Catfights, cultural gaslighting, and the persistence of misogyny in the media

Melanie Kennedy and Jilly Boyce Kay (Leicester University and College Union)

 

Almost two years after Coleen Rooney made the public accusation via Instagram and Twitter that Rebekah Vardy had been leaking details of her private life to The Sun newspaper, the case of “Wagatha Christie” continues to generate news coverage. News providers traditionally associated with world-respected journalism and broadsheet publications, from the BBC to The Telegraph use the label “Wagatha Christie” in their headlines to attract readers. The term not only denotes the acronym “wives and girlfriends” of high-profile football players, but by association it makes reference back to an earlier 2000s-era of Y2K style, toxic tabloid culture, and the peak of the celebrity ‘catfight’. Celebrity magazines at that time invited audiences to compare WAGs during the 2006 World Cup; pop culture speculated over a feud between ‘rival’ popstars Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera; and female competition and catfights were a common narrative in film and television, from Mean Girls (2004) to Desperate Housewives (2004-2012).

 

Rebekah Vardy, who has been accused of leaking stories to The Sun

Since then, however, and particularly in light of #MeToo, feminism and other social justice movements (at least pop culture-friendly versions of them) have gained visibility and popularity, and in some media we’ve recently seen a critical re-appraisal of how toxic and misogynistic celebrity culture was in the 2000s. Such post-MeToo ‘watercooler’ moments include documentaries about former teen girl stars who had been framed as ‘trainwrecks’ (including Spears, Paris Hilton and Demi Lovato), to Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s 2021 television interview with Oprah Winfrey. These television events and the viral media coverage surrounding them explicitly call out the misogynistic, abusive tabloid culture which produced, circulated and scrutinised their earlier, younger celebrity images (Kennedy, 2021). In doing so, it is implied that the spectacular and normalised toxic celebrity culture of the 2000s, which pitted girls and women against one another, is now in the recent historical past; that we are enlightened and have moved beyond that now. In this context, we might assume, the trope of the ‘catfight’ would quietly, inevitably disappear. 

 

But the catfight is not merely a product of toxic 2000s celebrity culture – it is part of the much longer history of patriarchy within which women have been cast as jealous competitors for male attention. In Western culture the catfight trope can be found in rivalries between beautiful princesses and wicked stepmothers of classic fairytales; between school-girl cliques in parenting guides; it is central to the narratives of popular tween film and television (Kennedy, 2019); and as we’ve highlighted elsewhere, so-called feuds between female stars have been mythologised in histories of the Golden Age of Hollywood (Kay and Kennedy, 2019).

 

Coleen Rooney, the defendant in the case

It has since been suggested that, in a post-MeToo world, the term ‘catfight’ has quietly fallen out of use – no longer acceptable in a context that is more attuned to the harmful implications of sexist language-use in the media. Indeed, a quick keyword search for ‘catfight’ in UK newspapers on the database Nexis reveals a clear drop-off of the term between 2017 and 2018 (when #MeToo was at its peak of media visibility), and a more gradual decline since then. But the word is still very much actively employed in British media, and instances of its anachronistic use are still all-too-easy to find. In February 2021, a headline in The Sun ran ‘Stripper catfight over club “tart” jibe’. In June 2021, The Mirror saw fit to describe a serious fight between two women in Leeds, with one hospitalised with stab wounds, as a “brutal catfight”

 

However, while these egregious examples still continue to surface, for the most part the misogynistic logics of the ‘catfight’ trope now manifest much more insidiously in British media. As well as the ‘Wagatha Christie’ saga, a case in point is the obsession with a ‘feud’ between Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton. To the extent that we can ever know the truth about the dynamics of their relationship, it seems reasonable to assume that any tensions between the two women have been significantly fuelled by press coverage which has gleefully positioned them as jealous rivals. Notoriously, the press has consistently and hypocritically admonished Meghan for the very same things for which it has praised Kate – for example, with the MailOnline approving of Kate as she ‘tenderly cradles her baby bump’ but then, less than a year later, demanding to know ‘Why can’t Meghan Markle keep her hands off her bump?’. 

 

The pernicious logics of such ‘catfight’ discourses point to the persistence of misogyny – and racism – in British media, at the same time as we are told that such oppressions no longer exist. This simultaneous production and denial of the problem amounts to what one of us has called “cultural gaslighting” (Kay, 2020) – when abuse, humiliation, and the structural injustices of sexism and racism are dismissed by powerful media voices as merely the products of the minds of oversensitive ‘snowflakes’. 

But the persistence of the ‘catfight’ trope – whether used to sexualise and trivialise physical altercations between women, or more insidiously to imply that women’s relationships are always characterised by jealousy and competition (Kay and Kennedy, 2019) – shows that misogyny is alive and well in the British media. Interest in so-called feuds between male public figures simply don’t appear in the media with the same level of scrutiny, and coverage of them doesn’t use the same language as that for girls and women; “as Kayleen Schaefer reminds us in The New York Times, the term catfight “has no equivalent for men” (Schaefer, 2019). It is high time not only to retire the tired old stereotype of the catfight, but more urgently, to confront the underpinning logics of misogyny which mean that girls and women continue to be denied meaningful voice and representation in the contemporary public sphere.

 

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