Josie Cunningham, class, and the fame game

Glamour models, boob jobs, Big Brother and misogyny sounds like a Big Night In round at Mail Online’s place, so it’s of little surprise that aspiring model and one-time cosmetic surgery patient Josie Cunningham has hit headlines again this week. Boringly she hasn’t been fighting with Jodie Marsh, or pouring her curves into a bikini, or having an affair with Peter Andre, all of which might be quite interesting for a celebrity gossip connoisseur like myself. Nope, her crime this time is exercising her rights under the good old Abortion Act of 1967 to terminate an unplanned pregnancy so she can progress her career as a glamour model on the celebrity circuit by appearing on Big Brother.

People who comment on online articles largely appear in my head as literal goblins living under a bridge somewhere and coughing up phlegm, so I mostly disregard the steady flow of vitriol that comes from them below the line. More disappointing are the apparently progressive people – many of them women – so quick to jump on her decision and criticise her reasons for an abortion, or “respect her choice while respectfully disagreeing with the reasons for it”. A public service announcement from your fellow apparently progressive person here: this is bullshit. As a feminist and – to use the technical phrase – ‘not a dick’, I respect the rights and autonomy of everyone to do whatever they want with their own bodies, regardless of whether it’s what I’d do with mine. We can never support a woman’s right to choose only until we decide we don’t trust her with that right, because being pro-choice means being pro any choice, not just pro those at the top of a fictional hierarchy of legitimacy. Being pro-choice means being pro the choices of people who aren’t like us and don’t make the choices we might make. Being pro-choice means being pro the choice of an aspiring glamour model who has had a boob job and draws on her own eyebrows.

Because here’s the crux of it: what the debate around this seems to come down to is the intersection of Josie Cunningham’s gender and perceived class in a way that sees her vilified twice over. I’m certainly not the first to draw comparison with a CEO or lawyer who might choose to terminate a pregnancy to further themself on that particular career path, but it’s a point worth bearing in mind; society has respect for those women at a bar in the legal sense, but not those behind one on a Saturday night to make ends meet, and certainly not those dancing on the stage in front of one. Why a woman might go into modelling or reality TV is no business of mine or anyone else’s (and I have no doubt that lots do it because it’s genuinely their number one aspiration, in which case good on them) but when patriarchy is telling you you’re worthless without a top job and then literally playing bouncer on the door of the job interview, it’s no wonder we cash in on the other values attributed to us by society – beauty, sex appeal, femininity – by trying to carve out a name in the celebrity world. When I was younger, I also wanted to be famous; it just so happens that my middle-class white girl standards were set at being a Hollywood actress or a prima ballerina, so that’s okay then.

Big Brother housemates 2013

Media like Big Brother and The Only Way is Essex – as well as the women appearing on them – are constantly dismissed as trash and used to advance arguments about a damaging ‘celebrity culture’ in a way that Hollywood films and indie guitar bands aren’t. Perhaps this is because everyone knows that 95% of indie guitar bands are just rubbish fronts for boring dudes in fedoras trying to stall time before getting a job in a bank, but more likely it’s because the viewership for these types of media is predominantly women and girls, the interests of whom are devalued at any opportunity and result in the production of even lower quality media targeted at women. We treat One Direction fans as air-headed and lacking in agency in the same way we do the models pinned to the walls of their tween male counterparts. We screw women over by minimising their tastes, but we screw them twice over when those tastes suggest a perceived class that isn’t middle to upper.

Josie Cunningham is on the front of our papers because her position at the intersection between gender and class is one that sees her attacked by right-wing misogynists and ‘left-wing feminists’ alike, the type who advocate a kind of Lily Allen meets Caitlin Moran feminism where brains and boobs are mutually exclusive and ‘How To Be A Woman’ is to be white and middle-class and doing a ‘respectable’ job. Well, I have a huge amount of respect for sex workers and glamour models and Big Brother participants, and people who have abortions, and anyone else who makes a decision they’re entitled to make in a system of patriarchy that immediately tells them it was the wrong one.

And anyway, I’d rather go on a night out with a C-list Big Brother runner-up than a fedora-ed indie band boy any day.

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