Lily James attended and presented an award at the 22nd British Independent Film Awards on Sunday 1 December.
You’d be forgiven for assuming the resulting headlines would focus on the actor’s red carpet wardrobe: after all, the BIFAs are one of the UK’s most high-profile fashion events. But nobody seemed to care that critically-acclaimed actor James – who’s been working on a star-studded film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and The Dig, a historical biography about trailblazer archaeologist Peggy Preston – donned an Alessandra Rich SS20 velvet maxi dress for the occasion. Nor did they note that James’ on-trend ombré ‘lob’ (that’s a long bob, for those who aren’t au fait with the lingo) has since been added to many a ‘winter hair inspiration’ board on Pinterest.
Instead, the tabloids believed there was far more to James’ red carpet moment than could be perceived by the naked eye. Because, thanks to their (as yet) unpatented emotional distress detectors, they were able to detect a cloud of misery and heartbreak swirling around James.
“Lily James puts on a brave face at BIFA as she’s seen for the first time since it was revealed Matt Smith had ‘formed a close friendship with The Crown co-star Claire Foy following their split,’” insisted one, clearly of the ‘more is more’ approach when it comes to unverified information in headlines.
“The Crown’s Matt Smith ‘forms close friendship with co-star and on screen Queen Claire Foy after splitting from Downton Abbey actress Lily James,” the same publication headlined a separate report, as if their meaning had not already been hammered home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
“Lily James makes striking solo red carpet appearance amid Matt Smith ‘split’ rumours,” added another, choosing to bury their own carefully-worded observation about Smith’s relationship with his “The Crown co-star Claire Foy” within the copy of the article.
Elsewhere, one more – seemingly of the opinion that fortune favours the bold (and subtlety is for losers) – insisted “consolation could be at hand from Matt’s former on-screen wife”,
“The 35-year-old actress, who played young Queen Elizabeth opposite his Prince Philip in The Crown, is said to supporting him through the breakup,” they noted, scandal positively dripping from every single word.
And, since then, another tabloid has got in on the action with this clanger of a pun-laden headline: “DOCTOR WOO… Matt Smith’s love life as a romantic drama in five acts with Claire Foy as his new leading lady”
Firstly – not that this should matter – I’d like point out that the ‘evidence’ for this breathless breakup reportage hinges almost entirely on the fact that James and Smith haven’t been photographed together for a while. The same James and Smith, we’d like to point out, whom have made a point of keeping their relationship as private as possible.
Secondly, the ‘evidence’ for Smith and Foy’s blossoming friendship (never before has the word been so laden with insinuation) is based upon the fact that they’re now in a play together and their working relationship is as strong as ever. Also, they have been photographed in each other’s company, and have been enjoying each other’s company. Apparently, anyway. If you’re the sort of person who likes to believe those irrefutable ‘sources’ the tabloids so love to speak with.
Thirdly, the ‘evidence’ for James’ heartbreak over the situation rests solely on the fact that she attended an awards show – and attended an awards show unchaperoned and without a male escort at that. Judging by the tabloids’ shock over this decision, we are presumably supposed to share the opinion that James should have remained at home prostate with grief – that is, if she even has anything to grieve in the first place. Thank goodness she’s so “brave”, eh?
There’s obviously a lot to unpick here. By insisting that James is brave, so very brave, to venture outside and face the world, the tabloids have suggested she’s failed in some deeply important way. That the only way a woman can truly prove her worth is by finding the right man, getting him to marry her, settling down into a life of cosy domesticity and popping out a couple of sprogs before her ovaries dry up. Which is… well, it’s bloody ridiculous, quite frankly. Marriage rates are on the decline, #TimesUp is the unofficial theme of the decade, and science has confirmed that women are happier off without children or a spouse. So why can’t single women step outside without hacks penning whole articles about how bloody lonely and miserable she must be? It’s 2019, for crying out loud.
It should also go without saying (but here I am, saying it anyway) that a couple can call time on their relationship at any point, and for any number of reasons. For all those lucky enough not to have been through a breakup of their own, please remember that it’s hardly ever a decision that is made lightly, and – if the rumoured split is true – we shouldn’t inflict our own narrative on the situation. They, and only they, know what happened, and that will remain the case until one or both of them decides to speak about it publicly. Until then, we should assume that both James and Smith have decided that they will be happier apart in the long run… IF they’ve broken up that is. Because, in case I haven’t made that point clear enough yet, neither party has commented on the split reports yet.
What we shouldn’t do, no matter how much temptation is wafted under our noses, is look for a woman to blame for the situation.
Oh yes: while the tabloids have been masking their meaning with tales of “close friendship”, their intention is obvious – that much has been made clear by their inability to write about James and Smith’s rumoured breakup without shoehorning the latter’s friendship with Foy into their headlines.
And, yes, it’s a problem. After all, for as long as we can remember, we’ve seen women in the spotlight dogged by catfight rumours. Cast your mind back to the media’s coverage of the all-female Ghostbusters remake, or Sex and the City, or Ocean’s 8, or Snow White and the Huntsman, or any film with a predominantly female cast: all were unfairly accused of on-set squabbling, all were forced to issue denials.
Now, this endless commentary about James and Foy – however skilfully the reports have been worded – has proven once again that women cannot get away from this tired old narrative, even when it comes to their personal lives. Because, let’s face it, Foy is not the ‘other woman’ who broke up a relationship: she’s just… well, she’s just a woman, independent of herself. She’s the critically-acclaimed actor who first brought Elizabeth II to life in Netflix’s The Crown opposite Smith’s Prince Phillip. She’s the woman who has worked with Smith for several years now. And she’s the woman who, if you believe those loose-lipped sources (you shouldn’t), “is providing a consoling shoulder” for her friend and co-star during his unconfirmed breakup.
Naturally, Smith and Foy are by far from the first co-stars to be subjected to ‘shipping’ rumours: Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga were hit by a similar slew of reports after the release of A Star Is Born, Marion Cotillard was forced to issue a statement denying any involvement in Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s divorce, and Jennifer Lawrence was accused of having an affair with her Passengers co-star Chris Pratt – false claims which caused his (now ex) wife Anna Faris a great deal of emotional distress.
“I talked to Chris about how hurt I felt, even though I knew there was no truth to the stories [that he cheated on her], and he didn’t understand at first,” Faris said.
“I didn’t want to pay attention to the stories but I couldn’t block them all out, either. I’d always taken pride in our relationship, and the coverage, even though it was just false rumours, was making me feel insecure.
“Eventually, Chris came around and understood why it felt shitty.”
While she went on to say that the rumours made her feel “like a fool”, Faris added that she never once blamed Lawrence for them – nor thought of her as a ‘villain’ or the ‘other woman’.
“Jennifer and I really are friendly, and she was apologetic even though she didn’t need to be, because she hadn’t done anything wrong,” she said. “She’s awesome, but of course it’s hurtful and also embarrassing when people are saying your husband is cheating on you – even if it’s patently untrue. You still feel, and look, like a fool.”
Every single one of these so-called scandals was, much like Smith and Foy’s ‘friendship’ reports, based on very little – a photograph of two friends laughing together, maybe, or a well-acted romance scene in a film or TV show. It was enough for certain media outlets to peddle their toxic belief that men and women can’t be friends without there being something more going on. That sizzling onscreen chemistry always, always means that off-screen the actors can’t keep their hands off each other. That women, and only women, should be held accountable for a man’s crimes: why is the ‘Other Woman’ entirely to blame for the man’s transgressions?
Yes, it’s an easy narrative to latch onto. Yes, in a world of murky grey reportage, it’s always more fun to latch onto the black-and-white tale of a temptress, the weak-willed man she sunk her claws into and the woman who couldn’t keep him. Yes, they may or may not be dating (who knows? It’s their business, after all). And, yes, gossip like this is the sort of thing that makes standing by the office water-cooler bearable.
But every single time you click into these stories – every time you give baseless reports such as these credence – you’re perpetuating a number of very dated, and damaging, myths about women. And, as we move towards a new decade, I implore you all to listen to Jennifer Aniston (because who else?) going forward.
“From years of experience, I’ve learned tabloid practices, however dangerous, will not change, at least not any time soon,” the Friends star wrote in her now infamous essay for The Huffington Post. “What can change is our awareness and reaction to the toxic messages buried within these seemingly harmless stories served up as truth and shaping our ideas of who we are. We get to decide how much we buy into what’s being served up, and maybe some day the tabloids will be forced to see the world through a different, more humanised lens because consumers have just stopped buying the bullshit.”
Please note that this article was originally published on 2 December and has been updated throughout since then.