Oh, this age! How tasteless and ill-bred it is.’
— Gaius Valerius Catullus
‘I do not know whom Mary Beard is but wyth a name lyke that she surely has a third teat and a hairy clopper.’
— Internet posting following Professor Mary Beard’s appearance on Question Time
So Catullus, mate — things have not got much better over the last two thousand years. People, it seems, are still ill-bred and tasteless, as that second quote up there would suggest. It was not the most tasteless comment on the internet over the last week or so, or even the most tasteless to be directed at Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge. There are others, most so vulgar even I wouldn’t repeat them, from quite the most ghastly ill-bred people. I suppose it is shocking that someone of Professor Beard’s standing and breeding is forced to suffer its hideous manifestations.
What happened was this. Professor Beard was invited to take part on the BBC’s Question Time programme, where she made what can be politely described as an utter fool of herself. I run a small, light-hearted competition every year on my blog for people to vote for the most stupid woman to have appeared on Question Time in the past 12 months. It is but the third week of January and Mary is already a shoo-in, I fear, unless they ask Lynne Featherstone — the Manchester United, nay the Barcelona, of this particular award — back on to the show.
Anyway, having performed with stumbling vapidity in her earlier answers, she turned to the question of immigration and the influx of Bulgarians and Romanians we are all looking forward to welcoming to our shores next January. Mary managed to appear smug, patrician and fabulously ill-informed in her answer, which was to the effect that a study in Lincolnshire had suggested that immigration had caused nary a problem at all but had added immeasurably to the rich diversity of the area — and so, she concluded, there would be no problems at all from this next wave.
Unfortunately, she was speaking in Lincolnshire at the time and the lowly born, perhaps ill-bred audience quickly disabused her of this ludicrous notion with multiple descriptions of what it was like to live in a place which has been swamped with eastern European workers; their lack of homes, the crime, the antisocial behaviour, the pressure on local resources and so on.
Beyond the confines of the programme, Beard’s remarks were greeted with frank hilarity and in some cases anger. She was very quickly made ‘Twat of the Week’ on a non-aligned website and the insults started flowing. Most of them were accurate refutations of her vacuous argument, or expressions of annoyance at her middle-class, metropolitan insouciance. But it is true that some ridiculed her appearance as well.
Outrageous, tweeted Beard! (Yes, the Prof tweets, and that tells you something.) ‘The misogyny here is truly gob-smacking,’ she whined: all those comments were ‘truly vile’. She triumphantly listed the most graphic comments on her blog and concluded that the abuse would ‘be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public’. If only that were true in Mary’s case, but I strongly suspect it isn’t. On the broader point, that the comments are vile — yes, indeed. I have made the case before that the internet has shown us as we really are, which is not terribly nice, all things considered. But misogyny? First, the majority of abuse was about what she said — not how she looked. But does she really believe that men do not get the same level of abuse when they have angered people on TV, or in print, or on the internet? Does she think that in the case of men, the comments are restricted to a coolly delivered and logical series of counter-arguments which eschew any and all personal denigration? Is she really that thick?
I have lost count of the times my own penis — a harmless enough creature, really — has been invoked, most usually by women, during an attempted refutation of some point I have made in an article. It is, I have been assured, minuscule, or inoperative, or unwashed, or diseased, or nonexistent. Sometimes all of these things at once. And as with Mary, the remainder of my physical being is not left unremarked: fat, hideous, stinking, vile, ugly… oh, lordy, we could be here for weeks. It is nothing to do with misogyny; it is just what people reach for when they, perhaps temporarily, hate someone. I remember a short while ago a complaint that Muslims in the public eye were subjected to the most horrid nastiness — the journalist Mehdi Hasan was one of the loudest complainants. Again, no, Mehdi; it’s not your religion, or the colour of your skin — it’s you. It’s just you.
But there’s one other thing in the case of Mary Beard. How many professors of classics have you seen on BBC Question Time, other than Beardie? None. How many other professors of classics have been invited to take part in Jamie’s Dream School, or been invited to present a series on BBC2? None other. Just Beard. Why is this? Is it because she is so absolutely brilliant at the classics that they think she ought to be on a cooking show? Nope: it’s because of the way she looks. They think she looks like a loony. And the TV companies, the producers, love that. If they can’t get a hunk or a fox, they like an eccentric. It generates a reaction, not always entirely pleasant. And if Mary doesn’t grasp that her appearance is precisely why she — along with Grayson Perry — gets to be on TV, then she had best not look at what the genuine loonies have to say on Twitter.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 26 January 2013