Failed Femmes: Pity and Scorn in the Daily Mail Part 1
Holly Combe // 6 November 2007
I realise I’m probably rising to the bait here but, as ever, it seems the Daily Mail is on a crusade to keep the ladies under control and help the nation to internalise the importance of good old-fashioned femininity.
A recent piece that really has to be seen to be believed is their report about Heather Howland, a previously monogamous and apparently traditionally-minded woman who became “hypersexual” after suffering a brain haemorrhage. Indeed, it follows the formula so tightly that one could almost believe it is a piece of satire from The Onion. Seriously.
The Daily Mail romps through this story with all the ham and bluster of a tongue-in-cheek parody. First of all, there is the headline apparently summing up husband Andy’s position to consider:
Help! My wife WAS a doting mother – then she went in to a coma and now she’s a hypersexual
I’m not kidding. That’s exactly how the mail puts it. As Jo from Kent rightly observes in the comments section for the article, this headline’s emphasis implies that “a woman can either be a good mother or enjoy sex but not both” and that “somehow, women have to become sexless once they become mothers.” Typical Daily Mail. No surprises there.
The most galling thing is that the whole article reads like a piece of trashy and patronising propaganda, designed to make us rejoice in the pity of a woman who, through no fault of her own, is unable to behave in a manner that is considered appropriate for her gender. Heather’s condition is mournfully paraded by the mail as a tragic betrayal of natural womanhood that can only be forgiven because -whisper it readers- Heather is ill. Her apparent shame about her condition makes it very easy for the Daily Mail to sympathise (she is reported to “look at the floor” when her husband Andy tries to work out how many men she has had “inappropriate relations” with in the past two years). Conveniently, we also learn that Heather was from a church-going family, disapproved of extra-marital affairs and hadn’t “as much as looked at another man” since her wedding day. She says:
One day I was this ordinary mum, in an ordinary marriage. Sex was there – but it wasn’t a big deal. Well, it isn’t once you have children, is it? Then I woke up in hospital and was just woke up in hospital and was just consumed by the need to have sex all the time. And it didn’t matter who with. I turned into someone I didn’t recognise. I still don’t. I’m not the sort of person who propositions men in the street and invites them home for sex.
According to the Daily Mail, Heather is admitting to behaviour that “would have any other woman condemned as a cheap slut.” (Yes, they really say that.)
I’m not suggesting that Heather and Andy should just forget their own values and get on with it. I’m also not saying that it wouldn’t be highly distressing to experience any radical and involuntary change to one’s personality. No, what really pisses me off is that the Daily Mail uses this couple’s situation to reinforce what they seem to consider to be appropriate and natural behaviour for any woman (or, indeed, couple). This is particularly evident when they marvel piously at Heather and Andy’s acceptance of their situation:
Incredibly, they start to discuss some of these illicit “dalliances”, in the way that any couple might discuss holidays taken, or restaurants visited… In any other circumstances, the only response to such jaw-dropping openness about marital indiscretions would be “yuck”. Surely such dysfunctional marriages only exist on the Jeremy Kyle Show?
This startling lack of regard or even mere recognition of non-monogamy is impacted by rampant snobbery when the article goes on to loftily assert that the Howlands “aren’t Jeremy Kyle’s sort of people.”
If the reporting of this story isn’t already depressing enough, there are also the majority of readers’ comments to consider. For example, the article tells us about Heather embarking on a passionate affair with a “startled co-worker” and a friend finding her coming onto some “poor man” in a graveyard. This phrasing implies that Heather’s attentions were not welcome and that she was the one doing the asking and yet we still have Rachel from Exeter saying she finds it odd that Heather hasn’t got the ability to say ‘no’ and Susan from Liverpool asking if she has ever heard of the word! When a woman who has been diagnosed as hypersexual actively comes onto men and still gets lazily framed as passive, we know we have a long way to go. In contrast, a more general male hypersexuality is subtly taken as a given. This can be seen when Andy is smugly described by the article as “only too happy – if quite bewildered” when most of Heather’s needs seemed to be sexual. It can also be seen when it is revealed that people have warned Andy that Heather is going to “get herself raped” and that some of his friends have “taken advantage” of her.
Heather admits her experience has shaken her faith in human nature. “There’s only the odd bloke who has turned me down,” she says, sounding a little surprised.
This is the bit where the readers are meant to coo “Aw, bless her! She’s so naive!”
Of course, the article doesn’t even briefly take a moment to consider that the tendency for men to feel obliged to “go for it” when it is “offered on a plate” might be down to social conditioning.
According to the mail, all is not lost for the couple because they are seeing a specialist who reckons that Heather’s brain can be retrained to “recognise how it is appropriate to behave.” Also, Heather has agreed not to leave the house alone, to “ensure her own safety and Andy’s peace of mind.” At no point does the article even hint at just how unfortunate it is that a grown woman has had to lose her liberty (however necessary that might be).
We also learn that, thanks to Heather’s libido being reduced by the contraceptive pill and anti-depressants, she and Andy have even experienced a “breakthrough” in the bedroom department:
“She even turned me down the other day,” says Andy, laughing. “I wanted to sleep with her, but she was the one who said she didn’t feel like it. I could have whooped with delight.”
I guess this is the bit where the reader is meant to have dreamy thoughts of thoroughly “appropriate” wives rousing their beastly hubbies’ passions by coolly demonstrating that they are far less libidinous than them. Ah, romance!