It sounds like something out of a Chaucerian tale. The old white male lecher with a wandering eye. The tired wife of Islington. The young attractive blonde who comes on to the scene, with her buxom curves and not-so-innocently lures the lecher away from the wife.
This narrative is, quite literally, from the Middle Ages. But it’s one that has persisted throughout modern society, and it’s one that is currently being applied to former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds, the Conservative party’s former communications director.
Rumours have surfaced, alleging that Johnson’s recently announced divorce from his wife, Marina, is due to an affair he had with Symonds, who has now left politics to take up a PR role at Bloomberg. As with all personal stories of this nature, no one knows exactly what the truth is. But that hasn’t stopped media headlines from coming up with their own, tired, predictable narrative.
The fact that Symonds, 30, is an intelligent, highly respected woman with an impressively successful career has been ignored. Headlines are not focusing on her graduating from Warwick University with a first in history of art, or the fact she was communications director of Conservative HQ in her twenties, or the fact that she’s a conservationist working to minimise plastic in our oceans.
Instead, they’re picking up on the fact that she’s BLONDE, she likes PARTIES, she once dressed up as BRITNEY SPEARS at university – where she also acted in a play about SEX and had to wear black tights with SMUDGED EYELINER. Tabloids – and broadsheets – are speculating on the fact that she is “just five years older than Johnson’s eldest daughter” (the MP is now 54), once invited middle-aged politicians to her birthday party, so probably has “daddy issues”.
While, unsurprisingly, the photos of her being used to illustrate these articles are not her professional headshots, but instead have been taken from her social-media accounts and show her on holiday in her bikini, or dressed up for parties.
In short, Symonds has been completely reduced to a stereotype of a mistress. She’s been described as “flirtatious”, “publicity-loving”, a “vulnerable woman who needed rescuing” (yes, seriously, this is something a “Tory insider” told The Telegraph) and a lover of designer clothes with high heels.
Every time a high-profile man is sexually linked to a woman, this happens. Her personal social-media accounts are looted for photos of her looking ‘risque’, her entire past is regurgitated and analysed
The media has essentially hand-picked the elements of her personality that fit the old Chaucerian “older man and younger woman affair” narrative, and ignored everything else about her – namely, the fact that she is a three-dimensional human being with feelings. In contrast, barely anything has been written about Johnson, bar the insinuation that it’s “typical” behaviour for him, and “oh, dear, let’s all just roll our eyes at this old – yet damned lucky – buffoon”.
As always, it is the woman’s reputation that is being annihilated. It’s sexist, it’s misogynist and it’s incredibly dangerous. Monica Lewinsky, one of the most famous women to find herself being torn apart and internationally scrutinised by the media over a sexual relationship, has spent years of her adult life trying to stress just how damaging this is. How online bullying, and this “shame” narrative that turns women into solely sexual objects and men into lucky idiots, can ruin lives.
“Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide,” she said in her 2015 TED talk. “Granted, it was before social media, but people could still comment online, email stories, and, of course, email cruel jokes. I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, ‘that woman’. It was easy to forget that ‘that woman’ was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken.”
It is unbearably sad to hear Lewinsky talk about how she “wanted to die” because of the media’s handling of her affair, and it is just as sad to see how, decades later, nothing has changed. Symonds is just another woman whose private life has been splashed across the internet, all because of allegations about a relationship she may or may not have had with a man she worked alongside.
Every time a high-profile man is sexually linked to a woman, this happens. Her personal social-media accounts are looted for photos of her looking “risque” (translation: in beachwear, holding a drink, dancing), her entire past is regurgitated and analysed, and she’s reduced to this absurd, two-dimensional Chaucerian stereotype.
There is a whole separate argument as to whether newspapers should even cover this kind of news, but the reality is that, when politicians and sex are involved, there are going to be headlines. That’s not going to change overnight. But what does need to change yesterday is the way these stories are covered.
It is never just a case of “other woman” and “older man” – there are real people with real feelings at the heart of this and, as Lewinsky so bravely admitted, we need to remember that there are always going to be real consequences behind every “fun-loving flirty aide” headline.