Me and Kate: the record straight
At the end of the week I am giving a lecture at the British Museum organised by our friendly rival, the LRB It's on "The Public Voice of Women", and I am afraid that it is sold out -- but all being well it will be filmed and broadcast on BBC4 in due course (which of course makes the preparation all the more scary.
Anyway in the run up to this (and supporting the home team, as it were) I did a big interview on the general subject for Saturday's Times. It's behind the paywall -- but those of you who go there can read it here (don't shoot the messenger!). If you're booked to come to the lecture, dont worry: it's not going to be a repeat of this -- I've been very careful about that.
I say "big interview". What I mean is that I talked to two journalists (Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson) for about an hour and a half, and they condensed it into a double page spread (dont know how many words that is, but with a picture etc, it isn't all that much). The conversation was a pretty wide one -- ranging from the prominence (or not) of women in politics, at all levels (important not to assume that "politics" is all about Westminster, it's about local councils etc etc too); through changes in Cambridge over my lifetime; what role models are available for kids (I wanted to stress that "impossible" fashion was nothing new, women -- and sometimes, but less often, men -- have always been urged to force themselves into impossible and uncomfortable shapes); tips for women who want to make their voice heard (dont have all that many, to be honest); internet abuse; to current reforms in education.
I thought they did a pretty good job, to be honest (thank you, Rachel and Alice).
Now, in the course of the interview we did touch on the Duchess of Cambridge and Hilary Mantel, for various reasons. I thought for example that the Mantel fuss last year was quite a good example of people telling a woman to shut up, without ever knowing what she had said. And we had a few words on how the different members of the royal family seem to offer very different ways of "being female and public". We talked about the Queen (and the image of the elderly more generally), Princess Anne (partly in the context of changing images), and Kate as the immaculate, admirable, maternal icon. There was some chat too about how people like Kate get imprisoned by their image (gilded prison though it is). Nigella Lawson would be another. Think of the cost for her of saying, "Stuff it, I'm fed up with this Domestic Goddess business".
The overall message was that (in general, with all the obvious exceptions) women play a higher price than men if they want to make their voice heard.
So far, so good.
The Times headline (wo)men, predictably enough I guess, picked out the bit about Kate -- to cast Beard, I'm afraid, as if she were a kind of wannabee Mantel. And that's what got featured in the little news item that they ran on the back of the interview.
All the same most people commenting online didn't fall for it, though a few did -- and in those cases I decided to reply giving a fuller story (this is always a hard call, but I reckon that if someone simply gets you wrong, it can be very important to say so -- else we just let "below the line" become a completely free for all, abusive fantasy).
So when someone called (rather alarmingly) PlatoSays started off:
"Women bitching about other women leaves me cold TBH",
"I really dont think this was "bitching". I hoped it was pretty clear from the interview that (despite the catchy headline) this was part of wider reflections of women's public voice and image. See no point in bitching." etc. etc.
All the same, it was a largely pretty polite stuff, even if (under the news item) Mr Ric Williams did seem to confuse me with Mary Berry: "She might be a Professor but no one outside the narrow confines of academia would be interested in her opinions if it wasn't for The Great British Bake Off."
But then -- wait for it -- it was picked up by the Mail and the Mirror. Their takes on the story were predictably different. The Mirror (bless them) ran with the headline "When I saw Kate Middleton's grey hairs I thought they were great" (it's their picture above) The Mail did include the grey hair bit in the head line, but started off "Duchess of Cambridge is prisoner of her maternal doll-like image.." To be fair, the rest of the article wasnt all that bad actually:
"Cambridge University classicist and TV presenter Mary Beard said that the Duchess of Cambridge has been reconstructed as an object of admiration following her 2011 marriage into the Royal family.
This has seen the future Queen transformed from a Berkshire woman into a beautiful 'vessel', she said."
Well I never actually said anything about Berkshire (didnt even know that is where she came from)! But the piece did go on to to raise the question that I raised: namely, if she is a construction WHO constructed her? (It's easy enough to talk about the construction of an image in the passive... but try it in the active?)
But around this fairly decent prose, there were of course the photos doing their own job: one of me looking like the back end of a bus, and Hilary Mantel not much better, next to a radiant Kate!
The comments below the line, almost 300 of them, were more divided than I expected. More than a half on my reckoning really laid into royalty, as lazy (grey haired) freeloaders. The others laid into me (with the occasional sideswipe at Mantel):
"Leftist feminists should not comment on the looks of other women but should rather look themselves in the mirror.", "Who is Mary Beard and who cares what she thinks ?", "Mary Beard has very little grip on the real world, as reflected in many of her comments. She is cocooned in her safe world of academia", "These two writers should stick to their typewriters. (They both have a typewriter vintage look.)", "Mary Beard is to be pitied if she truly believes that she is making any contribution by being unkind for no reason other than envy", "Cheap publicity for Beard (who does what exactly?)", "Mary Beard is a leftie professor who just talks nonsense like all other lefties", "How I wish that Mary Beard would just shut-up!"
And so on. To be fair none of it was really nastily offensive (on the internet troll scale of offensive). What was really striking, though, was the almost total lack of middle ground, or uncertainty, and the almost complete faith that the Mail article represented my views, fully and exactly.
This was a bigger nut to crack. So I decided to give it a day and respond to the most aggressive, and explain that this was a partial account of a bigger 90 minute interview, which had touched on Kate and other members of the royal family in the context of bigger issues about women's public roles, available on the Times website. Etc.
(So far the Mail vetting team havent actually published many of these responses.. but I'm hopeful).
But, for me, one day of giving patient responses is enough. After all, I now have to get the lecture actually written.
The funny thing is that the University's head of communications reminded me last week that the LRB lecture was what got Hilary Mantel into all that trouble. I was insouciant -- so he'll be laughing. But let me promise (him and you): Kate doesnt even get a walk on part in the lecture, and there will be rather more about Homer!