What the women we love to hate tell us about unconscious misogyny

The Kardashians are heading to Cuba.

The Kardashians are heading to Cuba. Photo: Getty

 A fundamental feature of patriarchy is that women are judged more harshly than men for the same behaviour. Whether expressing anger or expressing sexuality, men get free passes while women's lives and careers can be ruined for a single transgression.

Society's attitude to women is contradictory. Women are expected to be attractive but those who try "too hard" are scorned for their vanity. Likewise, we sexualise women but hate them for being sexual. It's no surprise that the Virgin Mary, the most beloved woman who ever existed, is so exalted; a mother who never had sex: what could be more perfect?

At next month's All About Women festival, I'll be chairing a panel discussion, The Women We Love To Hate, that will aim to get to the bottom of this double standard.

Rather than criticise the - male - writers and director of SATC 2, it was the female stars who were the targets of ...

Rather than criticise the - male - writers and director of SATC 2, it was the female stars who were the targets of relentless personal attacks.

One of the panellists, Australian author Charlotte Wood, published her latest novel, The Natural Way Of Things, late last year. The dystopian tale explores the treatment of women involved in high profile sex scandals, and takes a common theme - hostility towards sexually active women - to its logical, horrifying conclusion.

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Wood knows that misogyny, like racism, is largely unconscious. Not only will very few people admit to to hating women, many of those who do so don't even realise it. No matter how often women get condemned for behaviour that barely raises an eyebrow in men, those who engage in it will vehemently deny misogyny has anything to do with it.

Perhaps nowhere is this better exemplified than in our ongoing fascination with the Kardashians. The Kardashian women are rich and famous because the public has made them so. Years ago, we collectively decided that, for whatever reason, we cared about the minutiae of these women's lives.

The cast of Entourage weren't subjected to the same vitriol as SATC, despite the film being similarly bad.

The cast of Entourage weren't subjected to the same vitriol as SATC, despite the film being similarly bad. Photo: Claudette Barius

And yet, there persists a fierce consensus that the women are famous "for nothing," as if they are entirely to blame for our obsession with them. A 2012 petition to "Boycott the Kardashians" and "bring back smarter TV" attracted half a million signatures.

To be clear, I'm not saying that each and every criticism of the Kardashians is intrinsically misogynistic or that women must never criticise other women. But when it comes to the Kardashians, it is not, it seems, enough to say you don't care for them, or that you find their performed vacuousness troubling.

No, the Kardashians can't be merely ignored or disagreed with, they must be vilified as "the epitome of everything that's wrong with Western culture", "utter trash", and "selfish, self-centred, greedy, and hungry for fame and attention".

Those are all real quotes by followers of my Facebook page, admonishing me for suggesting that an anti-Kardashian meme I shared was rooted in misogyny. It's true variations of this particular meme was circulated featuring other celebrities including Justin Beiber, but, it is the ubiquitousness of anti-Kardashian sentiment and the vitriolic way it is delivered that sets them apart.

It seems no matter the meme, the Kardashians are always fair game, and the hatred is always centred around the following: not only are this family of women "sluts", they are rich sluts who revel in their wealth and their looks.

It is astonishing that in a society mired in endless war, capitalist exploitation, and state-sanctioned torture of refugees, a family of women whose alleged crimes are having sex and enjoying fame, can be so authoritatively denounced as the absolute worst of our culture.

Meredith Jones, an academic who curated a symposium on the Kardashians, noted in The Guardian that men simply don't attract this kind of vehement criticism:

"I was interviewed several times for press and radio and each time was asked to justify the notion of taking the Kardashians seriously. I found myself wondering whether a symposium around, say, Bear Grylls, would have caused the same furore. I doubt it, because the broadcasting of Grylls' overtly masculine set of skills and the cultural relevance of his labour as a professional wilderness survivor and adventurer seem go unquestioned, despite their irrelevance to the lives of most people."

This gleeful hatred is reminiscent of the furore that surrounded the release of Sex And The City 2 six years ago. Again, to be clear, the film was terrible. The Middle Eastern stereotypes were as tired as the plot was dull. But, rather than criticise the - male - writers and director, it was the female stars who were the targets of a relentless barrage of personal attacks. These included:

"Materialistic whores", "(A) cross between Wurzel Gummyidge and Bride of Chucky", "Bitchy heroines", "equine", "badly embalmed", "blonde slut", "lewd sluts", "ugly", "venal", "greedy, faithless, spoiled, patronising... morons".

And that's just from the film critics.

Compare that to reviews of the male-centric Entourage, also based on a much-loved TV show, and also by all-accounts a bad film. Critics panned it, but their zingers didn't get much more virulent than "staler than last night's Axe body spray", "a misguided, crassly-written and painfully unfunny experience that will struggle to appeal even to die-hard fans of the show", and "All a big-screen version does is help magnify how ironically un-cinematic the whole thing is."

In other words, critics critiqued the actual film, not the faces and sex lives of the actors.

In The Natural Way Of Things, Wood describes the moment one of the characters finally understands why she is so loathed:

"For the hatred of what came out of you, what you contained. What you were capable of. She understood because she shared it, this dull fear and hatred of her body. It had bloomed inside her all her life, purged but regrowing, unstoppable, every month: this dark weed and the understanding that she was meat, was born to make meat."

Blood. Meat. Animals. Nature.

The bleeding, life-creating bodies of women are a permanent reminder of the animalistic nature humans have tried so hard to transcend. We laud intellect and reason but consider them realms of men. Meanwhile, emotions and physicality, the domains of women, are derided.

But there is a redemption of sorts, a way to atone for the audacity of our vaginas and our wombs. As long as women act 'appropriately', they are accepted, loved even. This means conforming to those stereotypically female characteristics: nurturing, maternal, humble, chaste, modest.

But the minute women break this social contract by showing anger, or vanity, or having sex, loving money - activities men are allowed to engage in all the time - then we are considered to be betraying our nature, and the punishment is swift and severe, as this frankly cruel booing of Kardashian "momager" Kris Jenner demonstrates.

Our so-called egalitarian society is coated in a veneer of tolerance for women so thin, it takes only the lightest scratch to expose the burning contempt of all things female beneath.

Just ask those women we love to hate.