Is the “Mystery Woman” Sexist?

The problem with a One Direction star’s crusade against the tabloids.

Liam Payne, a mystery woman holding balloons.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hanna Lassen/Getty Images for The ATC, Michael Blann/Getty Images.

You don’t know her name—that’s kind of the point—but you’ve surely read about the life and times of a certain “mystery woman.” She also goes by “mystery girl” and “mystery blonde” or “mystery brunette,” depending on how she’s wearing her hair that day. Though her identity is cloaked in secret, she tends to keep busy. This year alone, she’s been at the center of a social media love story turned “cautionary tale in privacy”; spotted wearing an orange dress at the royal wedding; accused of having an affair with Keith Urban; spied on the arm of a former Australian Bachelor star; photographed canoodling with the likes of Patrick Schwarzenegger, Nick Jonas, and Timothée Chalamet; and detected on some strange Texas surveillance-camera footage ringing doorbells in desperation.

All that led up to last week, when the U.K.’s Daily Mail caught a glimpse—ahem, “PICTURE EXCLUSIVE”—of our gal with Liam Payne, who became famous as a member of the boy band One Direction. The tabloid claimed to have observed Payne in the act of moving on from his split with his pop-star ex Cheryl: He was at a hotel with an overnight bag and a “female companion,” another alias for “mystery woman.” But Payne himself begged to differ. The woman, he wrote on Twitter, was not a romantic partner but his employee. “My team is full of talented, smart professional women,” he wrote. “I find it wrong that they are reduced to being linked to me romantically in the press just for simply standing next to me. Isn’t it time we treat women with a bit more respect?”

Payne’s condemnation of the newspaper received widespread attention on Twitter and in the press, inspiring U.K.-based women’s-interest site the Pool to decree that “tabloids need to get over ‘mystery girls.’ ” When someone is labeled a “mystery woman,” the article argues, she is reduced to “only one defining feature (other than occasionally her hair colour) and that is her relationship to the man.” The piece suggests such tongue-wagging terminology erases everything else about these women.

Payne’s argument would be a pretty good one if it weren’t for one little thing, the existence of the one creature on Earth sexy and daring and captivating enough to rival the mystery woman: the mystery man. And he too has been busy lately. Per the Daily Mail, Jennifer Garner chatted with him while her son was getting a haircut over the weekend, “with some speculating that the Camping star may be getting ready to date again.” He will have a role this season on TV’s This Is Us. In early October, he had a “major PDA weekend” with reality star Bethenny Frankel. Actress Alice Eve shared a “passionate kiss” with him during an “emotional outing” in Los Angeles a few days ago. (The Daily Mail’s lust for information about this man is such that the paper is soliciting tips: “Do you know Alice’s companion? Contact,” it asks.) And that was all just this month!

Are tabloids more likely to single out mystery women than they are mystery men, or are mystery women subject to more scrutiny than their male counterparts? Without any formal data, it’s hard to say. Of the two terms, mystery man has appeared more frequently in Google Books, according to a Google Ngram (though there are also the “girl” and hair-color variations to consider). Mystery man, but not mystery woman, has a place in the Oxford English Dictionary, defined as “A man about whom little or nothing is known; an enigmatic or secretive man.” Its earliest citation is James Joyce’s Ulysses, from 1922, and a little before then, it also started appearing in newspapers: A 1920 New York Times article discusses a “mystery woman” who jumped a $500 bail bond, a good reminder the terms just as frequently come up in the context of crime as they do in tabloid love stories.

But Payne’s outrage isn’t completely misplaced. He’s not wrong to assert that tabloids are often completely retrograde and sexist, and the Daily Mail is among the worst offenders. It’s also fairly dumb to assume romantic intentions of all man-woman combinations in the vicinity of each other. That said, I don’t see any evidence that these news sources downgrade smart, capable women with minds of their own into “mystery women” any more than they relegate distinct and one-in-3-billion men into anonymous “mystery men.” Like the delicate issue of whether it’s acceptable to call someone a “wife” in a headline, which Ruth Graham adjudicated for Slate, this is more an issue of the erasure of “boring nonfamous people” than anything else.

Maybe tabloids love a mystery man or woman for no other reason than because it’s exciting when a famous person cavorts with a nonfamous one. One of them with one of us? No way! (It’s also fun when famous smooches famous, don’t get me wrong—both are crucial narrative arcs in the celebrity playbook.) Calling someone a mystery man or woman is also a journalistic crutch, a way of covering up a publication’s lack of information about a celebrity snogger. Rather than admitting that a celebrity has kissed someone, and we don’t know whom, we’ll have to get back to you on that, the word mystery wraps a story up into an enticing little package: The celebrity has kissed a mystery person. This is a mystery now! And almost every time, readers are all too happy to play detective.