Russell Brand never hid his misogyny. So why did so many fail to see it?

Liberal feminism helped create the space for Brand to ‘joke’ about raping women without meaningful pushback.

FILE - Russell Brand speaks at the opening of The Trew Era Cafe, a social enterprise community project on the New Era estate in east London, Thursday, 26 March, 2015. Three British news organizations are on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023 reporting that comedian and social influencer Russell Brand has been accused of rape, sexual assault and abuse based on allegations from four women who knew him over a seven-year period at the height of his fame. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP, file)
Russell Brand speaks at the opening of The Trew Era Cafe, a social enterprise community project in east London, Thursday, 26 March, 2015. [Joel Ryan/Invision/AP, file]

Blatant displays of misogyny, such as “jokes” about sexual abuse and degradation of women, are never “harmless banter”. Radical feminists have been saying this since “lad culture”, a popular youth subculture that glorifies male violence, exaggerated expressions of masculinity and sexual aggression, first emerged in Britain as part of a backlash against feminist gains in the 1990s.

Whenever we tried to raise the alarm about this misogynistic “banter”, which came to dominate TV shows, newspaper columns, comedy acts and student life alike throughout the 2000s and 2010s, they accused us of “not having a sense of humour”, of being “too uptight”.

For decades, pure, unadulterated sexism has been sold to the masses as “comedy” and we, radical feminists, have been accused of not having a sense of humour for not finding rape “funny”.

The comedian that made the most of this toxic cultural space was Russell Brand.

Brand joked a lot about rape.

On a BBC radio show in 2007, for example, he “jokingly” declared that when it comes to women he likes to have relations with, he does not like getting “bogged down in things like age, race or whether or not they’re awake…”

A few years later, in a 2013 performance (now erased from YouTube), he had a right old chuckle saying he “raped someone once” and “killed her after”. He went on to joke about child rape in ancient Greece within the same performance.

Millions laughed with him. Over and over again.

Earlier this week, a joint investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches and the Sunday Times alleged that Brand was not only “joking” about abusing women.  In a documentary, aptly titled Russell Brand: In Plain Sight,  several women gave testimony accusing Brand of rape, sexual assaults and emotional abuse during a seven-year period at the height of his fame.

Many of those who publicly embraced him, laughed at his jokes and applauded his empty rants about “revolution” for years, rushed to condemn him. They seemed shocked.

Were they not listening when he openly told them what he thought of women and how he preferred to treat them?

Brand denies the allegations. All this, however, is bigger than one investigation about one lewd comedian.

Recent revelations, which put a spotlight on his public behaviour and speech in the past two decades, raised serious questions about why his misogynistic “comedy” was supported by so many in the first place.

Indeed, if I, a white person, were to crack jokes about beating up Black people, or have a bit of a laugh about racist stereotypes, I’d be taken for a racist. And rightly so: thinking that insulting and degrading people of colour is just a bit of fun would indeed mean that I held the very views I was “joking” about.

So how did this dangerous misogynist become a household name in Britain?

The most obvious answer, unfortunately, is that many of Brand’s fans simply enjoy the misogyny (He reportedly performed in front of “2000 adoring fans” hours after the rape and sexual assault allegations were made public). Perhaps a few others, especially men on the left, recognised the sexism inherent to Brand’s comedy and public persona, but decided to overlook it because of his popular anti-capitalist ramblings – after all who cares about rape and abuse when someone is calling for an undefined, unrealistic, but very passionate revolution?

There were also many women, some claiming to be feminists, who supported Brand and accused us, radical feminists, of being killjoys when we criticised his obvious misogyny. What gives?

This anomaly – women cheering on a man who “jokes” about harming them – was, I believe, at least in part, created by liberal feminism.

Liberal feminism, dubbed “fun feminism” by feminist writer Andrea Dworkin, certainly muddies the waters in which all women and girls are forced to swim. It is the sort of feminism that men can – and often do – get on board with. The slut marches, the pole dancing (as exercise, of course), and the “sex work is work“ ethos of liberal feminism leaves women willing to go along with Brand’s “humour” on the grounds that it’s edgy – sexy, even.

Actual feminists see the direct correlation between misogynistic attitudes (such as joking about women being unable to breathe when performing oral sex) and actual male violence. We know that “jokes” about violence against women, like those of Brand, can easily translate into real sex crimes carried on the bodies of real women and girls – we have seen it many times. This is why we encourage women to take a stance against men like Brand and those who support them.

Liberal feminism softens that challenge by talking less about patriarchy and the actual material realities of women’s lives and more about women’s “choice” and “agency”. It is an individualistic approach (mainly spouted by upper-middle-class women with an eye on the glass ceiling) in which every single thing they do – from pole dancing to baking cupcakes – is a “choice”, which in turn makes it “feminist”. They even claim that rough, degrading sex can be “fun”.

Today we have a movement of young women describing themselves as “libfems” who, in telling men that they too can be feminists simply by pretending to respect women’s agency, are absolving them of any kind of responsibility.

Liberal feminism’s embrace of abuse, objectification and misogyny as a feminist “choice” has had a disastrous effect on men’s accountability. It created the space for Brand to joke about harming women without any pushback. It helped many more men to abuse and degrade women and get away with it.

Misogyny is not funny or fun. Men who constantly “joke” about sexually assaulting and degrading women are not talented comedians but threats to women’s safety. The feminist writer Maya Angelou once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” We, radical feminists, have long known who Russell Brand is and what he represents. This week’s revelations did not teach us much that is new or unexpected about Brand or men in general. But they reminded us why we need to be wary of liberal feminism – and its many male and female promoters.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.