THE CHEEK of Mary Beard, eh? To think she could show her face on national TV without preening or plucking or dying her long grey locks. To think just because Question Time is a platform for political debate and she’s a Cambridge don her appearance might be irrelevant; or that because male guests can sit with their stomachs pouring over the top of their waistbands and their eyebrows sticking out like ears of corn and still be taken seriously, she might be criticised on the basis of what she said rather than how she looked.
Doesn’t she know that even in 2013, perhaps especially in 2013, when Botox is so readily available, women who appear in public aren’t allowed to be ugly or old or uninterested in fashion?
Beard didn’t even have the grace to be affronted by her lack of conventional aesthetic appeal. Instead of trying to fade into the background, she wore her blue stocking image with pride and was rewarded with a barrage of vile, crude and misogynistic abuse, which sought to put her in her place. Among other things, those attacking her discussed her pubic hair and the size of her vagina.
There is a school of thought, espoused by that champion of women’s rights Rod Liddle, that says the attacks on Beard had nothing to do with her gender; that the sexually explicit comments were a response not to her looks, but to the paucity of her debating skills.
And it’s true her comments on the programme fell somewhat short of incisive. In particular, her airy dismissal of an audience member’s fears that immigration was stretching services to breaking point in Lincoln, came across as out of touch and high-handed.
But unpalatable views and inane chit-chat are the lifeblood of Question Time these days. David Starkey sang the praises of Enoch Powell; John Lydon ranted on about the beauty of the British Army. No-one posted images of their faces superimposed on genitalia.
It is also worth remembering that long before Beard voiced her opinions on immigration, AA Gill described her as too ugly for TV, adding: “If you are going to invite yourself into the front rooms of the living, then you need to make an effort.”
Admittedly what happened to Beard was extreme, but the discrepancy between the way men and women are scrutinised is quotidien. The Daily Mail’s infamous online sidebar of shame, which delights in tracking the physical flaws of celebrities – a spot of cellulite or a sagging bustline – serves as a reminder to women that visible ageing is a crime against the natural order.
Of course, looks matter for male celebrities too, but I don’t remember the last time I saw a ringed close-up of Dustin Hoffman’s decrepit hands with the caption: “He may have kept his boyish face but these wrinkles show he’s no longer the graduate.” Nor have I ever heard it suggested that the creases on actress Helen Mirren’s face give her an air of gravitas, although I have seen several articles marvelling that she can still get into a bikini.
Women must be held to account for every aesthetic failing, but it’s not just how they look but how they behave that is the subject of double standards. Where a man is “assertive”, a woman is “pushy”; where a man is “passionate”, a woman is “highly strung”; where a man is “well-informed”, a woman is “opinionated”.
The result of having opprobrium heaped upon them is that women are generally less willing to enter the fray. But whose fault is that? Have women only got themselves to blame if they’re not thick-skinned enough to put up with a bit of criticism?
Commentator Cristina Odone thinks so. Last week she said Beard, who studied at Cambridge at a time when only six of its colleges accepted female undergraduates, was being “stupid” for making a fuss. “Women have always been given flak for the way they look,” she wrote. “Think of Livia and Julia back in the time of Augustus. They were attacked for everything because they refused to stay in the background and fawn on men.”
Well, that’s reassuring. Not only have things not, apparently, improved for women since the days of the Roman Empire, but we are expected to be content with this state of affairs. About Beard, who had the audacity to challenge them, she adds: “A woman who sticks her head above the parapet... is asking for brickbats and (some) bouquets. If she doesn’t have the stomach for it, she should stick to lecturing undergraduates.”
Yep, that’s what Odone believes. If women aren’t willing to deal with sexually explicit insults every time they make a public appearance, they should skulk away in the shadows and yield the floor to men.
The thing is, her view isn’t even particularly unusual. Women who complain about the way they are treated are seen as humourless and high maintenance, even by other women. Such whingers these feminists are, always moaning about things like the gender pay gap, unaffordable childcare and lack of women in top positions and making men, most of whom are at fault only by virtue of their complacency, feel awkward and uncomfortable.
Oh, I know it would make things a lot easier for everyone, especially ourselves, if we just embraced the status quo; if we laughed off negative comments about our looks and our stroppiness and were grateful for those inroads we’ve made since the 50s, when we were expected to stay home and bake cupcakes.
But I prefer Mary Beard’s more confrontational approach. And I don’t care if she’s hopeless on Question Time just so long as she keeps railing against those who seek to diminish her on any grounds other than the quality of her arguments. Better to be seen as a humourless irritant than to blithely accept gratuitous abuse as no more than a woman’s due for daring to enter the public arena. Better to keep pushing against doors that may never open than to shrug our shoulders and say: “’Twas ever thus.” «