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Aoife Barry Clips of Brand and others from the mid-2000s show how change still needs to happen

In the wake of the accusations against Russell Brand, the journalist and writer questions how far we have truly come.

LAST UPDATE | 19 Sep 2023

RECENTLY I WAS horrified by a compilation of TV clips from the late 1990s and early 2000s that did the rounds on Instagram.

The vignettes were grim: a teenaged Britney Spears asked about her breasts by an interviewer; Victoria Beckham weighed by presenter Chris Evans on TFI Friday after giving birth to baby Brooklyn.

It was a litany of moments that showed the sort of toxic, sexist behaviour people of my millennial generation had to absorb while we were finding our way in the world.

But are we so far from those times, really? We can forget the context of when these clips were filmed, yet by the time of Beckham’s appearance on TFI Friday in 1999, the Spice Girls were just a year away from splitting up.

The five women had already made the phrase ‘Girl Power’ mainstream.

This feminist slogan had emerged in the alternative music world via US riot grrrl band Bikini Kill.

By the time the Spice Girls co-opted the phrase, it was watered down a little. But the message still became a phenomenon, and it felt meaningful to see young girls feeling the joy of finding their own power.

Victoria Beckham only spoke out about the humiliating TFI Friday incident last year. She can finally call out this behaviour for what it was.

But what happened to her was treated like a “bit of a laugh” at the same time Girl Power was on its way to being added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

This example of progress and regression colliding says to me that if we start thinking we are the all-knowing generation, disturbing behaviour can pass by us without comment.

I write this in the wake of the allegations made against British comedian Russell Brand.

Brand denies the allegations, which were made in a joint investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches, the Sunday Times and the Times newspaper and involved four alleged victims. The details of what allegedly occurred have led to a look back at the era in which Brand emerged, which was after the Spice Girls’ and Girl Power’s heyday.

In his own way, Brand challenged perceptions around what it was to be a man. With his eyeliner, backcombed hair and sprayed-on jeans, and his loquacious style of speaking, he was an intriguing, flamboyant specimen on the normally straitlaced British TV scene.

His ascent to fame was swift and he was soon a tabloid regular.

Part of Brand’s brand was that he was what tabloids love to call a ‘lothario’, and the comedian himself mentioned in his rebuttal to the allegations that he was going through what he called a ‘promiscuous’ period during his early fame, which he has already detailed in his writing and stand-up.

He was notable for speaking publicly about going through AA treatment, and by being so forthright about his feelings he could encourage other men to be forthright also.

He was forthright too about his views on women, and his sex life. Some of the clips of him which have resurfaced feel grimy to watch in the wake of the allegations.

We can imagine that they come from an era where we were less evolved, less attuned to gender equality, less able to point out what was acceptable and what was not.

Take it from someone who is a feminist and who read Brand’s 2007 memoir My Booky Wook: this was all taking place in an era where we did feel we were evolved, or at least evolving. We were post-Girl Power.

Hell, some people thought we were post-feminist. In certain quarters, even talking about gender equality was a bit passé. Didn’t women already have it all?

In 2023, we can pat ourselves on the back for what happened during #MeToo. But the factors that drove #MeToo – sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual inequality – did not fade away as the hashtag grew in prominence.

We do have more scrutiny placed on people’s actions now because of social media (and Brand’s own discussions of feminism in recent years faced backlash he didn’t get in the noughties), but this is far from a perfect solution to tackling or preventing sexual crimes.

We’re ahead in many ways today in terms of gender than before. Interrogating the gender binary itself is much more part of wider culture than it ever was, and Gen Z in particular is playing a big role in exploding cultural and societal gender norms.

But we can’t collectively presume that as we make progress we won’t ignore the sort of instances that are now being compiled into “look at how bad the 1990s/2000s were!,” videos.

By thinking this current era is less likely to make the mistakes of the past, we are bound to be faced with our own hubris.

The world of celebrity is where you can find plenty of examples of troubling behaviour. Just this year alone we’ve seen the former President of the Spanish football federation Luis Rubiales being given a restraining order after kissing player Jenni Hermoso on the lips during the World Cup ceremony.

The former editor of Rolling Stone magazine said some ridiculous things about female and black musicians.

Tiger Woods handed competitor Justin Thomas a tampon in some sort of weird power move at a competition in February. The more things change… you know the rest.

Every time a high-profile allegation of sexual misbehaviour occurs, the more depressing it is to think that it’s happening now, after everything that’s gone before.

In some cases, it says a lot about the nature of celebrity, and the power dynamic that occurs when someone becomes famous.

Others show exactly what hasn’t changed when it comes to gender equality – including the fact that people often have to wait years before speaking out, for fear of not being believed.

It’s always shocking and sad for longtime fans of a celebrity who faces serious accusations. The situations tend to highlight things we thought we’d moved past, and make us question what we thought we knew about a person.

Sadly, we can expect more of these situations to occur in the near future, and more high-profile people to be faced with allegations about sexual misbehaviour.

For all that has been learned and all that has changed, and survivors still find it hard to speak out.

In the real world, most people who face or make allegations are not celebrities. But in the stories of high-profile people, we can find ourselves faced with harsh truths about the change that still needs to come.

Aoife Barry is a journalist and author.

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