Scandalous Women: The Gendered Discourse of Celebrity Divorce

31 October ¦ Harriet MacMillan

Whilst many may not recognise her name, women living in Britain today owe Caroline Norton (1808-77) a great debt. Her zealous pursuit of reform led to landmark changes in the recognition of women in the law. Her campaigning directly propelled the passing of the Custody of Infants Act of 1839, which gave women the right to custody of their children. She also influenced the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, which gave women the legal right to their own money. Although Norton certainly influenced the past, does her life still have resonance with contemporary feminist struggles? Can looking back on her story help us understand some of the challenges facing women, particularly famous women, today?


Perhaps surprisingly, given her relative 21st century anonymity, in her day Norton was also at the centre of a well-publicised scandal. She was, for many years, trapped in an abusive marriage to George Norton, who was physically violent toward her to the point of causing her to miscarry. Norton accused his wife of ‘criminal conversation’ (read adultery) with then Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. The resulting court case nearly brought down Melbourne’s government and forever tarnished Norton’s reputation. Denied custody of her children, she tried to put her infamy to a more positive use by writing letters and pamphlets to influential politicians and judges, asking for recognition in the courts. In ‘A Letter to the Queen’ (1855), Norton wrote: “I exist and I suffer; but the law denies my existence”. In time, Norton gained some recognition for her literary works, yet her husband continued to persecute her. When Melbourne died in 1851, George Norton used the opportunity to reignite the rumours about Melbourne’s supposed affair with Caroline Norton, even printing his accusations in The Times.


Lord Melbourne, with whom Caroline Norton was accused of having an affair. She denied it repeatedly and was found not guilty when tried for ‘criminal conversation’.

Divorce is, legally, much simpler today. Some dubious websites will allow you to legally terminate your marriage for the fixed sum of £195. Yet when you read about famous divorces today, it sometimes feels like no progress has been made whatsoever – not in the court of public opinion. Women may no longer be legally barred from having custody of their children or their own money, but a brief overview of the discourse surrounding celebrity divorce indicates a still-present gendered approach to fault and responsibility. What is particularly remarkable is the way that the media chooses to represent the breakdown of famous families.

Take, for example, the news that stopped George Clooney in his tracks. The divorce of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt was plastered across tabloid headlines and lead news programmes for days after Jolie made the announcement. Their fascinating relationship was at an end and observers were baying for blood. Jolie declared that this decision was made “for the health of her family”.

harriet-3[CCN reports the end of Brangelina]

Yet very quickly, media surprise turned to probing critique. Not accepting Jolie’s statement as a mother seeking to protect the welfare of her family, a multitude of reasons were posited for the breakdown of this A-list couple. Jolie’s friendship group was branded a ‘coven’, a band of witches responsible for Pitt’s apparently increasingly destructive behaviour. Jolie’s political and humanitarian ambitions, such as her work for the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and UNCHR, were cited as a cause for their marital breakdown. Controversial commentator Katie Hopkins wrote:

Perhaps if you are too busy simultaneously trying to be a low-rent Amal Clooney, hauling a rainbow nation around the globe and looking unfeasibly fabulous for the camera at a Sexual Violence Summit in London, you don’t have much left to give to someone else’s man you thought you loved.


For Hopkins and many other commentators, humanitarian ambitions (and even motherhood) are deemed incompatible with a stable marriage.

Hopkins’ belief that Pitt still belonged to ex-wife Jennifer Aniston, not to mention the expectation that a woman cannot be both a political activist and a wife/mother at the same time, was repeatedly rehashed in various, if less crude, forms. The Inquistr wrote that Jolie’s desire to become a high-ranking official within the UN is what “drove Brad Pitt away”. When blame was not laid at Jolie’s door, it was instead delivered to another woman – actress Marion Cotillard was cited as the ‘other woman’, which Cotillard vehemently denied in a public statement.

Even before the Brangelina breakdown, Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s acrimonious separation was selling newspapers and magazines by the score. Even when Heard claimed, with disputed photographic evidence, that Depp had been violent towards her, she was not afforded respectful or balanced judgement from a clamouring media, and was instead branded a liar and gold digger. Male celebrity friends of Depp, including Paul Bettany and Benicio del Toro, defended him, denying even the possibility of abuse due to him being “a nice guy”. Even Heard’s subsequent charitable donation of the £7 million she received in the divorce settlement has not been enough to rehabilitate her image; some of Depp’s fans have called for her latest film to be boycotted, suggesting that her career could be permanently damaged by her divorce.


Daily Dot reports on Amber Heard

In 1855, Caroline Norton existed and suffered, yet that existence was denied by the law. The contemporary divorce trials-by-media that we are subjected to mark the suffering of the plaintiffs, but do not really acknowledge their existence. Jolie and Heard have become, in media commentary, vessels for misogynistic discourse that suggests that divorce is often a failure of femininity. It seems reformer, campaigner and devoted mother Norton had much in common with Angelina Jolie. Norton’s legacy was a change in the sexist laws which disadvantaged divorcing women, but it seems we still cannot legislate for the gender bias of the media which passes judgement in its own way and is its own court. Indeed, in a 2012 article about her life, Tony Rennell acknowledged Norton’s legal innocence and repeated denial of an affair with Melbourne, yet insisted on characterising “Norty Norton” as a “distressed mistress”. If Caroline Norton is not safe from the gendered assumptions of the media nearly 140 years after her death, what hope do Jolie and Heard have?

About Harriet

Alumna of the Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, I’m now carrying out doctoral research into feminist rewritings of mythology. I’m also a published writer of poetry and prose.  I’m a literary omnivore, confirmed Italophile, mediocre singer, flag-flying feminist, occasional storyteller, and aubergine enthusiast. No, that isn’t a euphemism.

Article edited by Josh Simpson and Charlotte Kessler.

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