Russell Brand is a product of the horrifically misogynistic noughties

Sexism was deeply ingrained in the 2000s—and we are still feeling its effects

September 28, 2023
In 2008, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand made sexist prank calls on TV. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
In 2008, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand made sexist prank calls on TV. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A few days after the Sunday Times and Channel 4 published rape and sexual abuse accusations against Russell Brand (allegations Brand strongly denies) a meme began circulating on social media. It showed a still from the 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, with three of the film’s stars—Brand, Jonah Hill and Mila Kunis—standing together at a beach bar. The caption read: “This photo hasn’t aged well in 2023.” 

That’s perhaps an understatement. Earlier this summer, Hill was accused of sending a series of controlling and emotionally abusive messages to his then-girlfriend, the surfer and model Sarah Brady, forbidding her from posting pictures of herself in swimwear, maintaining friendships with men, surfing with men and modelling in general. Two weeks ago, Kunis and her husband Ashton Kutcher apologised after sending a supportive letter to Danny Masterson, their former co-star in That ’70s Show, prior to his rape trial. Masterson was subsequently sent to jail for at least 30 years. Then, last week, Brand was accused of having allegedly assaulted four women between 2006 and 2013. 

Whenever historic allegations of abuse make the news—and they are almost always historic, if they do make the news—people immediately raise two cautions in defence of the person accused. The first is that of “nuance”: what are the details of the story? Who are the accusers in question and what might be their motivations? Were they paid? Do they want to be famous? The second is whether the alleged behaviour may or not be “of its time”. Often that suggestion is intended to shut down the conversation—“it was a different time”—rather than offering nuance or even contextualising behaviour. (As in 2017, when Harvey Weinstein offered the defence: “That was the culture then.”) To be clear: breaching someone’s bodily boundary against their consent has always been wrong. But there are certain cultural conditions which help to deem what may be abusive behaviour publicly acceptable. Brand—like Kutcher, Kunis and Hill—is a “product of his time” in every sense of the word. And the allegations against him reveal something about the unique ugliness of the 2000s. 

Let’s consider the 2000s for a moment. It was the war on terror, the financial crisis, the birth of social media, and arguably the period which paved the way for the current wave of populism. Culturally, it was chaotic. On screens, we saw gross-out comedies (like Superbad, starring Hill); forgettable romcoms (like Friends with Benefits, starring Kunis): early reality shows (like Punk’d, hosted by Kutcher; or Big Brother’s Little Brother, hosted by Brand), and Disney blockbusters (like Pirates of the Caribbean, starring Johnny Depp). Fashion-wise, we went from normcore and Y2K to boho and landed at indie sleaze. An eclectic mix—but if there’s one thing that the era should be universally remembered for, it’s that it was arguably the most misogynistic period in recent history.

 Russell Brand’s heyday—the mid-noughties—was a particular low point. At every turn, men were encouraged to play into a caricature of debonair, clueless man-children downing pints and quipping insults, with women staged as their nagging housewives (see: Family Guy; The Hangover) or manic pixie dream accessories (see: New Girl, 500 Days of Summer.) Women, meanwhile, were subjected to endless scrutiny and encouraged to do the same to themselves: no-make up paparazzi pictures, upskirting shots, the size 0 trend, endless magazine articles about “How to Please Your Man”, “busting cellulite” or buying “flattering” clothes to fit the parameters of a patriarchal lens. This was the time of UniLad and LadBible, which have since rebranded as anodyne meme platforms, but launched themselves as intentionally sexist 2000s blogs. (LadBible came with a list of tragic “commandments”, including “thou shall covet thy neighbours’ breasts”, and “thou shall bash and dash if thy woman refuses to make thee a sandwich in the morning.” The mainstream press wasn’t better either: in 2007, Christopher Hitchens published an article in Vanity Fair, without his usual crutch of irony, entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny”. It provoked a flurry of public head-scratching from male journalists. Was this clueless patriarchy a prison in itself? Yes. Does that excuse it? No. And whether you were a rugby #unilad, an indie twee crooner, a ghoulish Camden lush or a bookish “nice guy”—you weren’t calling yourself a feminist.  

Brand reached fame in the mid 2000s, when indie sleaze was in full drip. Everything about him—from his aesthetic, to his sense of humour, to his sexual proclivities, and lofty, performative use of language—fed into the cultural template of that period. His much-romanticised hangout of Camden crawled with vomit-flecked male singers who sang lyrics like “she’s a slut and you never fucking liked her” and were hailed as artistic geniuses. Their female counterparts were seen as volatile messes. “Amy Winehouse—her surname’s beginning to sound like a description of her liver,” Brand joked in 2007. Brand’s originality and charm were fostered by an environment that lacked those things. Surfing the wave of the zeitgeist, he gladly fashioned a persona of a louche, high-minded truth-teller who was at once above establishment prudishness, but also very much embodied the laddish ideals of the mainstream. His rise from comedian to public intellectual—while still reviled by some at the time—isn’t surprising in retrospect. In 2015, he was voted the world’s fourth most influential thinker by this magazine. 

 Through the grainy footage of hindsight, it’s tempting to look at the 2000s and feel that it is a distant time. (Since then, we’ve had the MeToo movement, among other social and political upheavals, and identifying as a feminist is now not only valid but popular.) But it’s also becoming fashionable to say that the 2000s are “coming back”. From the return of Y2K and indie sleaze aesthetic, to the popularity of misogynistic figures such as Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate who has, incidentally, rushed to Brand’s defence in recent days—for many, 2023 doesn’t look or feel a million miles away from 2003. The truth is that the 2000s have never really gone away. For a brief period—during the MeToo Era—they felt stifled. But one glance at the internet is enough to see how much repressed misogyny was waiting to resurface. 

Today, the evidence of our desire to rehabilitate overpowering men is everywhere. Whether it’s the baffling career comeback of Johnny Depp—a domestic abuser who is now starring in upcoming film Jeanne du Barry, and has amassed a cult Gen Z fanbase following his defamation cases (he fought two, winning one and losing one)—or the comments underneath videos about the Brand allegations railing against “the establishment”, people are always scrambling to find ways to defend men for alleged wrongdoing against women. It’s not just an alt-right problem either. The number of Andrew Tate videos that slip through the algorithm and recommend themselves to me is some indication of the prevalence of this kind of thinking. 

As I write this article, Channel 4 has cut ties with Brand, the BBC has removed some of his content, YouTube has suspended his channel from making money and the police are “investigating a report” relating to the allegations. Brand may be de-platformed; and he could face the weight of our legal system. But, sooner or later, there’s a solid chance he’ll be rehabilitated, whatever the outcome of the current allegations. Until the effects of the deeply ingrained sexism of the 2000s are fully confronted and shattered, people will continue to prop doors open for misogynists, and quietly or publicly support them. That’s a problem, not only because it validates and perpetuates abusive behaviour, but because ultimately it deters brave women from speaking out. To quote Forgetting Sarah Marshall: “If you get bitten by a shark, you’re not going to stop surfing, are you?” The answer: “Probably, yeah.”