Features Australia

Women behaving badly

Toxic femininity takes centre-stage

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

Harry and Meghan, actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, Kimberley Kitching vs Labor’s Mean Girls – women’s toxic behaviour is in the spotlight like rarely before, with manipulation, ‘whipped’ men, social exclusion and some typically female dark arts on display.

I hesitate to detail for delicate-minded Speccie readers the Twitter #MePoo controversy sparked by Amber Heard during her defamation trial and countersuit with the louche and drug-loving actor Depp but suffice to say it involves excrement, beds and photos thereof. There’s a reason three million people have signed a petition to remove ‘domestic abuser’ Heard from her role in the movie Aquaman.

Likewise Prince Harry, an agreeable, sociable and popular royal prior to his marriage, has now become the woke prince of Hollywood, campaigning for political change, as he falls under the influence of his minor celebrity wife. Trump recently described him as ‘whipped’, adjective deleted, to Piers Morgan, and asked if Piers understood the phrase, to which Piers nodded. Not the first time it’s happened in that family, given the abdication from the throne of King Edward VIII as he fell under the spell of American divorcee Wallis Simpson, she for whom one could never be too rich or too thin.

Then there’s the cold-shouldering of the late lamented Senator Kitching by three senior Labor women, which was reportedly culminating in her disendorsement as a Labor politician. The details alleged by Kitching’s friend Diana Asmar showed powerful women pitilessly insulting and excluding someone not of their ilk. Readers can come up with their own local identities whose gracelessness may qualify them for a similarly toxic woman tag.


The indispensable political reporter Jack Posobiec on Twitter noted of the Heard/Depp affair: ‘Everyone knows someone who is a Johnny Depp stuck with an Amber Heard.’ Which made me wonder whether the current wave of feminism, which has washed through our society for over fifty years, has given some women the idea that they are either above or not bound by normal standards of behaviour, and can write their own rule book.

Since the Sixties, feminism has made such advances that society these days is inclined to reflexively bend towards women’s demands, however extreme, whether it’s the expansion of abortion rights up to the monstrous practice of partial birth abortion, the ‘Believe all women’ moment of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, the self-serving sexism claims of female politicians such as Julie Bishop and Julia Banks, the indulgence extended to Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins for drunken and careless late-night behaviour in the power seat of our nation, the Reclaim the Night marches when protesters demanded an end to all risk on city streets (good luck with that), the Handmaid’s Tale book/TV series/meme portraying women as eternal victims and more.

The phenomenon is not new, as anyone acquainted with Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew knows, and our dictionaries are replete with words to describe such women: virago, termagant, fishwife, harpy, vixen, spitfire, harridan, scold and so on.

Such were the thoughts roaming through my mind when, at a Brisbane dinner recently, I asked whether people thought there was such a thing as toxic femininity around. The chap next to me immediately spoke up and said that he knew someone writing a book on the subject. The lawyer next to him rolled her eyes and spoke dismissively of women wanting to sue men for brushing up against them. (It’s a truism among women of a certain age that minor male misbehaviours which we dealt with routinely are now treated as hanging offences. We coped, we think; why can’t they?) Suddenly I felt late to the party, finding others dealing with a social truth I had just stumbled across. Then, almost on cue, came the leak of the Supreme Court of the US draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, and the feminist offence machine ratcheted up to full, wild-eyed stridency, with Democrat congresswoman Elizabeth Warren doing everything short of howling at the moon. The give-and-take of my older age group, raised in an era when different views were tolerated, has apparently been replaced by a bigoted new blend of feminism and cancel culture that brooks no alternative opinions. Abortion anywhere, anytime or else you are an oppressor trampling women’s human rights. And of course it’s not everyone and most people are not like that, but noisy minorities have a way of controlling debate and setting narratives that silent majorities don’t.

Some will argue patriarchy is so widespread and ingrained that any female protest against it seems extreme and radical. Even if that’s true, which I doubt, it doesn’t excuse bad behaviour in response. And specific instances of behaviour are all that we can ever decide. Was Amber Heard a domestic abuser, as audio of her hitting Johnny Depp would indicate? (‘I f–king was hitting you… but you’re fine, I did not hurt you, I did not punch you, I was hitting you…. You are such a baby.’)

The German philosopher Hegel formulated social development as occurring in three phases. First is the thesis, or prevailing orthodoxy, which contains some truths. It generates a reaction called the antithesis, which contradicts the thesis with other truths; the battle between the two is then resolved in the synthesis, which should contain the best of both worlds. If Sixties feminism was a reaction against the white picket fence, nuclear family conformity of post-second world war life, we are overdue for the synthesis. Perhaps feminists’ overplaying their hand is a sign that a new understanding is needed.

A moment from my daughter’s graduation ceremony at an Adelaide girls’ school rings in my mind: former governor-general Quentin Bryce ended her Year 12 valedictory speech by urging the girls: ‘Be bold, be bold, be bold!’ With such comments and attitudes echoing through their upbringing, it’s not surprising that some women take no prisoners in the age-old battle of the sexes. If generations of women have been taught that reversals are only to be expected as the patriarchy fights back, many will hold to their positions with all the obduracy of the self-righteous.

In truth we are all humans under the skin, whatever version of skin that may be, and ought cleave to the Golden Mean, which is do as you would be done by. Which does not, in my book, involve placing faecal matter on other people’s beds.

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