Russell Brand (Photo by Richard Lewis/WireImage)

The lure of the red flag

Russell Brand and the performance of misogyny

Artillery Row

I can understand why Russell Brand is aggrieved. As he himself says, he was “always transparent … almost too transparent” about what calls his promiscuity. Faced with the serious allegations presented in this Saturday’s Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches, he is naturally confused. He didn’t hide who he was. Implausible deniability was always part of the joke.

One could say Brand has always been a walking red flag. Most men who are accused of abuse are not like this. They are good men, quiet men, pillars of the community. Victims stay quiet on the basis that no one would believe them, were they to speak out.

Brand represents the flipside, the man who is so obvious you feel there is something you must have misunderstood. He acts out his entitlement where everyone can see it, then when you complain, you are told it is only a performance. The quiet man cannot be a brute behind closed doors; the man who performs brutishness in public cannot be taken seriously. There is no way for women to win.

For a long time, I felt confused about Brand, particularly during his “saviour of the left” incarnation in the mid-2010s. He’d risen to fame just as ironic sexism seemed to be tailing off, only to be replaced with pious misogyny, the new way to hate women whilst claiming to be “progressive”. Brand was at the crossover between the two. Were we supposed to excuse him because of his self-awareness, or because of his right-side-of-history credentials? Either way, wouldn’t not excusing him have made us the baddies?

For some reason (the hair?), we weren’t supposed to think of Brand as laddish. Some kind of leftish intellectual snobbery shielded him from being associated with ordinary men demanding that you flashed them your tits. Declaring him a “Hero of 2014”, the Guardian’s George Monbiot praised “the volatile comedian-turned-activist’s ability to be openly and honestly flawed”. That’s one way of putting it.

It seemed odd, a mere two years after the universal hand-wringing over Jimmy Savile “hiding in plain sight”, that so much leeway should have been granted to a man who had joked with Savile about sending him his female assistant, naked. Listening to that conversation now — and if we’re honest, listening to it back in 2007 — it’s clear that that “joke” was not based on Brand not really knowing what kind of person Savile was. He knew. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been his kind of joke.

It’s for this reason that I don’t buy criticism of the Times and Dispatches, which suggests that associating “Brand the performer” with “Brand the potential abuser” is inappropriate. He is not someone who happens to have a public persona that might overlap with a darker, private one. The public one was dark. The red flag — the possibility that there was more — was a large part of the draw.

It was discussed at least briefly in the aftermath of the Savile scandal how the way he presented himself, as exactly who he was, made it harder — not easier — to call him out. Red flags alert you, but they also inhibit. It’s why they can be attractive to people who have something to hide, and to those who merely wish to look as though they do. I think a lot of men liked Brand because they knew exactly what he was signalling. I think a lot of women (myself included) found ourselves questioning our own misgivings because we didn’t want to be “that woman”, the one who jumps to the obvious conclusion. So many misogynists rely on that.

Muddying the waters makes it easier for the real offenders

Watching Russell Brand: Hiding In Plain Sight, I found myself thinking of all the ways in which glaringly obvious misogyny gets a free pass on the basis that the perpetrators know what misogyny is. What if Brand had written an article defending men “getting off on porn” at work, on the basis that “there’s all sorts of procrastination that goes on in the workplace”? What if he’d accused a woman being threatened with rape and murder of “smiling like you’re enjoying yourself”? What if he’d made a joke about killing and raping a named female celebrity “as part of a very long routine about whether it’s OK to do a joke about that”, before concluding that “there are pluses and minuses”. What if he’d whipped his dick out during a live TV performance and used it to play the piano? Would the programme makers have included these examples, too?

I think, had Brand done these things, they would. When it’s Owen Jones, Billy Bragg, Frankie Boyle and Jordan Gray doing them, somehow they’re not. I don’t wish to suggest that anyone who behaves this way in public is guilty of the things that Brand is accused of doing in private. There is, nonetheless, a common self-justificatory thread.

These are all visible examples not just of a lack of concern for other people’s boundaries, but of the belief that it’s acceptable to transgress these boundaries for fun — providing you have some pseudo-political defence. You’re exploring an idea. You’re challenging bourgeois workplace norms. You’re exposing the prejudices of pearl-clutching ladies. You’re sticking it to the man (funny how sticking it to the man always seems to require the possession of a penis).

When women complain about these behaviours, we get told they are trivial. We are reading too much into them, perhaps because we just don’t like the norm-smashing politics of men such as Bragg and Boyle. You will notice that this is the defence Brand is using right now. Everyone is out to get him because he’s not part of “the mainstream”. It’s not dissimilar to the self-perception of Andrew Tate. I am not saying all these men are the same — I am saying it is much harder for women to challenge any of them, when female objections to male sexual entitlement are consistently used by boring, boorish men to delude themselves that they are radical.

In Pornography, Andrea Dworkin described the way in which the Marquis de Sade has been remembered, not as a sex offender, but as a hero:

Sade’s story is generally thought to be this: he was a genius whose mind was too big for the petty puritans around him; he was locked up for his sexual abandonment, especially in writing; he was kept in jail because nothing less could defuse the danger he presented to the established order; he was victimized, unjustly imprisoned, persecuted, for daring to express radical sexual values in his life and in his writing; as “that freest of spirits to have lived so far,” his very being was an insult to a system that demanded conformity.

It’s easy to think of a number of disgraced men who see themselves like this. It’s perhaps more difficult to acknowledge the way in which red flags, far from undermining some men’s radical credentials, are used to enhance them. By this, I don’t just mean men who are actual sex offenders. I mean the men who stand alongside them, and the men who “experiment” — à la Frankie Boyle — with boundaries and offence as “ideas”. I mean the men who deliberately create set-ups whereby women are encouraged to feel that familiar anxiety, before over-correcting themselves in order to show that they get the joke and are worthy of the politics.

I don’t necessarily think these men “hide in plain sight”, so much as trade on people suspecting that’s what they’re doing. It’s a way of muddying the waters that makes it easier for the real offenders, whilst allowing the non-offenders to appeal to both camps: the women who want them to be joking, and the men who want them to be joking about it all being a joke.

None of this is to let Brand himself off the hook. He’s right on one thing though: it’s not that nobody saw the red flags. Everyone did. They were meant to. He’d have been nothing without them.

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