Jemima Lewis: Where's the sympathy for the Mitchell brothers?

McFadden and Kemp have been portrayed as sissies for failing to keep their women in check
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The Independent Online

Ross Kemp was allegedly given a thick lip by his wife, Sun editor Rebekah Wade. (She seems to have become tired and emotional after a big night out with David Blunkett, and was taken to a police cell to cool down.) McFadden, meanwhile, was attacked by his ex-girlfriend, Angela Bostock, when he tried to clear his personal belongings out of their garage.

Ms Bostock, the mother of his two young children, apparently has quite a temper. Indeed, McFadden was so frightened of going to see her that he had taken the precaution of asking the police to accompany him. Sure enough (at least according to The Sun), as soon as Ms Bostock caught sight of him she came tearing out of the house, thrust their baby daughter into his arms and then whacked him across the face, leaving him staggering about clutching the child, unable to defend himself.

That is, by any standards, a low trick; if a man did the same thing to a woman, it would certainly not be cause for merriment (least of all in The Sun, which - before its editor's arrest for alleged husband-bashing - was running a campaign against domestic violence).

Yet McFadden and Kemp have received none of the sympathy that a battered wife might expect. On the contrary: they have been portrayed as sissies for failing to keep their women in check. As one paper put it: "Are the EastEnders hardmen just a pair of big girls' blouses?" Quite what they should have done differently remains unclear. It is a code of honour among all decent men - hard or otherwise - that you never hit a woman, even if she hits you first. John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Abraham Lincoln were all battered husbands. Poor old Honest Abe had a veritable hellhound of a wife: she beat him with broomsticks, threw coffee in his face, hurled potatoes at his head if he dared to enter the kitchen and once broke his nose with a plank of firewood. Yet all he ever did in self-defence was set a camp bed up in his office so as not to have to sleep in the house.

Statistically, in fact, women are rather more likely than men to attack their other halves - perhaps in part because they know they can get away with it. (In a 2000 study, 16 per cent of women confessed to having kicked, punched or slapped their partner during a row, compared to 7 per cent of men.) Most of my male friends have at some stage been hit by a woman, and all have shown remarkable forbearance.

One friend went out for a year with a woman he kindly describes as "feisty" - and he still has the scars to prove it. He realised he was in trouble early in their relationship when she marched up to him at a party and demanded, in front of his goggle-eyed friends, "Do you love me?" When he replied truthfully, "No," she punched him in the face with such force that he was propelled head over heels over the back of a sofa. Astonishing to relate, my friend did not dump her. Not even when, a few months later, she stabbed him through the hand with a Biro. "It's quite exhilarating to be on the receiving end of such passion," he explains.

"And in some ways, being attacked by a woman makes you feel more powerful, not less, because you realise: 'She's giving all she's got and I could still squash her like a fly.'" This is the crux of the matter: women are allowed to hit men on the understanding that we are weaker than they are - and not just physically. Men will accept all sorts of bellicosity if they feel the fundamental power balance is in their favour. Another friend of mine once slept with a girl who had only one arm. The next day he snubbed her very cruelly in public - so she seized her prosthetic arm with her good hand and bashed him repeatedly over the head with it. He took his punishment meekly; he felt, with a mixture of pride and guilt, that it was only fair.

Because of the power imbalance, female violence has - at least from a distance - a comic quality that male violence entirely lacks. In the 18th century, battered husbands were considered such ludicrous figures that they were publicly ridiculed in a ceremony called a "skimmington procession". A cavalcade would ride through the henpecked fellow's town or village, making a fearful racket by bashing pots and pans. At the front of the procession there would be a man riding behind a woman - his face pointing towards the horse's tail to demonstrate the reversal of the natural order - while the woman beat him ceaselessly with a ladle.

To modern eyes, this may seem a rather unsophisticated approach to the subject of domestic violence. But our own popular culture is scarcely more enlightened. A man getting hit by a woman is still an occasion for public merriment; the only difference is that these days the whole nation gets to watch the skimmington. As they say in the red-tops, Bish Bash Bosh.