What’s Sex Got to Do With It?

RUPERT MERCER argues that Mary Beard's response was off the mark.

Recently Mary Beard was criticised for being ugly. Her response? It was actually because she’s so clever. Did nobody else think that was a bit arrogant?

Before expanding on this I should just set a couple of things straight – Gill’s attack on Beard and her appearance was not only unjustifiable and rude, but also pretty boring. That’s before we even get onto Samantha Brick, the Daily Mail journalist who, having gained nationwide notoriety for complaining that she is adversely judged on her appearance, weighed in to do just the same to Beard.

However, despite my natural aversion to Gill’s sentiments, I thought Beard got her response completely wrong. Her article ran under the headline: “Too ugly for TV? No, I’m too brainy for men who fear clever women”. This entirely misses the point.

Beard was criticised because she did not live up to the standard of ‘beauty’ which our society expects of its TV presenters. So far, so offensive. But what she failed to grasp is that this is not an issue confined to sex.

I could fill this article’s word count twice over with examples of men who have been mocked because they don’t satisfy the same celebrity aesthetics of which Beard has fallen short. Adrian Chiles, Antony Worrall Thompson and many others could make the same complaints. People even make films about it.

This entire attitude is wrong. I need hardly say that people ought to be judged on their merit in the field they work in rather than their physical appearance. Clearly some fields require a certain aesthetic but Beard was not auditioning for a part as a Bond girl. She was presenting a documentary on ancient Rome, an area in which she is pre-eminently expert.

The example of Gill’s treatment of Claire Balding (he dubbed her a “dyke on a bike”) has been dredged up in support of Beard’s outburst, but surely this was an equally disturbing instance of homophobia, not sexism?

It is an argument often levelled against the feminism movement that every issue is manipulated into an argument over sexual politics. While not wanting to make such a bold statement as that myself, I don’t think Beard, as a confirmed and competent feminist herself, has done anything to dispel that stereotype.

How should she have responded? Either with the dignified silence that Gill’s blatant and imbecilic shit-stirring deserved, or by saying something like the following: “I may not fulfil your shallow idea of beauty, but I don’t care. I am an academic and consequently want to be judged as such, rather than against society’s vapid idea of celebrity beauty”. And she should have left it at that.

But once it got embroiled in sexual politics, her response became: “It’s just because I’m cleverer than you”. And that’s an answer straight from the playground, not the professor’s office.

  • Hmm…

    How should she have responded? … “I may not fulfil your shallow idea of beauty, but I don’t care. I am an academic and consequently want to be judged as such, rather than against society’s vapid idea of celebrity beauty”

    It's the Mail. I don't think they would have published Beard's article if it wasn't a little bit tongue-in-cheek.

    • Think about it

      Then don't reply in such a sexist medium as the Mail!

  • Finally

    Her article was embarrassingly serious and immodest – straight from the playground indeed. You'd expect a Classics professor to be well-versed in irony and capable of producing a suitably scathing, mocking reply rather than this straight-faced 'did you know I'm a professor?' rubbish.

    As for this supposedly 'feminist' theme: I was initially surprised at her choice of the Daily Mail to rail against the objectification of women, but was quickly distracted by the link on the right promising 'Maria Fowler accidentally exposing her nipples in tight pink bikini on Marbella beach when our photographers just happened to be around.'

  • Realist

    I think the point that has been missed is that those who would make a judgement not to watch a programme because of Beard's appearance are those who lack enough intellectual capacity to watch the programme anyway.

    Essentially, I don't see what the problem is!

    • Saw it

      Did you actually see the programme? It was watered down for general consumption and didn't require much in the way of brain power to understand

  • shealenai

    I think Mary Beard was too rash to comment. She is too elitist and was equally wrong to prejudice against AA Gill for not being university educated. Surely that's on a par with sexism?

  • Realistic man

    I do agree with the sentiments of what the article is saying, but this is not an ideal world. The BBC (though certainly not alone) has been the centre of several scandals to do with females on their channel recently – casting out the old for no known reason. Nobody has ever suggested getting rid of David Dimbleby or Andrew Marr. I think for Beard to respond that she is clever and good at what she does is fair enough, as the reality of the situation places her in a business which is weighted against elder women – especially when those women aren't cherished for their looks. Fair play to Beard for speaking out – she has brains and that is why she is doing the show.

  • Bearded

    You're confusing two or three different things here though. This IS a gender issue because women ARE treated differently when it comes to telly, hence the whole BBC young women/old men debacle. Men are judged on their appearance, but it tends not to affect their jobs. Women are judged on their appearance, and get chucked out for a more pneumatic model. Adrian Chiles still makes a lot of money working on TV, even if he is the butt of a thousand jokes in the process. If, however, you can dig me out a review by Gill of Starkey, Schama or even Tony Robinson which ignores the history and comments on their appearance, I'll happily agree with you.

    And saying that "AA Gill is afraid of clever women" is not the same as saying "I am cleverer than AA Gill" (something that, by the way, she never says in her article). The second is pure childishness, the first makes a serious point about the attitude behind Gill's complaints: he can't fault her intellect, so he lays into her looks.

    • Baldrick

      He did once compare Tony Robinson to Gollum.

    • Mr. Cultured

      Yes but it hasn't affected Beard's job because like Balding (and Starkey, Schama, Robinson, and Chiles) she continues to work in television (if she wishes) despite her age and disheveled appearance. Most of the women complaining that they've been let go because they're too old were let go because they were old *and* because they were totally useless as well – I'm sure there are many men who have been let go in a similar fashion and haven't kicked up a fuss about it because, unlike modern women, they aren't raised to view themselves as constant victims of systematic discrimination.

      Western feminism is an illness. Because of it, any fair comment made about some truly hopeless woman by a man is merely a revelation of his misogyny. Gill is a bit of a prat, but to call him sexist over this is ridiculous.

      • seriously?

        totally useless – like the experienced and capable newsreader moira stuart?

        • Mr. Cultured

          You can only rest on your laurels for so long. You need to be a cut above 'capable' to make the cut.

  • angry classicist

    she took a phone call from her daughter in a lecture. just saying

  • Beardite

    It's obvious this is about sex. There's a balding fat man hosting a history programme about the 70s right now, but I don't see any female columnists taking the piss out of him.

  • anybody

    Know where Gill's article can be found? I can find millions condemning him but I want to read all of what he said.

    • Googler

      I think it's been taken down.

  • bad headline

    When I saw the headline: "Too ugly for TV? No, I’m too brainy for men who fear clever women", I initially thought the same as the author of this piece. Just saying, "No, I'm cleverer than you" would be childish and arrogant. But, having read the piece, I don't think that's what she was saying at all. She was saying that she is academic – an undisputed point – and as such, it shouldn't matter what she looks like. As for dragging up the gender issue, I'm not a massive fan of this in general, but in the case of TV I think it's justified. Compare the looks (and age) of the average male as opposed to the average female TV presenter, for example. Personally I think the sensationalised headline was added by the editor – after the article was written.

  • FeedTheTroll

    Because men have penises, men have to find women attractive so that babies get made. Women don't have much of a choice, so it matters less. I think people forget this.

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