Double standards: What’s the difference between Russell Brand and ‘Superhead’?

By Guest Contributor Tami Winfrey Harris, cross-posted from What Tami Said

I am (blessedly) very close to finishing British comedian Russell Brand’s second memoir Booky Wook 2. While Brand’s first foray into writing, Booky Wook, was funny, literate and self-aware. The continued story feels self-aggrandizing and cobbled-together to capitalize on the star’s growing fame (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek). Two books in, Brand’s “beautiful fucked-up man” (TM Sarah McLachlan) schtick begins to wear thin.

Ultimately, you win no points for admitting that you are a predatory, selfish, womanizing asshole (albeit using flowery, anachronistic turns of phrase) if these self-revelations don’t lead to changed behavior. I was struck last night that Booky Wook 2 stands as a testament to society’s double standard regarding male and female sexuality. A young (white, straight) man can write two books regaling readers with tales of two-, three- and foursomes; obsessive masturbation; spitting in a woman’s face; hiring prostitutes (and making one cry through aggressive behavior); carelessly dispatching sexual partners; and, famously, calling an aging sitcom star to slyly allude to having had sex with his granddaughter.

And this all makes him just a lovable cad–one who gets much shine over on the ostensibly feminist site Jezebel. And folks buy in to the notion, advanced in Booky Wook 2, that Brand has been saved by the sweet, sweet love of a “good” woman–wide-eyed pop star and Christian-when-it’s-convenient Katy Perry, who Brand recently married. Brand can wear not just his promiscuity, but misogyny, as a badge of honor and be feted not just by the media at large, but in spaces reserved for women.

What woman has that sort of freedom? Consider Georgina Baillie, the victim of “Sachsgate,” the controversy that ended Brand’s BBC radio show and which he writes about in Booky Wook 2.

From Wikipedia:

In a previous Russell Brand Show episode, Brand’s guest co-host David Baddiel recalled having met “the Satanic Sluts” [a burlesque troop] at Brand’s home, one of whom told Baddiel that her grandfather was actor Andrew Sachs and said “Don’t tell him I was here!”[4]

On Thursday 16 October 2008, Sachs, best known in Britain for his portrayal of Manuel in the television comedy Fawlty Towers, was scheduled to be a phone-in guest on Brand’s evening radio show.

On opening the segment of the show due to feature Sachs, Brand stated “In a minute we’re going to be talking to Andrew Sachs, Manuel actor. The elephant in the room is, what Andrew doesn’t know is, I’ve slept with his granddaughter.”[5] After being unable to reach Sachs on his home phone, Brand and his guest, fellow Radio 2 DJ Jonathan Ross, left four messages on Sachs’ answerphone. During the calls in question, Brand spoke of his prior sexual relationship with Sachs’ granddaughter Georgina Baillie, burlesque dancer “Voluptua” with the dance group “The Satanic Sluts”.[6] Ross also shouted out “he f-cked your granddaughter”.[7] Later messages included further claims of the nature of the sexual encounters, and then sung apologies to Sachs, and Brand jokingly asking to marry Baillie.[5]
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In the furor that followed, which included debates about obscenity on public airwaves, the humiliation of a comedic icon and an edgy comedian’s right to be edgy, lost seemed to be the fact that a young woman’s sexuality was being leveraged in a dick-swinging contest between two famous men. That the episode was, in Baillie’s own words “humiliating,” because society does not afford her the sexual freedoms of men. The tale of Brand cavorting with a troop of women who call themselves “sluts” simply reinforces his stature as a master “swordsman.” The fact that the comedian did so, as Baddiel’s story went, with his mother also present in his home, makes him even more bad ass. But the very same situation is used to sully the women involved and their families. How is it that Brand’s mother should feel proud of, or at least benign, about her son’s sexuality, but Georgina Baillie’s grandfather should feel ashamed of hers?

Long after the so-called Sexual Revolution and several waves of feminism, men remain the only ones who are truly free to make sexual choices without concern for reputation. And race adds another layer to the way sexuality is perceived. For instance, while black men have far more sexual freedom than women do, no black man could blithely write, as Brand does, about procuring a prostitute and terrifying her by becoming angry and throwing her mobile phone against a wall without triggering all kinds stereotypes about black men’s sexuality and aggressiveness.

Women of color remain, arguably, the most constricted of all. I debated using the name “Superhead” in the title of this post, because I think it is a demeaning nickname that reduces its owner, self-proclaimed “video vixen” Karrine Steffans, to her sexual prowess. But I wanted to make clear the gap between how straight, white, male promiscuity is privileged.

Steffans has also written several memoirs. They explain how she has exploited her own sexuality, but also how, at a young age, her sexuality was exploited by wealthy and more-powerful men–up-and-coming hip hop stars and their entourages. And while a lot of ink has been spilled on Steffans’ past, no one thinks her story is charming. And I would be surprised if the public will offer Steffans redemption, even if she “reforms” and settles down with a “good” man. She will always be the video chick who gives “super head.”

I am not advocating for chastity or promiscuity. Whatever my thoughts or your thoughts on “acceptable” sexuality, our values ought to be applied across the board — equally for men and women, regardless of race. What is the difference between Russell Brand and Karrine Steffans? There is no fundamental difference. (Well, except that, based on his books, many of Brand’s past sexual relationships seem demeaning to his partners.) The difference is how we view these media figures through the lens of gender and the color of their skin. These biases dictate that, in the eyes of society, one remains a superstar, the other a slut.