and it is open season on Heather Mills.

Journalists have explained the ferocity of the attacks on Heather by reference to Paul McCartney’s fame and the high esteem in which he is held by the British public. But it has not been the people, but the tabloids which have led the charge.

Throughout this marriage, McCartney has had to endure impertinent tabloid references to his age, his inexpertly dyed hair and his desire for a “quiet life”. The inference has been that an aging man, his judgement impaired, has been led astray by lust or loneliness. Unlike the attacks upon his wife, these insults have been indirect, by hint and implication. They could not be otherwise, for fear McCartney might sue. He is a powerful man.

And there’s the rub. While Heather was married to him, she was considered to be under his protection, shielded, at least partially, by his millions. Now, that shield has been withdrawn, the attacking tabloids scent blood. Some journalists even suggest that they’re doing McCartney a favour by reducing Heather’s capacity to claim a huge settlement. By destroying her reputation they reduce her bargaining power.

Of course, it’s untrue. If the newspapers had any real concern for him or his child, they would respect the family’s privacy. Their intention is to sell newspapers and they do it, as such papers so often do, by sexist exploitation of women.

The hypocrisy is overwhelming. Newspapers which habitually sell themselves by publicising the exposed bodies of young women, now self-righteously imply that Heather is unworthy of respect because she once modelled for money.

Heather Mills has forcefully denied the allegations and has said she will sue the newspapers which made them. I understand why she wishes to do so, but in a way I hope she does not – or finds another way to combat them. To sue on grounds of defamation misses the point – for such matters are simply nobody else’s business. Denying the allegations implies that the tabloids have a right to information about her past and would have a legitimate right to comment if the allegations were true. But they have none.

Despite many years of struggle for women’s rights and equality, too many newspapers still promote sexual double standards. Women are still presented as wives or ‘bikes’, madonnas or whores. In contrast, men who use pornography and prostitutes are deemed ‘lads’, while the women who service them are considered ‘slags’, and therefore fair game.

Newspapers need to be held to account for their misogyny and hypocrisy.

Hundreds of English men who have travelled to Germany for the World Cup are there not just for the football and the alcohol, but also for the prostitutes. In the 12 cities hosting the tournament, special facilities have been prepared. In Berlin, a huge brothel has been built next to the main World Cup venue. According to journalist Julie Bindel “It is designed to take as many as 650 customers at any one time. Wooden “performance boxes’’, resembling toilets, have been built, with condoms, showers and parking all laid on.”

In January, the international organisation “Coalition Against Trafficking in Women” (CATW) launched a worldwide campaign to protest against Germany’s promotion and public display of prostitution during the World Cup. It estimated that about 40,000 impoverished and exploited women would be “imported’’ into Germany from Africa, Asia and central and eastern Europe to staff the additional brothels. Many would be trafficked and abused by violent pimps.

The English tabloids could have publicised the campaign. Or emulated the Swedish and French football establishments and called upon fans and the players themselves to avoid the brothels. But of course they did not.

It may seem that the travails of celebrities have nothing to do with us, but this is untrue. They are human beings. And when they are humiliated and bullied by the press it degrades us all.

Tabloid sexism endangers all women – potentially affecting everything from how society deals with sexist harassment in the playground through to women’s promotion prospects at work and the conduct of juries in rape trials.

Heather Mills remains vulnerable, not just because of her past but also because of her current activities. Anyone who campaigns against landmines with any consistency is likely to make powerful enemies. To the extent that he continues to support her, McCartney will also be vulnerable. Both will need the support of their home communities, and these are of course in Sussex.

Nobody local is likely to give a damn about the allegations levelled against Heather – any more than they care whether Paul did or did not dye his hair. All that matters to most of us is how we – and they – live now.

Heather and Paul do valuable charity work and people admire that. When all’s said and done, they’re just neighbours – and deserve some peace.

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