The face that sank a thousand ships
Samantha Brick earned her 15 minutes of infamy last week by writing a Daily Mail column which caused an extraordinary outpouring of public ridicule. REBECCA DAVIS takes a look at why this self-proclaimed beauty became a lightning rod for anger and derision.
Last week The New Yorker published a sublimely entertaining feature about the Daily Mail, Britain’s most powerful newspaper. Among other nuggets, the piece reported that the Mail had to shut down a proxy web address last year used by liberals hungry to access the tabloid’s gossipy goodness without driving up web traffic to the site. This anecdote illustrates many people’s somewhat conflicted relationship with the newspaper and its accompanying website: people who read its content frequently will admit to being faintly repulsed by its tone and stance on many issues.
The paper itself considers this a selling point. In a 2010 presentation, Mail Online editor Martin Clarke said “TV, radio and web portals can’t compete with our unique tone of voice and world view”. The “tone of voice” in question is hard to characterise, but easy to recognise: it is snarky, sceptical and disingenuous. The “world view” is driven by suspicion of everything it does not consider appropriately English. Philosopher Julian Baggini, who spent six months in 2007 searching for “the real England” as research for his book Welcome to Everytown, concluded that the dominant distinction between rivals the Sun and the Daily Mail was that the latter was hell-bent on fear-mongering, whereas the former had a, er, sunnier outlook.
There’s a UK website which features a device called “Daily Mail-omatic”, an algorithm which randomly generates headlines, which typify the style of the Daily Mail. “Will the Euro ruin England?” “Will lesbians give taxpayers cancer?” “Could paedophiles turn the church gay?” and so on – alarmist rhetorical questions that can invariably be answered with “No”. But their approach to the world seems to be working out remarkably well for them. The Mail Online has just overtaken The New York Times in web traffic, and more than 6-million hard copies of the Daily Mail are sold every day.
This wasn’t always the case. The tabloid suffered after World War II due to the close relationship its owner, Lord Rothermere, developed with Hitler. But in 1971, The New Yorker reports, the paper relaunched, aiming to capture a female audience, with the slogan “Every woman needs her Daily Mail”.
Women still make up 53% of the tabloid’s readership, though it is no longer explicitly female-targeted. Editor Paul Dacre told The New Yorker: “We target anew every morning how we are going to connect with women. Upmarket women, women juggling families with careers, women going through menopause or divorce or looking after aged parents. Empathising with women is much of the secret of the Mail’s success.”
There is, however, a vast disconnect between this version of events and the way the newspaper is perceived by many women. Writing for The Guardian last week, columnist Hadley Freeman did not mince her words: “The Daily Mail uses its female writers in precisely the same way it uses its female readers and celebrities: frequently, centrally and, always, cruelly. Like an abusive husband, the Daily Mail courts women and needs women, but will always turn around and punch them in the face. Because the Daily Mail hates women.”
The catalyst for Freeman’s anger was the Daily Mail’s decision to run the now infamous column by Samantha Brick titled “There are downsides to looking this pretty: Why women hate me for being beautiful”.
The piece caused what is technically known as a shitstorm. It also amounted to pure gold for the Daily Mail. At its peak, the article was receiving four comments a minute. That’s the stuff of web editors’ dreams. It was viewed more than 6-million times within a few days.
The issue is, you see, that Samantha Brick is pretty average. The Mail posted numerous pictures alongside the article as a helpful guide to the reader, in which she appears to be a very well put-together woman, but certainly no Helen of Troy.
Inevitably, Twitter was the conduit through which the article spread, together with a great deal of harsh commentary. The author’s name trended on Twitter for several days, in fact, together with the hashtag #SamanthaBrickfacts, a collection of humorously false pieces of information like “Chuck Norris once tried to ask Samantha Brick out on a date, and stammered. #SamanthaBrickFacts” and “James Blunt wrote ‘You're beautiful’ after he briefly caught sight of Samantha Brick in a crowded place. #samanthabrickfacts”. The column also instantly spawned parodies, the best of which were Tim Dowling for The Guardian and Vice website’s piece by “Samantha Sick”.
Much of the commentary was not humorous, however. The best rated comment on her article, which received over 25,000 flags of approval on the Daily Mail website, was from “Annie, Toronto, Canada”: “I don't normally write comments but this article was so outrageous, I just had to. I don't judge on looks, but this writer seems so deluded, I thought perhaps she needed a reality check. Sorry if this sounds mean, but the writer is not that attractive. In fact, she is only marginally ok looking. Her arrogance, however, is breathtaking. Perhaps the reason that other women don't like her is because she comes across as an unlikeable self-obsessed narcissist?”??Some speculated that the whole thing was a publicity scam, that Samantha Brick was seeking instant celebrity with a column she knew would attract controversy. But appearing on the ITV breakfast show This Morning the following day, Brick revealed herself to be apparently in earnest. Host Eamonn Holmes repeatedly pressed her on whether or not she considered herself beautiful, to which she replied: “Do I think I’m good looking? Yes I do. Is that a crime?” Brick repeated her claim that women resent other attractive women, saying: “It got me thinking about how the sisterhood attack beautiful women”. Co-host Ruth Langsford took umbrage at this, expressing the views of many: “Neither me nor my friends have any problem with beauty. But we do not like arrogance.”
During the interview Brick said that in the 24 hours since the article was published, she had received “thousands of vile messages” via Twitter, email and voicemail. In an interview with the Independent on the same day, she confessed to feeling “frightened”. The Daily Mail couldn’t possibly pass up on the opportunity to milk the story a little more, so they had her write a follow-up , wordily headlined: “The I'm so beautiful backlash: In yesterday's Mail, Samantha Brick claimed other women loathe her for being too attractive. It provoked a worldwide internet storm. Here she says: This bile just proves I'm right”. A commenter on the Mail Online summed it up: “Oh God, lady, you have just made it ten times worse for yourself”.
But amid all the derision levelled at Brick, a fair number of (predominantly female) journalists suggested the real target should be the Daily Mail, for essentially setting Brick up for the fail. Although it was Brick who approached the Mail with the pitch for the article, and although she said afterwards the paper had been “amazingly supportive”, the argument is that the decision to publish Brick’s piece, together with some quite unflattering photographs, is typical of the tacit editorial policy of denigrating women.
Hadley Freeman cites three examples in the past of “female freelancers whose articles for the Daily Mail were slaughtered to fit that paper’s agenda and attract attention, generally of the negative kind”. In 2009 Laura Scott described her experience of being interviewed by the paper about her decision not to have children. The interview was turned into a first-person account which included the claim that her friend Marie called her “selfish” for not having kids. Scott did not have a friend called Marie.
Similarly, in 2010 a writer called Cat Hughes pitched a piece about how starting work after a long period of unemployment and illness helped her self-esteem. The Daily Mail published it with the headline “Middle class and hooked on benefits”. Hughes said she was “humiliated, gutted, mortified” by the response to the piece.
The Independent’s Harriet Walker took a similar stance to Freeman’s. “Bear-baiting and cockfighting might be illegal, but woman-baiting is not, and certain institutions are content to cynically set up and sell ringside seats to the most horrid and vitriolic of catfights,” she wrote. “Brick is a witless puppet for a male hegemony that derives its power partly from the myth that all women everywhere are endlessly patronising and hurting each other.”
The furore over Brick’s piece will blow over, and perhaps fortunately, she lives in rural France, where she can presumably hide out until the Internet has lost interest. For the Daily Mail, however, this has been an overwhelmingly positive episode: it’s estimated that, taking ad revenue into account, the piece made the Mail as much as £100,000. It has every incentive to run similar pieces in future.
The New Yorker profile of the newspaper (written in the pre-Samantha Brick era) concludes with the journalist asking Mail Online editor Martin Clarke why he had decided to run a story, that day, actress AnnaLynne McCord having been photographed with some pimples on her cheek. Clarke’s response: “Well, we all just looked at the picture and went ‘Yuck,’. Look, she’s an actress in 90210, and she’s spotty.” DM
- Mail Supremacy, in The New Yorker.
- There are downsides to looking this pretty: Why women hate me for being beautiful’, in the Daily Mail.
Photo: Samantha Brick – the focus of public ridicule. DAILYMAIL.CO.UK