After #MeToo, we can hear Christine Keeler’s real story
In the second episode of the BBC drama The Trial of Christine Keeler, the voice of its eponymous heroine reflects on the liaison that came to define the sexual liberation era, and arguably brought down the Tory government. “We both gave in to the most natural human instinct of all,” she says, wryly. “The love of a powerful middle-aged man for a penniless teenage girl.”
Keeler was 19 when she started sleeping with John Profumo, the 46-year-old married secretary of state for war, kicking off a scandal that would become a defining cultural landmark, as implacable in the historiography of the 1960s as Lady Chatterley and the Beatles. To those of us who are too young to have lived through it, our awareness of it was less keen: a collection of vaguely remembered names, an iconic photograph of a naked young woman straddling a knock-off Arne Jacobsen chair, a swimming pool and a stately home, something about Russia.
As in the case of Monica Lewinsky, the scandal became reified in aspic, boiled down to a collection of symbols (a dress, the Oval Office, “that woman”). And as with Lewinsky, the centrifugal force in the whole mess was deemed to be an attractive young woman. A young woman who bore the brunt of the guilt and the shame, and whose subjectivity remained for many years notably absent, despite her attempts to tell her side of the story. Fourth-wave feminism and a post-#MeToo climate have undoubtedly opened up the space needed for a reappraisal. The Trial of Christine Keeler is written, produced and directed by women, and offers us the perspectives of the women involved at the time, who, it is plain to see, were categorically not pulling the strings.
“The accepted narrative was that Christine was a call girl, a prostitute, a siren, a femme fatale,” the director, Andrea Harkin, told the Observer. “Yet the reality is that she was none of those things. Nor was she a helpless victim. She was complex and vulnerable and tough and damaged and brilliant.”
Men never left Keeler alone. She was raped, harassed, stalked, manipulated, mocked and vilified, all by men. What’s most affecting about the series so far is the cumulative effect of this on a young woman from a deprived background who, as well as being ambitious and willing to sell her story to the tabloids for a quick buck, is horribly out of her depth, claustrophobically surrounded by powerful men and their bullish desires.
For women of my generation and younger, the slut-shaming of Keeler, as with that of Lewinsky, should belong in a bygone era, and can be interpreted as part of a prevailing culture of victim-blaming that is underpinned by misogyny. Keeler’s vilification was also, the BBC drama makes clear, underpinned by racism (she had black lovers as well as white ones) and classism. As in Mad Men, the ways in which women are pestered, objectified and patronised are played straight, as par for the course, rendering them even more shocking for those of us who did not live through those times.
There’s a phrase that I’ve heard older women use in discussions of the sexism they faced in their lives, during the course of the conversations between the generations that have often come about as a result of
the Me Too movement. The phrase is:
“That’s just the way it was.” It is not, as it
is sometimes misinterpreted, a statement of resigned defeat, complacency, or even one of complicity. It is more an acceptance of the fact that a sexist culture was so prevalent, so deeply embedded, so stifling, that to challenge each and every incidence of harassment would be impossible, exhausting and fruitless. So many women just tried to get on with it, or even exploited it to their advantage. That suffocating atmosphere is alien to a woman of my age, though we have all choked on the vapours following in its wake.
That’s not to say that the shaming of Keeler was sanctioned by her female contemporaries. The artist Pauline Boty’s missing painting of Keeler, entitled Scandal ’63, has become better known in recent years from its inclusion in Ali Smith’s 2016 novel Autumn. No one knows where it is, but it exists in photographs: look at the heads of the four men hovering above the naked Keeler; Boty, also a young woman who was prized mainly for her looks, knew the score.
Almost 60 years later, Dear Christine, an exhibition of work by female
artists, builds on Boty’s
attempt to reframe Keeler’s role. This, combined with the dramatisation, finally does
Keeler some justice.
It has been intensely moving to see Keeler offered the redemption that was granted much more prematurely to the men involved with her, and to see her given a fully rounded character rather than being reduced to the cardboard cutout of a tart (an actual headline at the time: “Keeler, The Shameless Slut”) who ruined a powerful man’s career, and, latterly, ageing paparazzi fodder for cruel tabloid media. Perhaps the reappraisal of Keeler is all the more moving for the reappraisals we have all been undertaking after #MeToo. I felt so terribly grownup as a very young woman, and sometimes acted as though I was. But the older men I was involved with? They knew that I wasn’t. I only really understand that now.
That’s the power of female subjectivity. So often we are encouraged to imagine ourselves in the shoes of male protagonists, but how often are audiences encouraged to imagine themselves in the body of a 17-year-old girl self-administering an abortion using a pen because there is no legal way of terminating her pregnancy? A 17-year-old girl who somehow carried on and ended up shortly afterwards a cipher for the so-called liberation of an entire society, because she slept with a man who had power. These revisionist excavations of the past are timely and necessary. It’s an old, old story, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep telling it in the same way.