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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Tayo Bero

What Jonah Hill and Keke Palmer’s partner reveal about controlling boyfriends

Jonah Hill during an interview on The Late Show With Jimmy Fallon in 2021.
Jonah Hill during an interview on The Late Show With Jimmy Fallon in 2021. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Last week, Darius Jackson, the father of actress Keke Palmer’s child, came under fire for his very public criticism of an outfit she wore to Usher Raymond’s Las Vegas show, which he deemed inappropriate for a mother.

A few days later, Jonah Hill’s ex-girlfriend Sarah Brady posted several disturbing messages the actor allegedly sent to her during their relationship online, which she describes as emotionally abusive. In them, Hill tells Brady (who is a surfing instructor) to take down any surfing photos or videos that showed her “ass in a thong” from her Instagram page. He also shared a list of things she wasn’t allowed to do if they were going to be together, which included “surfing with men”, “modeling” and being friends with “women who are in unstable places”.

Jackson’s childish Twitter outburst and Hill’s emotionally manipulative messages are hardly surprising when you think about the instinct that drove them.

In patriarchal societies, men have always controlled women. Whether through marriage, child-rearing culture or norms around beauty and dress, the suppression of women’s bodies has been repackaged into the neat forms of purity, good parenting and what’s “acceptable” in polite society.

Hill, for his part, relied on a mixture of thoroughly manipulative therapy-speak and good old-fashioned slut shaming to keep his then girlfriend in line. What’s most objectionable about the messages is his blatant use of his own mental health journey as a means to control Brady. Hill has spoken very publicly about his body image issues and his mental health, and even made a documentary about his therapist. I imagine that watching him turn on her using his newly discovered therapy language must have been nothing short of traumatizing for Brady.

No matter how they try to spin it, the “boundaries” these men are trying to uphold in telling their partners how to dress are designed to humble and rein in women who are comfortable in their bodies. And for Black women in particular, the response to this confidence can be particularly violent. In shaming her publicly (not to mention questioning her role as a mother), Jackson is opening her up to more of the misogynoir she’s been dealing with since she got pregnant.

People have questioned why both men wouldn’t simply date women who are more aligned with the kind of “boundaries” they clearly hold dear. Palmer has always been outgoing, funny and unafraid to be her most authentic self, while Brady was already a surf instructor when Hill approached her on Instagram, apparently attracted by one of the very same types of photos he went on to despise. “At the start he complimented me and flirted with me over the same surf pic he later called an a** shot, and was angry I didn’t take it down. Angry I didn’t read his mind,” Brady wrote in a text message to a friend about the relationship.

If you ask me, this dissonance is part of the point. There’s no control if there’s no behavior to police or correct. And sadly, being able to “tame” a woman whose freedom these men were initially attracted to is part of the thrill of entering into these relationships.

It’s as despicable as it is contradictory. And in the place where purity culture and the male gaze intersect lies a paradox of jumbled expectations and inconsistent messaging about how women are supposed to exist. Women are expected to play both whore and Madonna, with the choice being left up to the whims of whatever thin-skinned man they happen to be partnered with in that moment.

It’s freakishly insecure behavior that shouldn’t be normalized, or hidden. Because if powerful women like Palmer can be subjected to this kind of misogynistic overreach, it’s hard to imagine what happens to the women whose stories we never hear.

At the end of the day, the relationship between women’s bodily agency and the male ego is an abusive marriage where one must be crushed in order for the other to survive. And as long as women remain in the chokehold of this dynamic, male admiration will almost always find a way to morph itself into resentment, insecurity and, in the worst of cases, rage.

  • Tayo Bero is a Guardian US columnist

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