In 1987, legendary pop duo Mel and Kim were adamant that “we ain’t never gonna be respectable (respectable)” – as if dancing about in berets was the height of unrespectability in the late 80s. Never has the inability to command respect seemed so much fun.
I’m not sure much has changed since Mel and Kim danced their rather demure routine in that pretend New York back-alley. The bolero jacket and wide brimmed-hat trend might be gone but what remains is the popular cultural conceit that women can revel in being unrespectable. The sleight of hand that says that women can be celebrated for their unrespectability as long as – ironically – they stick closely to the social rules of acceptable feminine conduct: be grateful, be apologetic, be ashamed, and be sexually desirable without being sexually desiring. Unrespectability, then, becomes another mask for women to wear – something to try on but not to inhabit.
No one knows this better than Katie Price. Her BBC documentary, Harvey and Me, aired last night. It follows Price’s search for a suitable residential college for her son, Harvey. Price has enjoyed some support recently about her decision to move Harvey to full-time care but have a scroll through the comments on any of Price’s social media accounts or have a quick online search of her name and you’ll quickly find that the positive response is the exception that proves the rule: we love to hate Katie Price.
Yet, the sustained negative tabloid coverage of Price and the online trolling to which she’s subjected tells us more about broader cultural attitudes to working-class women than it does about her as a person. We don’t know Katie Price as a person, only as a media persona on which the public projects their anxieties, prejudices and desires. Attitudes to her reflect cultural preoccupations about deserving and undeserving women: which women warrant our support and compassion – based on their respectability – and which do not.
Price has many accomplishments to her name, including disability rights campaigner, author, designer, entrepreneur and mother of five, but none of them prevent her from being publicly derided and debased on a regular basis, despite clear and frequent signals that she is fragile and distressed. It doesn’t seem to matter, though. Public and media distaste and disdain for Price remain alongside a prurient fascination with her body, behaviour and (repeated) downfall. From her latest cosmetic treatment to the state of her “mucky mansion” as Price negotiates financial decline, no inch of Price’s life – or body – goes without comment. There’s a hand-rubbing glee when Price is unable to maintain the home she bought during her hey-day and a crowing mirth over her attempts to generate income.
What sets Katie Price apart, then? Why is Pricey-baiting an acceptable pastime? Why does she deserve the casual cruelty of social media users and tabloid journalists? Is it so offensive that she turns her humiliations into earning opportunities? The “mucky mansion” story ran for weeks until Price included a clean-up of the property as part of her reality show. Some might argue that Price is “asking for it” by subjecting her life to the scrutiny of the public eye, but what she’s doing is reclaiming her narrative. She’s telling her own story and making the money (which she desperately needs) instead of being a cash cow for others.
It’s almost as if Price’s financial and mental health struggles are seen as a kind of comeuppance – some sort of moral justice – but for what? Price is outspoken and unapologetic. Shouldn’t we find her authenticity refreshing? Apparently not. Price continues to be constructed as a grotesque figure of fun, repeatedly pilloried and rejected by the public and press. It seems that some authenticities are more valued than others.
Price is a single mother experiencing financial and psychological distress alongside caring for seriously ill family members. How many women are in the same boat? Millions. When we trivialise the experiences of Price, we trivialise similar experiences of women across the world. Maybe that’s the point: despite Mel and Kim’s celebration of women’s unrespectability in 1987, in 2021 we’re still taking aim at women who refuse to bow to social mores.
Dr Katie Edwards is a freelance writer and broadcaster