Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Silence isn't golden

It all started with an appearance on Question Time, during which Mary Beard had the nerve to cast doubt on whether local services in Boston, Lincolnshire really were as stretched by the growing immigrant population as members of the audience were suggesting. That led furious halfwitted keyboard warriors to take to the internet and post personal abuse about the Cambridge historian and TV presenter.

The abuse was most pronounced on a site called Don't Start Me Off, and prompted Beard into writing about it on her own blog for the Times: "the misogyny here is truly gobsmacking. The whole site is pretty hateful (and what some of the comments say about Andrew Marr since he's been ill are almost worse than anything).. but the whole 'cunt' talk and the kind of stuff represented by the photo on right [her face superimposed on a pair of labia] is more than a few steps into sadism. It would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate, especially as all of this comes up on Google".

A plight deserving of sympathy, then, you'd think. Not so - at least according to the Torygraph's Cristina Odone, who essentially defended the offensive comments as merited given Beard's age and appearance, and effectively told her to stop being so thin-skinned and tolerate it. A fine attitude, especially from one woman to another - and, for Beard, that's exactly the issue. She's since responded to say that she thought long and hard about whether to challenge the comments publicly but ultimately felt she needed to speak out because women have been told "for millennia" to "just shut up and take the abuse or otherwise you will make it worse".

And she hasn't made it worse. On the contrary, she's successfully highlighted the rampant misogyny in the portrayal and perception of women in the public eye, and the offending site has been closed down as a result of the outcry. Beard has since spoken to the Guardian's Elizabeth Day about the affair, but more interesting would be a tete-a-tete with Odone - it would be fascinating to hear the latter trying to explain her position...

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