Some thoughts on Russell Brand and sexism

Category: Women's Liberation
Published on Thursday, 7 November 2013
Written by Kat Burdon-Manley
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‘When I was asked to edit an issue of the New Statesman I said yes because it was a beautiful woman asking me.’

This is the opening sentence of Russell Brand’s piece in the New Statesman, on revolution. When I first read the article on my break at work on a Friday, I was glad Brand was using his platform to raise issues that are very important to me. I too want social justice, the redistribution of wealth, and an end to exploitation. However, I also want an end to all oppression, so when women are so flippantly objectified and dehumanised by a throwaway comment, I am deeply hurt, in the most personal way.


The way Brand chose to use the word ‘beautiful’ destroys the meaning of what it means in a very personal way to me. Beauty is much deeper than our outward appearance, which is the context in which Brand uses it. The image conjured up from this first sentence is a woman in her twenties, with a slender body and an attractive face, according to our norms of beauty, a social construct of beauty. So, before we move on to the revolution, do we fit the perfect model of what a woman is to Brand and our dominant culture? It is one sentence, I know, but in its context it is part of an oppressive and violent patriarchal system designed to control women and some of us are a little fucking tired of it.

I’ll tell you my experience of feeling really beautiful, and you tell me if this is more human. I suffer from a condition called alopecia, which I have had since I was a young teenager. When I was 26 I lost all my hair on my entire body, and overnight I went from, to a certain extent, fitting into this standard norm of beauty, to feeling completely alien and unattractive. I had been trained by a very powerful culture to think that, because I no longer fit a standard norm of beauty, I was no longer beautiful. I remember pulling off my wig and revealing my bald head to my sister for the first time, and my sister looked at me and said ‘you’re so beautiful Kat’, and that moment, to me, was beautiful. When I was pinned up against a fence at the age of 16, by a male friend who was trying to touch me up and was overpowering me, and I had to fight him off, that to me was not a beautiful moment, regardless of how attractive the man sexually harassing me thought I was.

What I’m trying to say is that we need to change our attitude towards each other. It is not enough for our organisation to say we’re against rape and therefore we can call ourselves feminists and jobs a good’un! We need to re-evaluate our entire idea of what gender oppression is, how it permeates through our society and why we should be responsible for identifying and criticising oppressive behaviours. The people speaking out against the sexism portrayed by Brand have been vindicated because Brand actually listened, and as Alison Lord said, this is a ‘first step’, but it is a shame some of the left are still dragging their feet on this issue. I was chatting to a comrade earlier, and he raised an important point which I hadn’t thought of: that it is patronising to Russell Brand if we refuse to call out his sexism. If we allow people to hold these backward ideas and refrain from challenging them, we are not only disrespecting women, but also the person holding those views and all the people listening to them.

We also need to consider how the dehumanisation of women perpetuates violence against women and how young women are more likely to be sexually harassed and abused than older women, and this is certainly my experience. If Brand manages to speak to millions of people and encourages a wider participation in left wing politics, excellent. However, if his attitude to women, expressed in his comments, is also adopted by the same men coming into politics, we risk the safety of the women in our organisations. We should welcome people through the open door of our organisations, and be unafraid to spell out our feminism, undeterred from challenging a comrade’s laddish behaviour or a leftie celebrity’s objectification of women.

It is also very important to take a broader look at why sexist behaviour exists in our society and is not just a ‘Brand’ issue, but is actually a deeply entrenched and endemic problem, which we will be faced with in our ongoing struggle for change. 

After work on that same Friday when I read the Brand article, I went out with my leftie male friend who initially sent the article over to me, and without thinking, because I hadn’t really thought it through at that point, and didn’t even know anyone else was criticising it, I repeated Brand’s first sentence and contorted my face to show disapproval and my friend’s response was ‘come on now Kat’. So my response to this is, come on now left wing men, let’s slap Brand on the back for calling the revolution, give him a kick for being a sexist, and thank him for taking our thoughts on board.