Hadley Freeman: ‘Cancel culture is worse for women — it’s disgraceful’

Hadley Freeman (Matt Writtle)
Hadley Freeman (Matt Writtle)

Growing up as a Jewish teenager in west London, Hadley Freeman found herself tormented by a recurring nightmare. “I was trying to speak and no words were coming out,” the British-American bestselling author and journalist, 45, tells me as we shelter from the September heat at the back of a cafe near her home in Primrose Hill.

At the time of that nightmare, Freeman was battling anorexia, the eating disorder that left her hospitalised nine times between the ages of 14 and 17 and on which she has just released a searing memoir, Good Girls: A Study and Story of Anorexia. One of the truths about the disorder that she tries to get across in the book: that it is often a sufferer’s way of expressing their feelings, when they can’t find the words.

Freeman made a pledge to herself during her recovery in her mid-thirties, then a staff writer and columnist at The Guardian. “I just thought: ‘I’m not going to be scared to say things anymore. I can see all [these things I want to talk about] in front of me. I don’t live in Stalinist Russia, I don’t live in Nazi Germany. I’m going to write about them... It’s been interesting watching who tries to shut it down.”

For anyone who has followed Freeman’s career in recent years, that comment is of course a nod to her now-former employer, The Guardian: the very figure or group of figures who — to Freeman’s surprise — did eventually try to shut her writing down. Certain writing, anyway. The mother-of-three had worked as a journalist there for 22 years when she left last year (she has since been hired by The Sunday Times as a staff writer and columnist), citing an “atmosphere of fear” on trans issues at the Left-leaning paper she had long considered her second family and her political home.

Freeman was one of The Guardian’s star columnists and feature writers at the time and had written books on everything from Eighties’ movies to the history of her Jewish family roots (she was born in New York, her Jewish parents moving the family to London when she was 11). To be told she could not write about gender — the cultural talking-point of the moment — and to be barred from interviewing gender-critical figures such as JK Rowling and Martina Navratilova was frustrating, confusing, isolating even.

“I was told I wasn’t to write about gender, and that actually women shouldn’t write about gender, and suddenly things became very tricky for me,” she told Woman’s Hour in December after she became the latest in a now-series of female Guardian journalists from Suzanne Moore to Sarah Ditum to leave in protest over its stance on trans issues.

Moore has since been hired by The Telegraph, joining this newspaper’s free speech inquiry last month with a powerful op-ed about the importance of protecting the freedom to offend. Now at The Sunday Times, Freeman is also seizing her chance to speak out.

 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

We meet at her go-to local hangout, Sam’s Cafe in Primrose Hill, where she and the staff all know each other by name, and she is kind, warm, sensitive — all the qualities one would expect from a liberal journalist famous for interviewing everyone from Margaret Atwood to Mariah Carey. Clearly, she is uncomfortable being on the other side of the interview for a change. But she was determined to take part in the Evening Standard’s inquiry because she believes free speech — though far from the subject she set out to champion — is essential for a democracy.

She is serious about it, immediately launching into an emotional monologue about the recent cancelling of Irish singer-songwriter Roisin Murphy over her criticism of puberty blockers for children in a private Facebook post. “I think it’s disgraceful, the way so many women have been silenced and lost work for saying, actually, incredibly mild and scientifically-proven, biologically-true, medically-backed-up things,” she tells me, referencing the backlash Murphy has received in the fortnight since: two of her upcoming London shows being cancelled, her record label choosing to donate proceeds from her upcoming album to charity, and being forced to issue a public apology. “It’s actually totalitarian.”

Freeman is still visibly angry about the whole Murphy affair: angry that yet another public figure has effectively been cancelled for expressing a popular view that happens to be unfashionable; angry that she felt she had to interrupt her family holiday in Spain last week to defend Murphy on social media.

But she is most angry that, yet again, the person at the end of that cancelling is a woman. She laughs nervously at this point, noting the irony of the glaring but but often un-unspoken-about element of the whole gender debate: that the debate itself — and indeed those vilified for it — is so blatantly gendered.

So many women have lost work for saying incredibly mild and scientifically-proven things. It’s actually totalitarian

“Obviously there have been some men in this argument who have lost work — most obviously Graham Linehan [an Irish comedy writer and anti-trans ideology activist],” says Freeman. “But the vast, vast majority are women. It’s the women journalists who write about this who get singled out, whether it’s myself or Sonia Sodha or Catherine Bennett or Helen Lewis. There are men who write about this — James Kirkup, David Aaronovitch, Matthew d’Ancona — but they’ve had nothing like the abuse that Julie Bindel has had or Suzanne Moore has had. It’s totally a gendered thing. Which just goes to show that some people really do know what a woman is.”

Which takes us back to Freeman’s memoir, published in April and received to rave reviews across the British and US broadsheets. It might seem a stretch, to link free speech with an eating disorder, but as Freeman’s recurring speechlessness nightmare anecdote suggests, there is more that connects the two subjects than one might think. Not only is anorexia often a manifestation of an inability to express one’s-self (“I had all that for years: this feeling of total shame and paralysis”); it can also be a manifestation of a fear of growing up — or if you’re a teenage girl, the most common type of sufferer, a fear of becoming a woman.

Freeman, the mother of twin sons and a daughter, dedicates a chapter to this in her book, interviewing doctors about a link she had long suspected herself: that there are parallels between what gender dysphoric teengers say today and what anorexic teenagers like Freeman have been saying for decades: that they hate their body, that they’re scared of being sexualised, that they are afraid of becoming a woman. “Womanhood can look like a real trap for a lot of girls,” she tells me. “And in many ways, they’re not wrong.”

For Freeman, the parallels were obvious. Multiple people warned her about including that chapter in the book, but she went ahead, choosing not to express her own opinion in favour of three pages of objective — or so she thought — science, via interviews with medical professionals. “I thought that if I took all my emotions and opinions out of it and it was literally three pages of doctors quotes — doctors who’ve worked with kids — then no one could accuse me of being transphobic. I was wrong.”

 (4th Estate)
(4th Estate)

The backlash that followed took even Freeman — a hardened target of various internet pitchfork brigades — by surprise: refusals to promote her book at literary festivals, reviews calling her a transphobe. She laughs again, noting the irony. By writing about the very disorder that left her silenced for decades, the pitchfork brigade were trying to silence her again.

Both fortunately and unfortunately for Freeman, this was far from her only experience of being on the receiving end of an online witch hunt. First it was anti-Semitism, a subject Freeman — a proud Jew — has long written passionately about. Until last year, she had spent an entire career writing for a Left-leaning paper and always saw Labour as her political home, so was shocked by the anti-Semitism crisis of the Corbyn era and even more shocked by the backlash she received for writing about it, from being told she was too passionate about it to being accused of being manipulated by ‘bad faith’ actors.

It turned out that writing about anti-Semitism was just a rehearsal for writing about gender, for which Freeman has been called everything from a “bigoted radical feminist” to a “radicalised TERF” [trans-exclusionary radical feminist]. She has been both surprised and unsurprised by this backlash; unsurprised because there was always going to be an backlash after a feminist movement like MeToo; surprised because she never expected her beliefs to be framed as radical.

“The truth is: I think exactly the same things I was thinking 10, 15 years ago,” she says. “It’s other people whose ideas have changed. How I see the world is how the vast majority of people see the world, which is that there are two biological sexes. Some people might feel differently, but for a teenage girl who says she hates herself and doesn’t want to be a woman, that doesn’t mean she has a male soul or something. It means that it’s hard growing up; that it’s hard becoming a woman.”

 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

Freeman has several theories for why this could be — one being the decline in religion. “I’m not pro-religion,” she says. “But there is something about gender ideology that is basically about telling people that you have a soul. What is your true soul? Are you a boy or a girl? It’s a very odd mentality. You know, your body is just your body and who you are inside can be anything and whether you change your body or not, you’re still the same person.”

Freeman admits views like this have affected some friendships, but only in rare cases. She’s always had friends she disagrees with — several Oxford University peers have gone on to be Conservative councillors — and she is fierce in making sure her children know they can ask her anything, “even if it’s: ‘Why do you have such a fat tummy?’”.

Professionally, she was scared of being cancelled when she left The Guardian, but she was lucky that another newspaper welcomed her with open arms. The trolling is one thing that doesn’t bother her. “I don’t mind people criticising what I write, or even being horrible about me personally,” she says. “The only thing that bothers me is being silenced and censored, especially by those who are supposed to champion free speech.”

Since joining The Sunday Times, Freeman has written candidly about everything from antisemitism and trans ideology to liberal ‘thought police’ and how feminism became a dirty word. She would never write about her family for privacy reasons, but there is no other subject she would not write about. “It’s just not healthy for a democracy for people to be scared of talking about something. We should be allowed to talk and think and ask questions about everything. I strongly believe that. And what I’ve had most deeply with the gender subject, and also a tiny bit with antiseminitism, is people coming up to me and saying they agree with me but they’re scared to talk about it. For me that’s a real sign of a sick society.”

People come up and say that they agree with me but they are scared to talk about it. That’s a sign of a sick society

Freeman turned down her publishers’ offers of using sensitivity readers (people who read a literary work to highlight perceived offensive content, stereotypes or bias) for her latest book, giving early copies to those she wanted to read it instead: trans people, doctors, anorexics and friends with anorexic daughters. She believes there is greater fear of causing offence in publishing now than at the start of her career two decades ago, and that there is probably too much pressure to fill diversity quotas, but is hopeful that “ultimately, the really good writers writing good books will rise to the top”.

She is hopeful, too, about a new wave of left-leaning politicians standing up for women and Jews: Wes Streeting, Rosie Duffield, Shabana Mahmood and Thangam Debbonaire. And despite her experience of leaving The Guardian, she is hopeful about the media industry, too. “The thing that is heartening to me is that the vast majority of people have common sense. And if certain publications are too scared to publish common sense, those publications will lose out.”

Clearly, Freeman is a woman who knows her voice by now. After years spent starving herself because she couldn’t find the words, she refuses to be silenced again.

Freeman’s memoir, Good Girls: A Story and Study of Anorexia, is out now