Successful, single, female - let's get her!

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Fantastic news about Nicole Kidman: the Oscar-winning actress is looking thin, tired and nervy, according to people who saw her emerging from her yoga class in New York last week. She cannot sleep, has not recovered from the end of her marriage to Tom Cruise, does not have a steady boyfriend and longs for a baby of her own. In fact she is almost as bonkers as Virginia Woolf, whom she played in The Hours, and we all know what happened to her. This gratifying state of affairs - sorry, fears - that the star is suffering burn-out and "reaching the point of no return" - was reported in the Daily Mail, which would no doubt be mortified to learn that somewhere on the planet a woman has managed to be rich, famous, single, successful and happy.

Elsewhere in tabloidland - The Sun, to be precise - there were fears for Barbra Streisand, who emerged from a clinic in a hat and a black veil, prompting speculation that she has had cosmetic surgery. Actually, I am being too kind to the paper, which wrote about Streisand in a tone of gloating innuendo, cruelly contrasting a recent unflattering picture with her "radiant" appearance in the 1970s. The Sun reserved its approbation, surprisingly, for Sir Paul McCartney's wife, Heather, the former model who was until recently a gold-digging self-publicist who had bagged everybody's favourite Beatle. Last week, pictures of a visibly pregnant Mills sent the paper's hard man, John Kay, into sentimental raptures over the "amazingly tender scenes" as she and McCartney walked home after a prenatal check-up.

What a difference a bump makes, and how much poor lonely Kidman, according to the Mail, would like one. (Her two children with Cruise do not count, apparently, because they are adopted.) But the nasty twist in the paper's demolition of Kidman, pictured below, is its suggestion that "she has been driven to the brink by film roles about rejected, depressed and oppressed women - with whom she identifies to a remarkable extent". Regular readers of this column will recall that I loathed The Hours, partly because of Kidman's lamentable performance, but also because I am sickened by the fashion for movies in which substantial novelists such as Woolf and Iris Murdoch are portrayed as batty old bags.

As night follows day, I knew it could not be long before someone would start suggesting that there were more than accidental resemblances between the actress and the role. Because the whole point about these movies - another one is on its way, with Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath - is that they reinforce the notion that women cannot be creative and happy, a pernicious cultural myth that applies as much to actresses as it does to writers. Kidman did not help matters by expressing doubts about the wisdom of playing the novelist, making the baffling observation that "Woolf's unhappiness was just too similar to my own". Now she is said to be having problems on the set of the remake of Stepford Wives, where she has apparently expressed a reluctance to film outdoors in strong sunlight. I am not sure whether the Mail is hinting that Kidman has had cosmetic surgery or, more intriguingly, that she is a vampire.

What I am clear about is the unpleasant contemporary phenomenon of beating up successful women, usually in the guise of pretending to express concern on their behalf. ("Worrying weight loss, a punishing workload, and a deep longing for a baby of her own".) It is actually a form of bullying, which manifests itself first by imposing impossible standards of slenderness and beauty, forcing actresses to take up punishing diets and exercise regimes, and then by demanding to know why they are too thin, depressed or have just been photographed leaving clinics where they have undergone cosmetic surgery. Because they read articles about themselves in the tabloids, which encourage women to be neurotic and obsessed with their appearance?

There is also the ever-present suggestion that no woman can be content without a husband and a gurgling infant. Kidman stands accused of going in for "dangerous flirtations" with rap stars, which sounds a lot more fun, frankly, than being married to a short Scientologist. Remember the photograph of her jumping for joy at the time of her divorce? She is being punished for it now, and the misogynists at the Daily Schadenfreude are savouring every moment.