It is exam term, and finals are in less than a month. As a result, posting will be (and already has been) light, as I struggle desperately to read everything tragic ever written. I’m also probably not going to be in the mood for delving deep into my own emotions when it comes to new and exciting sexual issues – seriously, I’ll be lucky just to be getting laid – so there may be less sex positivity than usual. In its place, however, I offer you something very close to my heart, that made me both angry and proud in so many ways, and took my mind of Othello for a minute or two.
Professor Mary Beard is one of my favourite people ever. As the majority of people who read this blog are not classicists, there’s a chance some of you won’t know who she is, but trust me, you ought to. She is probably the most famous living female classicist, which is pretty important if every bibliography you’re ever given as a student is just a list of men’s names, with a token ‘alternative’ article written by a woman at the end. But in case that seems like a pretty niche claim to fame, I’d say that if you asked the majority of Brits to name a classicist, any classicist, she would be the top response. Mary Beard is basically the face of classics in this country, due to her TV series on Pompeii and now Rome (BBC 2 and Tuesday nights – tune in!), her frequent appearances on shows like Question time, and her column for the Times, A Don’s Life.
I love her for several reasons. Firstly, she is a brilliant classicist. When I was studying ancient history last year, her books and articles on Rome were always the first place I’d look. I also very much enjoy the freelance features she writes in various papers, usually about some interesting insight into Roman life, or a classical take on a current news story. But she’s also a feminist, and has no qualms about showing it. I’ve read her thoughts on issues from the trials of being a female academic to her own rape, and find her inspirational. As a female academic in what is an insanely male-dominated field, and as a fellow at one of the last remaining all-women Cambridge colleges, she is someone I deeply admire and respect.
So you can imagine how excited I was about her new documentary, Meet The Romans. So excited, in fact, that I invited three non-classicist boys to watch it with me (including Leander). I was a little unsure of how they’d find it, especially since one of them had never studied Latin, Greek or ancient history, so didn’t have the background useful for these kinds of shows. All four of us loved it. Mary’s style of presenting is a little eccentric, and she makes no concessions for people who might expect something more mainstream, but Leander called her ‘a total badass’, while the other two both said she was brilliant and inspiring, if a little weird.
Now might be a good time to mention that she is fifty-seven, with long grey hair, and dresses in her signature red coat and sparkly leggings. You can file that under ‘eccentric with no concessions’.
Cue feminist backlash. I should never had read A A Gill’s review of her show, published in Sunday Times (which I am unable to link to, though much of it is quoted in the link below) – I really need to get better at avoiding stuff I know is going to infuriate me. If you’ve been doing this feminist thing for long, you can guess the sort of article it was. A nuanced critique of the merits of the show and Mary’s style of TV academia? If only. A brutal and patronising attack on her looks, including lines such as ‘From behind she is 16; from the front, 60. The hair is a disaster, the outfit an embarrassment’? Alas, this is the world in which we live, where insults as basic and pathetic as ‘lol, ur ugly’ apparently count as journalism.
(Side note: I am fairly certain that, had it been a woman who wrote the review, it would have been decried as ‘bitchy’ and ‘catty’, and led to a whole digression about why women are always attacking each other and can’t play nicely. See: the Samantha Brick saga, which I have deliberately avoided writing about.)
So here I am, all ready to defend Mary and talk about what an incredible academic she is, and how pointless, unprofessional and downright childish Gill’s review is. Except I don’t have to, because she is quite capable of doing it for herself. (Yes, it’s a Daily Mail article. I apologise. It helps if you put that aside for a moment.) She is not only witty and charming in her scathing response to Gill, but manages not to seem petty, happily admitting that she makes no effort to appear conventionally attractive on television, and refusing to apologise for it. You should definitely read the whole thing, but here’re the highlights:
‘Throughout Western history there have always been men like Gill who are frightened of smart women who speak their minds, and I guess, as a professor of Classics at Cambridge University, I’m one of them.
In a sense, I suppose, I should be used to such crass remarks as his. After all, they dog most intelligent women, even today — particularly if they dare to put their head above the parapet by appearing on television. For years, sexism was institutionalised in academic establishments. It is only since World War II that women were permitted to graduate from Cambridge University; before that, they could have the pleasure of studying, but only men would be honoured with degrees.
So what of my revenge?
First, I’d like to invite him to a tutorial in my study at Cambridge and ask him to justify and substantiate his opinions. We could talk them through. Possibly then he would learn a little about the crass assumptions he’s making and why they don’t amount to anything more.
And I ask only one thing of anyone who chooses to condemn me for not quite living up to the stereotype Botoxed blonde Gill seems to want me to become: see my programmes for yourself and decide if it is worth investing your time in watching me, even with my grey hair, double chin and wrinkles.’
The link also includes several photos of her, wearing her wonderful red coat, and looking every bit the brilliant academic she is.
This woman is an inspiration to me, and not just because she’s such a great classicist. I’ve written articles for student papers and had my looks torn apart in the comments – and I’m young and (mostly) feminine-looking. I’ve had heated discussions about feminist issues in bars, only to be shut down with ‘yeah, but real women don’t think like that’, or dismissed as yet another ‘angry feminist’. And I’ve had men talk down to me about issues I know far more about, then accuse me of being aggressive if I mention I’m actually taking a damned degree in the subject. And it makes me furious. No matter how many times I tell myself not to take it personally, it always stings, and I find angry tears pricking at my eyes as I desperately try not to be so ’emotional’.
And that is nothing compared to having your appearance – no, your very existence as a person – condemned in a national newspaper, by someone who won’t even do you the courtesy of listening to what you have to say.
I’m not sure I could handle that. I’m not sure most of could. But Mary Beard did, and she did it beautifully, with style and grace and just the right amount of self-deprecating humour. And that’s an inspiration all on its own.