What’s Sex Got to Do With It?

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

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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.