Why Do We Hate Famous Women So Much Harder Than Famous Men?
Celebrity ladies have long inspired a special brand of intense and irrational loathing.
In 1972, John Lennon released a single called “Woman Is the N****r of the World.” It was an unfortunate title for a song written by an ex-Beatle whose well-documented abusive tendencies toward the women in his life made him a huge part of the problem.
Sadly, so are the rest of us. In recent years, discussions of the subjugation of women have focused largely on sexual harassment and assault as well as sexism in the workplace, but the general public is more guilty of misogyny than we like to admit. I’ve covered celebrities and pop culture for decades, and I’ve noticed a glaring double standard in the way we critique famous women vs. how we critique famous men.
A famous man has to be branded a sex offender to get the complete pariah treatment (see Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Matt Lauer, and Woody Allen). Famous women just have to rub us the wrong way.
The double standard goes way back. In 1936, when Britain’s King Edward VIII abdicated the throne, his future wife, Wallis Simpson, was cast as the primary villain of the royal scandal, a role she continues to play posthumously. While she was being blamed for cheapening the crown, he was cavorting with Adolph Hitler — yet she’s the one whose name has gone down in infamy.
In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Ingrid Bergman’s affair with Roberto Rossellini, who was just as married as she was, led to her being denounced on the floor of the US Senate. It temporarily derailed her career but not his. To this day, slut-shaming remains a dishonor reserved for famous women who cheat or get too sexy when performing Super Bowl halftime shows. (See the uproar over Jennifer Lopez in 2020 and 2004’s “Nipplegate,” which effectively ended Janet Jackson’s platinum run while for her costar Justin Timberlake, the best was yet to come.)
In the ’90s, Hillary Clinton was shamed for forgiving her cheating husband, a tarnishing from which her reputation has never fully recovered. Monica Lewinsky, the other woman, also received more damming coverage than Bill Clinton. The president was hardly fit for the cover of Men’s Health, but it was Lewinsky, a normal woman with great hair, whose weight sparked all the negative commentary.
Framing Britney Spears, the recent documentary, is all about how the public spent years mercilessly mocking the pop star. Many responded by atoning for their previous sins only to turn around and blame Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, for everything but the decline of western civilization one month later after the airing of Oprah with Meghan and Harry.
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Gwyneth Paltrow hasn’t done much worse than make some bad movies and be a poster child for privilege, yet non-fans who have never met her have spent decades now regarding her as they would the rich mean girl who personally terrorized them in high school.
The list of other famous women who have provoked the public’s collective scorn at various points in their careers for flaunting their bodies, for marrying rich men, for marrying too many men, for dating too many famous guys, for being in abusive relationships, for being too sexy, for being annoying but not actually doing anything wrong, is long: Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Lindsay Lohan, Anne Hathaway, Taylor Swift, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, and on and on. It’s not just their hair, makeup, and red-carpet looks that are under exponentially more-intense scrutiny; it’s their character — or what we perceive to be their character.
It’s an effect that trickles down to everyday women who aren’t famous, the ones who are shamed for being bad mothers and blamed for their husbands’ wandering eyes because they should know how to keep a man. That was how public opinion rolled against Shan’ann Watts, the Colorado woman whose husband Chris killed her and their two daughters in 2018. And since we couldn’t judge Breonna Taylor based on her own character, some suggested she woke up to hail of police gunfire last year not because of racial bias in the system but because she’d previously dated a suspected drug dealer. Women don’t even have to commit the crime to be held accountable for it.
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Meanwhile, outside of politics, we rarely spend so much time deconstructing famous men unless they’re accused of committing murder or sexual assault. Women who stay with abusive men often have a harder time coming back from it than the guys who abuse them, and there are so many of those.
John Lennon is just one of many iconic men whose physical abuse of women is mostly swept under the rug (even the women they hit have made excuses for them), as if their tortured genius required the women in their lives to suffer, too. Aside from the late ex-Beatle, that long list includes VIPs like James Brown, Gary Cooper, George C. Scott, Joe DiMaggio, and George Jones.
A-list men also get a lot more leeway when they unload. In his 2020 single “Lonely,” Justin Bieber lamented how awful it is to be rich and famous. Megyn Kelly didn’t publicly dismiss him as playing the victim, nor did the song inspire any apparent backlash from all the folks who think rich people should stop whining.
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Imagine if Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and not Bieber, had delivered the lines “What if you had it all/But nobody to call?/Maybe then you’d know me/’Cause I’ve had everything/But no one’s listening/And that’s just f*****g lonely” during her interview with Oprah Winfrey. I’m sure even Oprah, as skilled an interviewer as she is, would not have been able to keep a straight face.
Prince Andrew should be the most hated British royal in America, yet somehow we’ve saved all our venom for his nephew’s wife. For him, being tied to Jeffrey Epstein’s sex-trafficking ring raised eyebrows and inspired some side-eye, but Meghan — like Wallis Simpson and her husband’s late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, before her — is the one shouldering most of the blame for tarnishing the image of the royal family.
People who have never met her are experts on her psyche, even though their convictions are based on nothing more than gut feelings. They’ve branded her a gold-digging opportunistic bully and liar who knew what she was getting into. To them, she’s a silly drama queen who jumped into the same boat as Kate Middleton and didn’t know how to row it.
There’s no precedent for her unique situation as a biracial woman marrying into the royal family, but since her critics could see where the fairytale was headed, why couldn’t she? They say she brought everything, including the racism she allegedly experienced in the royal circle, on herself, and suggest she has forfeited the right to credibly discuss anything that transpired due to her own decisions.
As they see it, Harry is the true victim, a grown-ass man of the world who nonetheless didn’t know what he was getting into. He was sitting right beside Meghan during their interview with Oprah, yet he didn’t receive a fraction of the backlash she did. Judging from what I’ve read from those who share their opinions about the big, bad wolf he’s married to (including Donald Trump Jr.), Harry is incapable of making his own decisions and can’t be held responsible for his fractured relationship with his family. That’s on Meghan. She’s the architect of all their misery. It’s her fault. It’s almost always the woman’s fault — especially when she’s rich, famous, and beautiful.
Personally, I have no stake in Meghan vs. The World. Although I object to the knee-jerk dismissal of her charges of racism in the royal corporation, the flimsy reasons why people loathe her aren’t going to cause me to lose any sleep (except for the waking hours I’ve spent writing this article). Everyone gets to decide for themselves how they want to feel about people. But the next time we sanctimoniously blame the patriarchy for minimalizing women, perhaps we all should take a long hard look at our own glass houses.