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Does this picture make you angry?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
Whether it's Heather Mills or Kerry Katona, the celebrities that ordinary people vilify seem disproportionately to be female. Why?
hate , v. 1. trans. To hold in very strong dislike; to detest; to bear malice to
Hate's a strong word, but how many people in Britain who ever read a newspaper can honestly say they've never applied the word to a celebrity - celebrities in most cases that they've never met.
And if you've honestly racked your brains and come up with a list of the celebrities you "bear malice to", how many of them are female?
In a survey this week, by Marketing magazine the respondents' top five most loved celebrities were men - Paul McCartney, Lewis Hamilton, Gary Lineker, Simon Cowell and David Beckham. Of the five most hated, the top four were women - Heather Mills, Amy Winehouse, Victoria Beckham and Kerry Katona.
Heather Mills is probably the easiest dealt with. Many people's main gripe with celebrity is that it offers those without talents a chance to find material wealth through manipulation. For the tabloid media at least, Mills fits the bill.
But it's a bit harder to fathom the rest of the list. Why are these women seen to be so loathsome?
The phenomenon is to be tackled in an upcoming gathering of academics entitled Going Cheap?: Female Celebrity in the Tabloid, Reality and Scandal Genres, organised by Prof Diane Negra at the University of East Anglia on 25 June.
Among the speakers will be Aberdeen University academic Alan Dodd on the subject Just Too Much? Heather Mills and Celebrity Transgression.
In an abstract, he writes: "Her emotional stances on press intrusion and the specifics of her divorce battle, not to mention her defiant drenching of McCartney's lawyer, facilitates her categorisation as the traditional hysteric, with the resultant labelling of Mills as an attention seeker encountering established cultural prejudice concerning 'unfeminine' behaviour."
Another talk is entitled From Queen of the Jungle to Tabloid Folk Devil: Kerry Katona as 'White Trash Mother'. Katona has gone from being a figure positively associated with down-to-earth qualities to lurid tabloid tales of drug use as well as drinking and smoking while pregnant.
Ms Negra thinks we do hold female celebrities to different standards than their male counterparts.
"There has been a conspicuous trend in the last five years towards the production of negatively-valued women in the public sphere. People respond to the pleasures of hating these kinds of figures.
"There is incredible ambivalence in a post-feminist culture towards women in the public sphere."
In a nutshell, despite years of equal opportunities, the media - and the people who watch and read - prefer the stay-at-home mother over a woman who lives her life in public, particularly one who is overtly ambitious or successful in making money. There is great satisfaction among many people in seeing them humbled, Ms Negra suggests.
But anyone who thinks it is mainly men who are doing the hating of female celebrities is barking up the wrong tree.
"We are missing a big part of the picture if we think misogyny is the exclusive preserve of men," says Ms Negra.
Advertising expert Hamish Pringle, author of Celebrity Sells, says men and women typically have very different attitudes to the images of celebrities they encounter.
"[Some women] seem to be incredibly competitive with each other and find it hard to give credit to each other. With male celebrities a lot of men might aspire to be like them or may aspire to be with them."
But the split is not one that Ms Negra accepts. Even the idea of having negative feelings towards celebrity is viewed by many as an innately female quality.
"Men are less verbal about those reactions - they see that those reactions are seen to be feminised."
For Dr John Maltby, senior lecture in psychology at Leicester University and an expert on "celebrity interest", there is a very real motivation for trashing celebrities, particularly in group situations.
"If you have a negative attitude towards somebody; if you make downwards comparisons; if you say I'm better; that helps you raise your self-esteem. If a group is able to say we wouldn't behave like that celebrity it enhances that group's standing."
The celebrities help fulfil a role that would have been occupied by over-the-fence gossip when friendship groups were more settled in small geographical areas.
"It's the watercooler moment, talking and being with your friends," says Dr Maltby. "The celebrity becomes a reference point. If you look to communities in the 1970s there were always local heroes, local celebrities."
And the media gives every consumer plenty of chances to latch on to these reference points, as rarely a day passes without condemnation of a celebrity. The mainstays of the tabloid press have now been supplemented by a wealth of material in the new media.
In another abstract for the upcoming conference, Salford University's Kirsty Fairclough writes: "Celebrities including Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Rumer Willis, Mischa Barton and Kerry Katona are routinely condemned for their perceived excessive lifestyles in terms of their disregard for the apparent rules of femininity through extreme diets or weight gain, drug abuse, supposed lack of fashion sense/style, and an 'unfeminine' need for fame and attention."
But the hunger for the humbled female celebrity may be waning, Ms Negra suggests, with recent signs that some tabloid readers are unhappy with the way Britney Spears has been treated.
"It has become so ubiquitous - it is possible that we are reaching saturation point."
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