Sunday 19 November 2017

The modern way to make molehills into mountains

Niamh Horan
Niamh Horan

Eilis O'Hanlon

'No, I haven't read the piece on 'China's faceless masses'," admits Woody Allen when Diane Keaton rings him up as he's reading the Sunday papers in the film Manhattan. "I was checking out the lingerie ads. I can never get past them. They're really erotic."

There is more wisdom in those few lines than in most of the expensive courses currently offered to journalism students. Not everyone goes to the same place for the same reasons. Sunday newspapers, especially, are broad churches. Some read them for analysis of global political developments. Some come to be entertained.

If we're honest - though most aren't, because truth isn't good for the ego - more readers are there for the sex than the politics. Check out the Most Read list on newspaper websites. The naughty vicar gets more hits than the People Before Profit demo every time. Complain about that, if you must. Bemoan the dumbing-down of modern life, if it makes you feel better. But get over it, because that's the way it is, always was and probably always will be.

That's what is so bizarre about the furore provoked by the article on women's rugby by Niamh Horan in these pages last week. I read it on holiday. The sun was shining, I was in a good mood, I took it for what it was - a fun, flirty, sexy, summery piece, using the success of the Irish women's rugby team in the World Cup to have some fun debunking the author's own freely admitted preconceptions.

Imagine my surprise then when I made the mistake of checking out Twitter, only to discover that Niamh Horan was, in fact, The Worst Person Ever, whose article was sexist and, yes, offensive too apparently, because everything's offensive these days. In fact, it would be quicker to make a list of things that the perpetually offended aren't getting their self-righteous knickers 
in a twist about most days. People actually said that
Horan should be "ashamed of herself". There were blogs about the affair; open letters. When the Irish women's
team was knocked out of the World Cup semi final, there were even some who blamed Horan's article for somehow having sapped the motivation of the national players. Go figure.

Or, better still, don't bother. Even by the increasingly tiresome standards of the 24/7 offence machine that is social media, the pompous, self-righteous, humourless reaction to the article was way over the top. The arrival of Una "Homophobia Watchdog" Mullally of the Irish Times into the fray confirmed that the affair had well and truly jumped the shark, as she accused Horan's piece of containing a "scared of lesbians subtext". Seriously? She also tut-tutted at the Railway Union club, who were featured in the piece, for initially endorsing the article before backing
off in the face of criticism and issuing a subsequent statement distancing themselves from it.

Una, of course, has some previous with Niamh Horan. In March last year, Mullally complained because the same writer published a story on Ireland's most eligible bachelors, going so far as to call it "completely offensive and derogatory". Not just a wee bit offensive, mind, but "completely". There really is nowhere to go after "completely". It maxes out the superlatives. It's the sort of word that most journalists hold back in reserve for the truly big stuff. Not so the Irish Times hackette, who clearly whips it out at every opportunity. Bless.

Niamh's a big girl. She doesn't need anyone else to defend her. But that doesn't mean she doesn't deserve to be defended all the same against a shrieking hysteria that is fast becoming the dominant cultural feature of our time.

What she wrote, after all, wasn't intended as the last and only word on women's rugby. It wasn't even about sport, as such. If it had been, it would have been in a place known, for that very reason, as the sports section. It was one woman's personal account of a day spent in the company of some other women. It didn't need the stamp of approval from an official Sexism Watchdog, any more than pop culture peddler Una Mullally's fangirl musings on some tedious rock band of whose existence most readers would happily remain unaware needs my approval either. It's a free country.

Some things are meant… brace yourselves, girls, because this may come as a shock… as a bit of fun. That's all. Is that really so bad that only a symbolic witch burning will suffice to make restitution for the alleged offence? It's as if we all got co-opted somewhere along the way into the Dictatorship of Should, with its eternally dispiriting motto: Here's what you should have written, should have said, should be thinking.

The official guardians of the public good certainly weren't thinking about women's rugby, or they'd have known that the worst possible thing is to turn supporting it into a duty rather than a pleasure. So there was a bit of flirty lipstick lesbian subtext. So what? There's plenty of it around, from The L Word to Orange Is The New Black to MTV. So there was some chat about threesomes. Big deal. I've heard enough women drooling over male rugby players not to fall for the lie that sex and sport stimulate entirely different parts of the brain.

Few subjects invite such hypocrisy as women's sport, though. Women are always demanding it get more attention, but they already make up half the population. If they wanted, they could have their own dedicated channels for women's sport tomorrow. What makes money, will exist. There aren't any, because women watch less sport then men, and, when they do watch sport, they generally watch men doing it. Somehow, women expect their laziness to be corrected by others doing what they simply can't be bothered doing themselves.

If women want more serious attention paid to women's sport, then they have only one choice. To watch it. To participate. To encourage their daughters to watch and participate. That's why men's sport is a huge cultural and economic phenomenon. Not because of some sinister patriarchal conspiracy, but because men put their money where their mouths are and make it so. They sign up for the sports channels, they buy tickets 
for the games, they read about it at every opportunity. Women could do the same. Instead they're being succoured 
into complacency by a culture which increasingly assures them that the very act of 
being offended gives them an unassailable moral authority which instantly outpunches all other arguments.

Niamh Horan's pitchfork-waving critics may have found her article a bit silly, but there's nothing sillier than believing an affectation of seriousness is a mark of real gravitas when, in truth, it's invariably a sign of the opposite.

Sunday Independent

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