The past is soaked in sexism. But how will we look back on today?

Someone called Amy on social media suggested that every Saturday going forward, Channel 4 should announce a Dispatches exposé to air that night, and we all guess which celebrity it will be about, and it becomes Britain’s primary form of entertainment, a sort of horrible Masked Singer spin-off. It sounds like an absolutely legitimate idea to me and, I reckon, the UK could rustle up enough subjects for it to run at least as long as Strictly. I thought about this idea quite a lot, partly because of the way it illustrates our current dystopia and partly because recent revelations have made me, like everyone else, think back to the entertainment and media I consumed in the early 2000s.

I had moved back in with my parents – I was surviving heartbreak, interning at a style magazine and doing my best to present as grown. Not only was I consuming media, I was trying my lazy hardest to learn how to work inside it, too, mining my friends’ lives for trends I could write about. Upstairs, a new lads’ mag was launching; down the hall was a gossip weekly that published paparazzi closeups of celebrity thighs surrounded by a “circle of shame”. In 2002, on Charlotte Church’s 16th birthday, Chris Moyles offered to take her virginity live on Radio 1.

It wasn’t long since I’d left school, where our awareness of ourselves as teenage girls caused a kind of sea sickness, a lurching from shame to brief promises of power. Some girls starved themselves, some had boyfriends twice their age who’d pick them up in a car. The ice-cream man gave you free broken lollies if you got into the van and sat on his lap. None of this was uncommon or notable – teenage girls have always had to navigate that pink limbo on the way to adulthood – but what was new, perhaps, was the state of mainstream entertainment we emerged into as adults.

Plenty of us are now reflecting on those times – on The Apprentice and X Factor auditions, on a culture delighted by sadism and ironic sexism, the racism of Bo’ Selecta! and Little Britain, the bullying and classism of Jeremy Kyle. My boyfriend’s band was the guest one morning on Soccer AM, a Sky show that featured a weekly “Soccerette”, a girl modelling a football shirt to a male audience who’d cheer or boo. Whenever I watched a show like this, or saw a Page Three girl folded across a tube seat, or even, as was the fashion then, went to parties in strip clubs, I felt that familiar seasick lurch, a quick rearranging of self from object to objectifier – objecter was not an option, if you wanted to keep on having fun.

Abi Titmuss was a “lads’ mag favourite”, with 38 front-page appearances in 2004 and 2005; in 2006 she had a breakdown

On social media this week, people have been reading old copies of FHM in the white light of 2023. A quiz asking “Is Your Lady a Lunatic?” was illustrated by a closeup of Sheryl Gascoigne crying, the victim of her husband’s well-documented violence. The most famous women in Britain were famous for being the girlfriends of celebrities. They were either footballers’ Wags, or their “mistresses”, like Rebecca Loos or (in the case of Abi Titmuss) a girlfriend first visible in court on the arm of John Leslie as he successfully fought allegations of a sexual assault. After her sex tape was sold to the papers, Titmuss became a “lads’ mag favourite”, with 38 front-page appearances between 2004 and 2005; in 2006, she said later, she’d had a breakdown.

Writing about media that re-examines women destroyed by the culture of our recent past, such as Britney Spears or Amy Winehouse, TV critic Kathryn VanArendonk last year christened the genre “empathy tourism”: it’s “the culture of one place seen through the eyes of a foreign traveller… It frees us to see its values as outdated.” We return to the present day, enlightened, and a little smug. Which is why, during any conversation about “the culture”, like those being had this week, I now listen for a quiet sigh of relief. The relief being – we are off the hook. Those were the olden days, before we understood consent or control or such confusions as the male gaze – those were the olden days, the culture was different then.

And while it’s crucial to look back critically, there’s always the risk that we shift blame on to an amorphous, unchangeable force, that rotten “culture”, rather than hold people and systems responsible, or even try to make changes to reform our media, end sexual harassment and avoid our politics sliding backwards. Sexism, racism, classism – these are not just regrettable things that happened in the past, they’re alive and thriving, and in the future we will no doubt look back enlightened at the horrors we enjoy on telly today. Time doesn’t really move on, does it? It just buries itself.

As an intern, I once shared a lift with Abi Titmuss, on her way to the lads’ mag upstairs, and I remember a particular kind of excitement at standing so close to a person with such darkly specific, humiliated power. I looked her up online today, thinking about whose stories get to be reframed or reclaimed, and she’s happy now, an actor in LA, one kid, married to an American. “I wanted to meet somebody who didn’t know anything about me, so [he] didn’t have any judgment,” she told the Daily Mirror in 2020. “He was seeing a complete stranger.”

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