Broads, Dames, and Ladies: The Treacherous Woman Myth

by Antonia Louisa Georgiou / February 15, 2018

Photo: a still from the 1944 film Double Indemnity

Culture  }
On how the #MeToo backlash relies on and deploys some much older (stereo)types 1604 words / 7 min read

On how the #MeToo backlash relies on and deploys some much older (stereo)types

The narrative around which criticism of the #MeToo campaign is built reminds me of the 1944 film Double Indemnity, in which scheming harpy Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) is portrayed as a sexually confident, strong-willed woman until she’s revealed to be an embittered broad, out to double-cross innocent insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). Phyllis should have known her place, for behind every action of ostensible strength is a jezebel; hers is a façade designed to entrap and emasculate unsuspecting men and for that she will always be punished. In the films of the Golden Age of Hollywood, women were separated into three distinct categories: broad (Barbara Stanwyck in the aforementioned film; Eleanor Parker in The Man with the Golden Arm), dame (Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn; Jean Harlow in The Public Enemy), and lady (Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief; Eva Marie Saint in classic anti-communist hogwash On the Waterfront). The women of the latter category were invariably passive little victims who either relied on men to save them or adopted a maternal role and nurtured the men in their lives, thereby making them “good” women. That old Hollywood world was one based around the suspicion and distrust of women; one in which the empowerment of women could only mean the disempowerment of men, and thus the broads and dames had to be thwarted. Today, the broads and dames are those refusing to keep silent about sexual exploitation and degradation, and, like those before them, have been attacked accordingly.

Calling out men for sexual misconduct is not misandry, nor is it an attack against all men. Only a culture of entrenched woman-hatred would have the impetus to allow such a vehement backlash against women having the courage to speak up. In response to the Golden Globes black dress protest, a male author wrote that it “shouldn’t surprise us that some of those designer black dresses were extremely low-cut”; this is an observation which insinuates that the ownership of a woman’s body is extrinsic to herself; that her body is on display for the male gaze, which may in turn justify sexual assault. Not only does this remark undermine the fight against sexual assault, but it devalues the women themselves by reducing them to sexual beings. Showing cleavage or any other body part does not mean women are asking for it – cleavage is not an invitation – and to suggest so implies that the female body is inherently deserving of assault: like a temptress, she allures the male, who is incapable of resisting, into her web. In critiquing what he perceived as the “excesses” of the #MeToo campaign, another male author wrote of one woman: “when she felt an unwelcome hand from a powerful government minister appear on her knee. She told him to knock it off, and if he didn’t remove it, she’d punch him in the face.” From this we are to conclude that unwanted advances are the fault of the victim, not the perpetrator. Men can’t help but grope so it’s up to women to defend themselves. The idea of “taking it too far” reinforces the notion of men’s ownership over women’s bodies, a violation of women not only through the acts themselves, but women’s constant justification that their bodies are not vessels for unwanted advances and humiliation. As Caitlin Flanagan noted in The Atlantic,

Saying there’s a sex panic is a fancy way of saying that women’s bodies don’t completely belong to them the way their cars do. Someone can damage a woman’s car in a very small way, and insurance companies take it seriously… She owns that car, and has every right to protect it. But if someone grabs her butt without her permission, she needs to lighten up. What is she, a frigid bitch?

The broad/dame/lady paradigm parallels contemporary misogynistic discourse. The broads are the feminists, especially the more traditionally hard-line among us, the dames are those who challenge sexism without ruffling too many feathers, and the ladies are those who collude in misogyny by claiming that a non-consensual groping of the buttocks is nothing to get all huffy about. Among this backlash we have the anti-#MeToo manifesto signed by 100 French women (including the actress Catherine Deneuve, who once remarked “I am not proud to be a woman” in response to feminist criticism levied against accused child rapist Roman Polanski). In the manifesto, it is argued that “A woman can, in the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being the sexual object of a man”. “Object” is the key word here: to objectify is to dehumanise, resulting in an unequal power dynamic symptomatic of the capitalist reduction of women to the sum of their parts. Clearly, in their condemnation of #MeToo as “anti-sex”, the signatories do not realise that there is a difference between a woman enjoying sex and being a sexual object. When a man and a woman engage in an egalitarian sexual relationship neither is the other’s object, and to imply as such is to suggest that the female body is something to be consumed, savoured, and then spat out. It is imperative to note that sexual liberation is not a prerequisite for male entitlement to women’s bodies; that is, there is a difference between sexual liberation and liberation from sexual boundaries: the former is empowerment, while the latter robs a woman of the capacity to choose sexual partners as an active agent, instead reducing her to a subordinate object of desire. In this scenario, Deneuve and the other female signatories are the “ladies” in antithesis to the feminist “broads” because they accept sexual subservience to men and perpetuate phallocentric power structures by lambasting a supposed “witch-hunt” environment rather than expressing solidarity with their fellow women.

Any notion that we are witnessing a witch-hunt comparable to McCarthyism is absurd in an industry that allows men like Johnny Depp to flourish despite both photographic and video evidence of domestic violence. False accusations are rare and are very quickly found out (as happened with Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst). There is a multitude of evidence against the men currently accused, be it through past actions and admissions or tell-tale signs manifesting in their work. The concept of the “lying female” stems from the notion of women as conniving, viraginous broads. But this denial is embedded in misogynistic culture. After all, it’s been a great past few weeks for rape apologists, as convicted serial rapists are set to be released from prison and the Crown Prosecution Service has announced that it aims to change the way in which evidence in rape trials is handled after the recent collapse of a number of cases, including that of a man whose case was dismissed following evidence that the alleged victim engaged in rape fantasies with the defendant (because, according to this logic, it is not possible to rape someone who engages in BDSM or who has consented to violent sex in the past). The proposed measures will most likely mean that we will witness even less than the 6% of rape cases which currently end in a conviction. The entire discourse is one based around the implication of women as devious broads hellbent on punishing men. Why a woman would want to put herself through the stress and trauma of pursuing an assault allegation without reason beggars belief. As someone who was stalked by a stranger for two years, I have seen first-hand the mismanagement of women’s claims: when I plucked up the courage to go to the police station and tearfully explain the terror in which I had been living, not only were my fears dismissed by the male officer, but I was told that, as a teacher, I would meet men a thousand times worse than the man stalking me.
There appears to be a deeply erroneous assumption that anger at sexual assault is somehow anti-men. What those who make this assertion fail to acknowledge in their frenzied pursuit of misogyny is that #MeToo includes male victims of assault. Criticism of the movement is borne entirely from misogyny ingrained in the treacherous woman myth, and the most striking example of this is the fact that the disputants seem to be completely ignoring the many male victims of sexual assault, most recently the models who accused fashion photographers Bruce Weber and Mario Testino of sexual exploitation. As one of Weber’s accusers explained, “The biggest pushback that I’ve gotten is, ‘Physically you could have just beat him up. Why didn’t you?’” Such sentiments eerily echo those of the darts commentator who branded male sexual abuse victims “wimps” and not “proper men”. Attacks on male victims of assault are another form of misogyny, as the courageous act of coming forward is viewed as symptomatic of the feminisation of society.

The era of “broads” and “dames” may now seem like an antiquated past. But while epithets change, the discourse remains the same. Today, the broads and dames of yesteryear have been replaced by “bitches” and “feminazis”. As long as women are still perceived as treacherous instigators of disharmony to an androcentric system, things cannot progress to a point where women are believed. Misogyny will be prevalent provided that women are regarded as villainous broads when they challenge male entitlement over their bodies. When women are silent or collude in misogyny, they are part of the status quo, i.e. ladies. But the broads must not rest until real societal change occurs, until we are afforded the most basic of rights: the right to be believed.


Antonia Louisa Georgiou