The story of a tweet
A few days ago I spotted one of the new M&S ads, with Helen Mirren, Tracey Emin et al. I thought it was interesting and a bit funny, especially given the clientele of M&S (to judge from my local branch) that none of them were grey haired. In truth I wasn't quite sure about Helen Mirren, but I dont THINK that her hair is its natural colour.
Now, I dont think this is the biggest issue facing the world or women today, but as advertising does affect how we think we "should" be etc etc, I gave the ad one little tweet (being careful to register my uncertainty about Dame Helen's coiffure).
This is what I wrote (sorry I haven't quite mastered the art of "capturing" tweets as they appear, onto the blog; but you can check it out on my Twitter feed if you dont believe me):
Women in new M&S ad are a great & feisty bunch. But unless I have mistaken H Mirren's blonde, don't spot a whiff of grey. Women go grey M&S!
That is ALL I said on the subject. But soon Beard's view on this ad was all over the place... in an instructive little parable about how news is made (up) and people's views constructed (and then attacked for what they never actually said). Within 48 hours I was being branded eiter as a heroine standing up for the cause of us older women, or as an academic with so much time on her hands she could afford to waste it on this kind of campaign, or as a batty old harridan who didnt understand advertising (and was being inappropriately disrespectful to Dame Helen).
This for example is what commenter in the Telegraph had to say:
"Oh dear life. What next? demanding Playboy feature septagenarians?"
So how did it happen? Well it's all a question of verbs I think.
Things started off fairly accurately. The Telegraph said that I had "criticised" M&S which wasnt exactly what I had done, but it wasnt too wide of the mark. And if you read closely you did discover that all I had said was in that one tweet. (Most of the commenters on the Telegraph site didnt read very closely -- in addition to the one I just quoted there was this: "What about ugly - even bearded - women in the ads, too? A whole new area of employment for Ms Beard..." and this: "Someone slags her off, she gets more airtime to push the censorship agenda" . . . )
So too in the Standard (who get the "Beard award for accuracy" on this one). They said my tweet had sparked a controversy (true), and they had got onto M&S about the colour of Dame Helen's hair. And they went on to have another entirely correct report of how I had (politely) crossed swords with the man on twitter who said I had too much free time (I replied that I only wished I had SOME free time).
But it wasnt quite like this in other papers. In the Cambridge News I had "hit out" at M&S. In Marie-Claire I had "slammed" the firm. And Jan Moir in the Mail (rightly pointing to the fact that they was a decided absence of size 16s too) said I had "moaned" Now THAT was one thing I emphatically had not done (though it provoked some nicely humorous support... one tweeter said that if I had been a bloke the verb would have been "observed").
By this stage the "story" had a life of its own entirely unrelated to that one tweet. There were invitations to discuss the issue on TV, to write articles...and a lot of the twittersphere weighed in without ever having noticed the little tweet that had launched it. Most of this was friendly (whether pro or anti what I hadn't actually said), but there was the predictable smattering of hater tweets (one bloke eventually took down his reference to me stuffing my saggy tits in my socks, and sort of apologised).
Well, OK, I only have myself to blame you might say. I should know by now that if I write 140 characters mentioning the word "grey" it will get picked up. But it isnt half instructive to see what happens to those characters in the game of "journalistic whispers" and through the social media ("read the bloody sources" is what we tell our students).
And I'm not sad I did it. In fact, the little storm itself demonstrates that there is an issue about (women's) grey hair in our culture -- an issue to which I am only too likely to return.