Thursday, 24 January 2013

What's in a name, Mary Beard?

I'm delighted that Professor Beard is so constantly herself, or perhaps herselves, in all her fantastic intellectual variety. I'm thrilled that she is a role model for other women.

Bearding Mary might have seemed funny at first, but the trolling that has been aimed at her is, as she puts it herself, truly 'vile'. 

Thank you, Professor, for not spending time plastering yourself in makeup. For not wasting hours of your uniquely multiple public intellectual's life in salons. How would you get everything done? Thank you for spending your time... professing instead, which is what you're paid to do. Thank you for being intelligent, for having common sense, and for having the intellectual humility to know what you know, and listen when you don't. What you do encourages other women to do the same.

Thank you for wearing, doing, saying and thinking as you please, in conversation with others. Your freedom to do this, and your openness, is one of the signs that Britain is a 'free' country.

The comments aimed at Professor Beard, on the other hand, have absolutely nothing to do with freedom of expression. They are hate comments, explicitly hoping to curtail her personal freedom, and are deliberately based on her gender and sexuality. Rather than argue with what she says, obscene comments are designed to bypass her intellect and turn her into an object, which can then be treated in any way the commentator chooses. This is about power.

Professor Beard has been verbally abused, and there is a direct line connecting this to the case of the physical gang rape and murder of the 23-year-old student in New Delhi. If you allow abuse of any kind to take hold in any society, it will gradually corrode attitudes, and enable the unthinkable, justify the undoable. Eve-teasing in India constitutes a perpetual low-level abuse of women, which is aimed at their submission. Opposing this in public is vital, and that's why I'm so grateful to Beard for speaking out in the UK. She calls it 'citizen activism', and plays down the gendered dimension of the abuse she has received, which I also applaud — verbal abuse diminishes all of us, male and female.

The orthodoxy to which so many other women seem to feel they must conform, corseting themselves in tinting, dyeing, dieting, plastic surgery, tanning, manicuring, etc is nothing but a massive waste of the precious golden minutes we have to be alive. It is the behaviour of victims who believe the bullying messages coming at them from all sides, telling them they are acceptable in public life on condition that they cripple themselves in some form. Corsets gave way to hobble skirts, but now women turn their very bodies into corsets.

I don't want to get dragged into the side argument of "but women do these things because they want to, for their own pleasure". That might be true for some women, and I don't judge them — some of my best friends wear makeup. The 'personal pleasure' argument, however, is often used to obscure the real problem, which is the entry to public life.

As Beard suggests, the fear of abuse must put able women off entering the public realm. The playing field is already stacked against women — not in terms of education, in which women (or rather girls) excel, but in terms of sustaining a career through the years of starting a family and raising children. Women are vulnerable to verbal abuse directed at their physical appearance, because women's bodies are designed to give birth, and women instinctively protect themselves as potential vessels of new life, whether or not they actually have children. Women, like men, are sexual beings, and sexuality is ultimately geared, through pleasure, and whether we like it or not, at reproduction. Duh.

No, the point I'm trying to make is that targeting women through abuse of their physical appearance is always and only a power play intended to belittle and subjugate them. In the public sphere, men's physical grooming is conducted through conformity: men conform to uniform codes on a spectrum from the dandy to the grey suit, and simply don't attract the physical denigration reserved for women.

It might be argued that women in public life also conform to various codes of dress. But the difference is that male dandies promote their clothing, its cut, the materials used, while females are tricked into promoting their bodies in and through their clothing.

Professor Beard cuts right through the recessive intricacies of a debate like this, because she is, at all times, herself, doing what she loves to do, which is communicate, teach, learn and debate. She is a woman with alternative points of view to the mainstream, speaking within the mainstream.

Hooray for Mary, for freeing everyone.


Emily Taylor said...

"No, the point I'm trying to make is that targeting women through abuse of their physical appearance is always and only a power play intended to belittle and subjugate them."

Spot on Ingrid. I love Mary Beard. Have done since hearing her lecture on Ancient Art. Talented women are still judged on their appearance, and not just by men.

Kirkegaard said...

Hi Emily, so nice to read your comment! I can only agree with you that women also judge themselves and each other on appearance. It's something I find particularly difficult to understand and overcome. Women's fates ARE tied up with their bodies, in ways that perhaps men's fates are not. Denying that leads to as much unhappiness as succumbing to the constant judgement. People like Mary Beard remind me that the arguments around judgement of bodies are actually smoke screens for the real problem: women in public life or power.

Kirkegaard said...

Not sure why people can't leave comments -- can someone email me and tell me where the process goes wrong? Many thanks! Ingrid