“A sad little hello to women in their 30s having an evening of shit Proustian flashbacks to the mid-2000s,” the historian Hannah Rose Woods tweeted after the airing of In Plain Sight. I am one such woman. While the most distressing aspect of the documentary was the women’s testimony, the chaser was the film-makers’ clever juxtaposition of footage of Russell Brand and others that so encapsulated the specific misogyny of that time. Cue several days’ worth of retrospective dredging of 2000s media culture.
While it’s useful to hear from those who were working in the institutions and environments in which Brand thrived, I also feel angry at the complicity of some of them. While Brand denies all the allegations made in the programme, insisting that all his relationships have been consensual, clips from his own standup, TV and radio routines show his outspoken misogyny. In all these places there were journalists and TV executives who facilitated, encouraged and failed to challenge these all-pervasive attitudes towards women, and there were those who contributed to the culture more broadly at this truly heinous time – from the men working on lads’ mags and telling rape jokes onstage, to the postfeminist women’s magazine journalists who seemed to have forgotten the concept of sisterhood.
I’m more interested in hearing from the young women and girls who were raised in that climate and felt they had no power within it. It was a horrible time to be a teenage girl, and the frequent objectification, abuse and derision we received from boys at school and older men were directly related to the media climate that enabled it. The question “Why didn’t she go to the police?” is easy to answer for any of us who lived under that hideous toxic media regime. The challenging of any aspect of sexism or misogyny was ruthlessly quashed, the objector painted as humourless and unfuckable, then mocked, bullied and harassed. This was a time when being a young woman who dared to profess even a mild preference towards bodily autonomy saw you vilified; a time when I was invited on to a national TV programme to debate whether “bum pinching” was OK or not (I declined). We were groped in nightclubs with hideous regularity. We were fair game. Try to square that with going to the police when your physical integrity has been violated.
In the past few days many women have got in touch with me, and it’s brought it all flooding back. From accounts of grooming, rape and sexual assault to stories of lists of the “fittest freshers” being posted on college noticeboards (is there a woman my age alive who escaped being publicly rated out of 10 by her male peers, I wonder?), boys with their penises out in the classroom, and pornographic university hazing rituals, the women of my generation are battleworn; still angry, and also very sad that their formative years were overshadowed by a pervasive rape and raunch culture that it felt impossible to speak out against. “Women’s worth and value were determined by how fuckable they were perceived to be. There was truly no escape. I’m still running,” wrote one woman.
We are all still running. Watching Brand on stage joking about choking women with his penis felt so painfully familiar. It was only after I was attacked by a man in 2010 that I became angry, and started challenging some of these attitudes. Twice, I went up to male comedians after shows in which they had joked about raping and mutilating women, and highlighted how the statistics would suggest that of the women present in the audience one in four had themselves been raped or sexually assaulted, and so been triggered by their subject matter. Their responses were patronising and dismissive. My friend heckled a “comic” who described wanting to violently assault a woman with a bottle of bleach so that her ovaries melted “like Salvador Dalí clocks”. That sentence will live in my mind for ever and I still feel as physically sick typing it now as I did listening to it as a very young woman.
God, it was hard to be a feminist then. I was an embarrassment, a liability, for saying anything. Highlight your discomfort with pornographic images of naked women papering your student house – as one woman recalls doing – and you weren’t just shouted down by the men who were supposed to be your friends, but also “cool girls” who so desperately felt their worth was in impressing them. When Holly Baxter and I, along with a group of friends, launched a feminist blog, the Vagenda, in 2012, the purpose of which was to challenge media sexism, we were called silly little girls by almost the entire media establishment. That was to be expected from male journalists, but the female ones really stuck in the craw. No one likes to be publicly taken to task for their failings, and perhaps they sensed what we thought of them then and still think of them now, which is that they lacked moral fibre. Nonetheless, it was stark how few people were willing to really listen to what we, the younger women on the frontlines, were saying.
We were right. Flicking through the book that we wrote, it’s all there: from the women’s magazines encouraging you to be stick-thin and to please your man at all costs, to the lads’ mags and toxic websites normalising rape and posting images of women cut in half and asking “which half” men preferred (“the bottom,” one answered, “because two holes are better than one”), and the tabloids reporting the countdown to when teenage girls reached the age of consent. Along with the people behind No More Page 3, Everyday Sexism and a whole cohort of other young feminists, I do believe we changed the mainstream media landscape, although that’s not to say these issues have gone away. As writers such as Laura Bates and Sian Norris continue to highlight, misogyny remains rife online and off.
I feel proud of women who came of age in the 2000s for their commitment to feminism (and I also feel extremely grateful to the older feminists who chose to help, rather than hinder, us). Many of us feel solidarity with the victims of rape and abuse. We understand, as only we can, what it felt like to be a young woman then and why coming forward was so difficult. Sexism didn’t start in the toxic 2000s, but it was a unique time for it, and it manifested in ways that were specific to us. It is the victims of this culture who should be listened to.
Now that I’m a parent, I realise that many of the adults working in television and the media at the time failed utterly to safeguard women and girls from the abuse and misogyny of predatory men. They failed victims, and they failed us. The Vagenda always used humour to challenge these attitudes but, remembering those awful years, I don’t feel like joking now. We knew it was wrong. So did lots of the adults who controlled the narrative. Some of them might be soul-searching now, but at the time they did nothing.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist