WHEN some women complain about a male columnist’s snide comments, they make us all look weak and vulnerable.
I remember quite clearly the moment, aged eight, that my mother passed on to me the greatest lie ever told to children. Ned – a boy at school who liked to step on snails – had told me that my hair was “tangled and horrible like a witch” and that because of this I “probably had nits”, and not just your common or garden nits, but nits that would eat through my head and come out of my eyes.
And when I came home from school, red-cheeked, crying, begging my mother to cut off all my hair so I could get rid of the head-eating, eye-popping nits, she took me in her arms and said, “Now, now Bryony. I’m going to tell you something that you must remember for ever, something you must say to Ned the next time he tries to be horrible to you…”
I looked up at my mother, expectant, hoping for some magic phrase.
“What you must say to him is this: 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’.”
This playground memory came back to me yesterday when I read about Clare Balding, hurt by words that were not even directed at her. To recap: on Sunday, the restaurant critic and TV columnist AA Gill wrote a piece about the historian Mary Beard, in which he remarked that she “should be kept away from cameras altogether. She’s this far from being the subject of a Channel 4 dating documentary.” Everyone who doesn’t live under a rock saw this as a reference to The Undateables, a programme in which people with physical and/or mental disabilities search for love.
It wasn’t polite, but it made sense – readers of Gill’s work know that he is not a fan of the Meet the Romans presenter, writing in a 2010 column that “for someone who looks this closely at the past, it is strange she hasn’t had a closer look at herself before stepping in front of the camera. Beard coos over corpses’ teeth without apparently noticing she is wearing them. The hair is a disaster, the outfit an embarrassment. If you are going to invite yourself into the front rooms of the living, then you need to make an effort.”
Balding, who two years ago had a complaint to the Sunday Times newspaper upheld by the PCC after Gill called her a “dyke on a bike”, went on to Twitter to defend Beard. “Ah yes, the great t--- Gill. The bizarre thing about him being a TV reviewer is that he hates television & most/all women on it.”
Balding was absolutely right to complain about Gill’s previous homophobic comment, but she got this wrong – Gill doesn’t just hate women; he is a professional misanthrope who seems to dislike the human race as a whole, save perhaps for himself. He has, in past columns, slagged off the Welsh (“ugly pugnacious little trolls”) and the English (a “beefy-bummed herd”), and said that the Isle of Man “managed to slip through a crack in the space-time continuum”. Nor are men immune from his aesthetic fascism: Tony Robinson has been described as “Gollum”, Niall Ferguson as the historian’s version of wee Jimmy Krankie, and he once accused David Tennant of gurning so badly that he resembled a “half haddock”.
None of these men responded to Gill, and nor did anyone on their behalf. They probably had better things to do than bother to answer back to the arbitrary offensiveness of a bloke who watches television for a living. And yet a stupid, throwaway line about a woman’s appearance feels like the lowest of blows, causing thousands of Twitter users to take it upon themselves to ride to the rescue of the damsel in distress, in this case Mary Beard, a fearsomely intelligent woman perfectly capable of looking after herself. (Her response? “I think Gill is better at reviewing soup and shiitake mushrooms than television programmes.”)
The same thing happened when the odious Frankie Boyle said that Olympic swimming gold medalist Rebecca Adlington looked like someone reflected in an upturned spoon; there was as much outrage as on the occasions he mocked sufferers of Down’s syndrome, cancer and Aids. And that’s the worrying thing: every time we get our proverbial knickers in a twist about the pathetic comments of some idiotic misogynist who wants to provoke a reaction, we just end up making ourselves look like some vulnerable minority group, and not one half of the world’s population. Sometimes it is better to laugh along with a roll of the eyes, or just ignore it altogether.
Anyway, it isn’t true to say that men aren’t judged on their looks. They are; it’s just that we choose to ignore it. I don’t know how many times I have seen David Cameron compared to a ham, or Ed Miliband to a muppet (and I may have even made some of those comparisons myself). When I wrote that the philandering MP John Hemming looked like a human being spliced with an avocado bathroom suite, he emailed me to say he found it amusing (one-nil to Mr Hemming there). My goodness, if half as many comments were made about, say, Theresa May, as are made about William Hague being bald as a coot, there would be utter uproar.
Perhaps male vanity is just so impenetrable that men don’t notice negative comments. Perhaps, after many years of inequality, women are entitled to be a bit more tetchy when their looks are criticised. But are the problems of feminism really solved by getting uppity about the latest boy to pull our pigtails? Are there not more important feminist fishies to fry? Equal pay? Benefits for single mothers? Why didn’t Clare Balding tweet about the revelation also this weekend that 100,000 women in Britain have undergone female genital mutilation?
As a female columnist, I’ve experienced first hand what it is like to have blokes comment on your looks. It doesn’t matter what I write about – someone will come out of the online woodwork and call me fat, ugly and in need of a diet. I’ve responded once in 12 years. That has nothing to do with some admirable ability to rise above things – there have been times when I have almost bitten straight through my tongue – and everything to do with the fact that I think these people are the exception and not the rule.
The Gills, Boyles and sexist trolls under the line are, I believe, in the minority. That is why they shock us so. When you step away from the internet, from the bubble that is television, men are not that bad at all.
We are a long way away from the Seventies and Eighties, when the likes of Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson entertained the masses with sexist jokes. A lewd comment about a female colleague will now land you in serious hot water; no man I know would dream of wolf-whistling at a woman as she walked down the street.
Clare Balding and Mary Beard are right to feel cross that attention-seeking throwbacks such as Gill still exist in the mainstream media. But to borrow the words of Seneca – as Mary Beard does frequently – “It is often better not to see an insult than to avenge it”. Or, to paraphrase my mum: sticks and stones, ladies. Sticks and stones.