Wednesday

It's time to play the crying game, Kate


Cristina Odone
The Observer, Sunday 21 October 2007

Kate McCann is guilty. Madeleine's mother has been charged with looking composed and controlled, pretty and slim. Her lower lip doesn't wobble, her highlights are perfect, her tummy is flat. She is guilty, in other words, of not conforming to type. It's not murder, but it's a crime: robbing the public of what it wants.

People want the desperate mum to wail and let her hair go grey and matted. They want her to look mumsy and battered by life, not trendy, combative and defiant.

For months now, the public has been willing to share Kate McCann's pain as well as every detail of her life. People long to pour sympathy on the mother whose daughter has been snatched. They want to hug those shoulders racked with sobs and dry those tears that pour down wan cheeks. In short, they want a victim to pity, not a tower of strength.

She won't play the game. She should beware. Didn't she follow the story of Joanne Lees? When Lees's boyfriend, Peter Falconio, went missing in the Outback (his body was never found), Lees found herself a murder suspect. It didn't matter that she had been raped, tied up and bore the marks of a violent struggle; the police, media and even Falconio's family found Lees's self-control suspicious. Where was the grieving partner, tearing at her clothes? Where was the tortured victim of cruel fate?

The public instead got a trim, tastefully made-up control freak. Feeling betrayed, it turned on her.

Kate McCann is experiencing the same witch-hunt. Whispered allegations turned to loud attacks. She is inscrutable, so she must be sinister. She is capable of reining in her distress, so she must be capable of lashing out in violence.

In The Stranger, Albert Camus's tale of a nonconformist being punished, the hero is a young man. But in real life, it is more often a woman in the spotlight who is punished if she doesn't respect the norm. The Queen didn't weep for Diana, Hillary Clinton didn't break down over Bill's infidelity, Heather Mills didn't break down when divorcing a Beatle.

All those stereotypes of the weaker sex and the female in distress, which most people have discarded in many areas of life, come flooding back when there is a public tragedy, whether it be the disappearance of a child or the break-up of a marriage.

A word of advice, then, for Kate McCann. Let the mascara run and the grey show. Sob in front of the cameras. The only way to silence your critics is to wear your broken heart on your sleeve. There may be so much else to do, but once the public is baying for tears, there is no stopping it baying for blood.