The furore over the apparent betrayal of Coleen Rooney by her friend Rebekah Vardy – who is accused of leaking private information about the Rooney family to The Sun newspaper – has generated reams of British media coverage, conversation and commentary in just a few days.
Rooney is married to former England football star Wayne, while Rebekah’s husband is England player Jamie. The pair are stalwarts of the UK’s tabloid media and barely a day does by without a mention of one or the other as they pursue an expensive lifestyle in full view of the paparazzi.
But nobody was prepared for the media storm that would break when Coleen Rooney alleged on Twitter that, suspecting someone close to her had been leaking family secrets to the tabloid press, she had conducted an elaborate “sting” which appeared to suggest Rebekah Vardy had been the culprit. Vardy has denied this vehemently and is reported to be hiring investigators to prove her innocence.
The Guardian described the spat as “the best day on Twitter of all time”. The Daily Mirror was quick to line up those celebrities who were on “Team Rooney” and “Team Vardy” in what journalists have dubbed the “Wagatha Christie saga”. It’s surely one of the best headlines of all time.
On one level the affair has provided watchers with the kind of media intrigue and entertainment that comes as a welcome relief in the UK amid the continuing social divisions caused by Brexit. But we might also stop to ask ourselves why this spectacularised “spat” between “WAGs” (an acronym for wives and girlfriends of footballers) has been seized upon with such obvious and unrestrained glee. Why does tabloid media culture revel so deeply in “cat-fights” between women and what is it about the media spectacle of women at each other’s throats that prompts such relish and delight?
In media culture more broadly, women’s friendship is frequently represented as characterised by jealousy, competition, and rivalry. It’s as if meaningful solidarity, friendship and love between women can never authentically exist. This is not new – think of the intense scrutiny of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry’s “cat-fight”, or the long-term feud between Hollywood stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, which has become mythologised in histories of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Even before mass media culture, fairy tales were replete with battles between witches and fair maidens – these stories are hundreds of years old but continue to be returned to and adapted from Disney to pantomimes.
Meanwhile, there is no shortage of representations of genuine male friendship – consider the prevalence of the “buddy movie”. But in much of the contemporary modern cultural imaginary, female friendship is often understood as illusory or a sham – as merely a superficial pretence of supportive companionship that conceals ruthless self-interest or the willingness to throw one another under the bus at the first opportunity.
The timing of “WAGatha Christie” couldn’t be more perfect. With daily headlines dominated by the relentlessly grim news of Brexit and the bickering, infighting and inability to make decisions by a cohort of powerful (mainly) male politicians, this feud is providing a distraction. To many it’s a welcome respite from the seemingly more serious sphere of mainstream politics and the Brexit negotiations which will have a very real and lasting consequences.
The media vortex surrounding Rooney and Vardy has reinvigorated the notion of the WAG, which was at its zenith in celebrity culture about 13 years ago during the 2006 World Cup. This suggests that perhaps the celebrity status of the WAG is not as fleeting as we might have assumed, and what we are witnessing is its evolution and adaptation in a digital context. Platforms such as Twitter and Instagram have of course been instrumental in the unravelling of the WAGatha Christie media storm.
What this context of social media has facilitated is an acceleration and intensification of the gossip surrounding female celebrity cat-fights. Gossip now emerges in real-time – reactions and responses are instantaneous.
The digital architecture and culture of social media incites “bitchiness”, trolling and judgement, while the power to produce gossip is no longer solely in the hands of tabloid journalists and celebrity gossip bloggers. Celebrities themselves are now an accepted part of the gossip-producing industry, using social media as a platform to reveal their “private” lives and scandals that have long been sought-after by the celebrity audience since the early days of Hollywood.
Coleen, Mrs Who?
But if some things have changed since the emergence of the WAG, other things have remained depressingly the same. These women’s identities are still defined primarily – or even exclusively – by their relationships to men: they are wives and girlfriends before they are anything else.
This is part of a much longer history in which women’s lives and identities are trivialised, objectified and made subservient to those of men. But a feminist perspective can help us to reimagine what women’s identities and female friendships can be.
You only have to look at the way the word “gossip” has come to mean a kind of bitchy and backstabbing talk between women. As the feminist theorist Silvia Federici has shown, historically this word had a very different, much less pejorative meaning. Until the rise of the witch-hunts in the 16th and 17th centuries, it signified female friendship, attachment and solidarity – the opposite of the ways it is now used.
It was the communal power of women’s friendship that was seen as deeply threatening and so which needed to be destroyed: the word “gossip” therefore became a way to pit women against one another and to destroy the bonds between them. In being invited to “pick a team” – Rooney or Vardy – we are playing a clever and insidious game that patriarchy has set the rules for.
It is in patriarchy’s interests for women’s friendship to be understood as competitive, atomised and inauthentic. So when we buy into the narratives of cat-fights, bitch-fests and jealous rivalries, we are in many ways doing patriarchy’s work for it. What would it mean for us to refuse to “pick a team”, and decline to play by the rules of a game in which women can only ever be the losers?