A PANTO production in Canterbury has recently received complaints after naming the two ugly sisters in their show Beatrice and Eugenie. Apparently, they felt it acceptable to entertain children by encouraging them to snigger at the the two young princesses.
The ugly sisters themselves are spared too much sympathy. They're a rather un-pc concept, true, but they are fictional, and therefore immune to having their confidence bruised. But Beatrice and Eugenie aren't fictional, they're real young women with public duties, to whom, no doubt, such digs in the name of comedy are humiliating and probably hurtful. I'd doubt before this incident either of them had ever thought of themselves as ugly, since they are attractive women. But now, if news of the debacle reaches them, the thought will, sadly, have crossed their minds.
"The real Beatrice and Eugenie famously have a wonderful sense of humour and I'm sure they would find this highly amusing," said the Panto's producer Paul Hendy. Clearly, he knows nothing about the finely tuned sensitivities of young women. The vast majority of us are already savagely self-critical, and hair-trigger sensitive about the outside world's view of our faces and bodies. Hendy defended the decision by saying that in no part of the action are the sisters actually called ugly on stage. But what comment on their looks are we supposed to infer, exactly, by the fact that the characters are played by men?
That this lame attempt at comedy passed with relatively little comment is just another example of how we've become inured to the name-calling and bitchiness that is part of the cultural wallpaper against which we now go about our lives. When did it become okay to call people ugly in public? What happened to manners? No wonder women today are consumed by self-loathing. It's a collective crisis of confidence, and today's men, too, are hot on their heels. A study published last week revealed that four out of five men in the UK are unhappy about their body. Is this really surprising when we have all learnt by now, that in celebrity media, having a less than perfect face or body can make one subject to an unchecked chorus of criticism and ridicule?
It's not just in panto, it's everywhere. Go, for example, to any tabloid newspaper story about Pippa Middleton and scroll through the comments that appear underneath. You'll usually find a long ream of contributions from Joe Public, putting his or her oar in on the subject of the quality of Pippa's looks. Some of the comments are kind and complimentary, but the vast majority are pretty vicious. It's as if 90 per cent of the views expressed online consist of the sort of comments that would have earned you a rap on the knuckles from your mother, had she overheard you making them about a classmate at school.
Bitchiness has always been currency in the schoolyard -- a means of exorcising schadenfreude or petty insecurities. It used to be something that most people grew out of by the time they got into their twenties. Now, it's seeped out into the culture.
The moment bitching becomes bullying is when it is said directly to, rather than about the subject. Bitching may be the slightly more benign of the two, but with the internet, we blur those lines. Comments made on the internet, or in newspapers, are in the public sphere. A matter of two clicks would allow Pippa (should she be inclined to look) to see the great outpouring of vitriol about the merits or otherwise of the proportions of her body and the prettiness of her face. Sure, to the people making nasty remarks about her, she's a stranger. As remote as the Queen of Sweden.
But does that mean that somehow we waive our responsibility towards her feelings? Do we imagine that we have a license to be mean simply because we imagine she's probably too privileged, famous or busy to notice? The old adage of not saying anything at all if you can't find something nice to say is based on the simple, compassionate moral that it's kinder, if possible, to shield people from too much criticism, even when it is true.
This notion has been abandoned wholesale in our society and it's a shame. Just because we envy them doesn't mean celebrities should be exempt from consideration of their feelings. What's more, this toxic culture of criticism doesn't just wound the famous. It seeps into the lives of ordinary people too. We live in an atmosphere of almost obsessive, fiercely critical appraisal of ourselves and others. It makes none of us happy. Isn't it time we gave Pippa, the princesses and, by extension, ourselves a break?