“A Very British Scandal” and the Public Slut-Shaming of the Duchess of Argyll

By Morgan Roberts

In the Prime Video anthology, “A Very British Scandal” (2021), the tumultuous marriage and scandalous divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll takes center stage. The marriage between Ian Campbell (Paul Bettany) and Margaret Whigham (Claire Foy) was passionate yet volatile from the start. Campbell cheated on his second wife with Whigham in order to be granted a divorce. The marriage was fraught with paranoia, violence, and infidelity. The Campbells consistently lied to one another, the Duke was known for abusing Margaret, and both engaged in a number of extramarital affairs.

But it all came to a head when the couple divorced in 1963. During their divorce court proceedings, Margaret’s numerous affairs were used as evidence to not just grant Campbell with a divorce, but leave his marriage with his image intact. The most damning evidence he had against her were stolen photographs of her performing a sex act on a man who was not her husband. The images did not remain in court and were instead plastered in British newspapers and tabloids.

Her reputation in ruins, Margaret never fully recovered from her abusive ex-husband or her public shaming. And so long before Pamela Anderson was violated by someone stealing her private videos, Monica Lewinsky was publicly shamed all over the internet, and before celebrities’ nude photographs were stolen and leaked, there was the societal slut-shaming of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. The series now joins a chorus of programming that focuses on historical events of women wronged and society continuing to learn very little.

When you watch the series, you get the sense that Foy understands the gravity in telling Margaret’s story and her truth. So often, men in Margaret’s inner circle are applauded for having sexual partners outside of their marriage. Whereas when women engage in extramarital affairs, that’s cause to be burned at the stake. In some interview, Foy has objected to the use of the term “slut-shaming” since it implies shame in promiscuity and sexuality rather than what it really is: patriarchal control over a woman’s body. Because, at the end of the day, this is more than how you feel about sexual infidelity. If your morals are such that women are vilified for their sexuality and their romantic partners, but do not hold men to the same standard, then there is cognitive dissonance in that view of morality. Women cannot be shamed for expressing and acting upon their sexual desires, while men are lauded for sexual promiscuity.

Moreover, while Margaret was publicly shamed for the sex act she performed on a man, she was also an early victim of revenge porn. Revenge porn is when an ex-partner releases sexually explicit photographs or videos of their former partner without their consent. It was not a term used or a phenomenon discussed back then, but the release of explicit materials to be used to humiliate a former partner is a form of abuse. Margaret had these photographs stolen and published without her consent. It was a tactic used by her ex-husband as a way to tarnish her reputation and further the abuses she endured during their marriage.

Despite all of this, Margaret still carried on. Her resilience is something Foy was particularly struck by. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Foy said, “She’s sort of brilliant and tragic in a way, but also triumphant. Because imagine the guts after that judgment is published in the paper…to get up in the morning, put your poodle on its leash, put on your lipstick, put on your pearls, and take your poodle to the park? Imagine the courage that takes.” While the Duchess of Argyll has previously been painted as a sexually depraved woman, the work done in “A Very British Scandal,” demonstrates how little we have learned. Margaret was not the first woman publicly shamed for her sexuality, and she hasn’t been the last. Maybe it is time we learn from history so we are not doomed to continue to repeat it.

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