Harriet Walker: Roll up, roll up, the Samantha Brick saga shows that woman-baiting is back in fashion

Samantha Brick is a puppet for a male hegemony that derives its power from the myth that women don't like each other

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Journalist Samantha Brick reportedly made more than £30,000 for the Daily Mail on Tuesday, and made herself a laughing stock in the process. An article she wrote, describing the cattiness and isolation that she, as an attractive woman, had experienced at the hands of her less fortunate peers, became an internet sensation: boggled at over breakfast, tittered at on Twitter, gawped at and googled.

More than 1.5 million people read it, and thousands poured forth their scorn and contempt on social media platforms, while the newspaper raked in the cash from the extra clicks. (Taking all ad revenues into account, pundits estimate the Mail may have picked up £100,000 from the tumultuous exposure.) And it recommissioned Brick for a second piece yesterday, selling her subsequent grief in all its body-con, cap-sleeved glory on the masthead, drawing us all in again while cunningly allowing the circus to repitch its tents and lay into her once more. "The beautiful backlash", they called it. But it's more like communal whiplash.

A glutton for punishment perhaps; woefully misguided, certainly. Doing it for the money? You bet. But Samantha Brick's message and martyrdom go right to the very heart of a patriarchal culture that we normally just put up with, one that makes everyone a little less well-disposed toward one another. Bear-baiting and cockfighting might be illegal, but woman-baiting is not, and certain institutions are content to cynically set up and sell ringside seats to the most horrid and vitriolic of catfights.

Samantha Brick's rather bald assertion of her own beauty wouldn't have gone down well over a glass of wine with her friends (who have all deserted her because of her "lovely looks" anyway, she claims), let alone across the worldwide web. But that was precisely the point. We didn't used to have so specific a term for how the Daily Mail operates, but now we do: it's trolling. The internet is full of trolls, lurking on messageboards and in the "comments" sections, leaving little titbits of poison for others to become enraged by and react to. Normally they come out in response to an article, but this time Samantha Brick trolled us all first, and we trolled her right back. And the newspaper raked in the cash.

Women don't take well to other women with a superiority complex. Men don't like it much either. Somewhere between the double-bind of false modesty and fragile self-perception, the code that has emerged is one where you bat away compliments as if they were venomous mosquitoes and you never, ever big yourself up. This is the way it works – and it's actually one of the few arenas in which female received behaviours match those of men. It's simple manners, it's sprezzatura: be nice to other people and don't go on about how great you are, even if you're personally convinced of it.

Brick is clearly an insecure and socially inept sort of person; she's also patently not as beautiful as she thinks she is. But that's the point: Brick is a witless puppet for a male hegemony that derives its power partly from the myth that all women everywhere are endlessly patronising and hurting each other. That women don't like each other, especially if one happens to be more attractive, is "a taboo that needed shattering", says Brick. But the real maxim begging to be flouted here is that women – both the bullies and the bullied in this scenario – are set up for this kind of fall again and again.

Men don't tend to write about themselves in newspapers. They ponder the state of the nation and the ways of the world, all the books they've read and the music that they listen to. With women, it works rather differently. Female writers often look to their own lives and experiences rather than sounding off about abstract concepts. And many women in the media tend to become personalities, their articles extensions of that. Fashion editors get dressed up and pose every week, mothers write about their children, Liz Jones tell us about her own rather singular existence, which becomes more bizarre with every sentence she pens.

They're much more likely to be subject to character assassinations because of this – but that has become the system we work by, and we don't question why the men aren't getting the same sort of flak. "Why must women be so catty? Men wouldn't be bothered by this, I'm sure," snorted one commentator on a radio chatshow about Brick. Yet many of those who were most acerbic about her on Twitter were men: public figures, comedians, TV stars and the like.

Generally though, men are immune to this kind of baiting; they are not subject to anywhere near as much scrutiny as women are, either in terms of their appearance or the way they relate to each other. If a woman is sloppily dressed or fat, she can't be taken seriously; if she's beautiful, she's a harpy; if she's sexy, she's up for it. The constraints are so embedded now that we take the bait without realising it's a trap. And the newspaper that perpetuates it all rakes in the cash.

h.walker@independent.co.uk

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