Does the press simply reflect the continuing sexism in our society?


4:05 pm - February 20th 2013

by Robert Sharp    


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Many of the people who attacked the author Hilary Mantel on Twitter yesterday made derogatory remarks about her appearance. This was unwittingly ironic, given that Mantel’s speech to the London Review of Books concerned the objectification of women, and our media’s obsession with looks.

If we believe in free speech, then insult becomes unavoidable. But that does not mean that objectification and misogyny should go unchallenged.

I felt it was particularly important to challenge people’s language in this case, because Mantel’s speech dealt directly with the problem of sexism in the media.

I spent some time yesterday evening collecting examples, which I made into a Storify.

My conclusions? The recent phone hacking scandal and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry has given us an opportunity to scrutinise the press. The conclusion is usually that the media is shallow and nasty.

However, I think these tweets, from ordinary members of the public, suggest that society can also be spiteful and sexist. Why blame the press, when they reflect the public?

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About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Feminism ,Media

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Reader comments


Obviously the backlash against Mantel is stupid, but it’s not misogynist. That tweet above was from a woman – does she hate women? I doubt it.

You say: “But that does not mean that objectification and misogyny should go unchallenged.”

What you call objectification and misogyny are not really important things. Political activists can’t engage with everything they don’t like, they have to choose the most important things to focus on. People who get outraged about off-colour remarks in the media are diluting their activism and helping the right. So, you may think you’re fighting sexism, but you’re actually encouraging it.

Is is not possible for women to be sexist against women too?

However, I think these tweets, from ordinary members of the public, suggest that society can also be spiteful and sexist.

What exactly did you think feminists from the very start aimed to change?

In other news water is wet, bears shit in the woods, etc etc.

4. So Much for Subtlety

If we believe in free speech, then insult becomes unavoidable. But that does not mean that objectification and misogyny should go unchallenged.

Challenge away. Although I note no one here is challenging Mantel’s misogynistic objectification of Ms Middleton.

I felt it was particularly important to challenge people’s language in this case, because Mantel’s speech dealt directly with the problem of sexism in the media.

You mean she is Right On and so therefore allowed to be rude about the way other women look?

The conclusion is usually that the media is shallow and nasty. … However, I think these tweets, from ordinary members of the public, suggest that society can also be spiteful and sexist. Why blame the press, when they reflect the public?

Indeed. People are horrible to each other. Twitter allows them to be horrible quicker and with less thought. Big deal. Mantel’s comments were pre-prepared.

But complain away. As long as human beings walk this Earth, people are going to be interested in the way that women look. Nothing will change that. And everyone is going to find irony in the fact that someone who looks like Ms Mantel can unironically criticise the way someone like Ms Middleton looks. Sad but true.

The right wing press (which is most of it) actively pushes a mysoginist line. The Mail hates woman unless they fit into the private conservative power stereotype of obedient wife and dotting mother. Darce has obviously some serious demons in his soul about woman.

But the pro royal famiiy brigade are more bat shit insane than I have seen them all my life at the moment. They will not tolerate any criticism, however minor, of their ghastly family from British version of Disney. So some of the attacks on Mantel come from the The Royal famiy sycophants.

Of course most of these people are pig ignorant, and very stupid. If they had a brain they would see Mantel was in fact attacking the press. Which is the reason the thin skinned Mail is clutching it’s pearls.

6. Chaise Guevara

@ 4 SMFS

“Challenge away. Although I note no one here is challenging Mantel’s misogynistic objectification of Ms Middleton.”

I think Mantel was saying that Middleton has been objectified. I was gonna say something about Mantel attacking Middleton’s looks earlier (if only because it would to a great degree justify later criticism of Mantel along the same lines), but I re-read some of her comments and I’m I’m not convinced she actually did, aside from one admittedly needless comment about her apparently being too thin.

I read it as an attack on looks at first, but most of it seems to talking metaphorically about how she’s a puppet of the media and the royal family – hence all that stuff about her limbs being polished and clothes being hung on her. I’ve read some comments arguing about whether she has a personality to speak of. Truth is, we don’t know. Most royals toe the party line and exist in the public sphere as a carefully arranged string of press releases. Of course, the ones that don’t (Philip, Diana, Harry) are the ones that come off as interesting.

7. So Much for Subtlety

6. Chaise Guevara

I think Mantel was saying that Middleton has been objectified.

I don’t. I think she launched a long misogynistic attack on Kate Middleton for not being the sort of modern young woman Mantel approves of. She does not say the Royals turned Kate into a plastic doll. They said they picked her because she is a plastic doll. Which is probably true, actually, although it is for the obvious reason that nasty pieces of work like Ms Mantel made their life such hell for Diana and Fergie.

I read it as an attack on looks at first, but most of it seems to talking metaphorically about how she’s a puppet of the media and the royal family – hence all that stuff about her limbs being polished and clothes being hung on her. I’ve read some comments arguing about whether she has a personality to speak of. Truth is, we don’t know. Most royals toe the party line and exist in the public sphere as a carefully arranged string of press releases. Of course, the ones that don’t (Philip, Diana, Harry) are the ones that come off as interesting.

Where does she even hint than Middleton is a puppet of the Royals or anyone else?

“But Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished.”

Not that she was turned into a doll, but that she always was a doll. Middleton has made life choices Mantel does not approve of – to be a nice middle class girl it looks like – and so she is subjected to this nasty little smear job. That is vile. Mantel does nothing but attack her looks and her character. Not what she has said or done, but the way she looks. It is a vicious little piece of misogyny as you are likely to find.

You don’t even have to be a Royal to think so. Although you do have to be a decent human being – something Sally manages to remind us once more.

8. Chaise Guevara

@ SMFS

My suspicion is that you’re confusing “how she looks” with “how she appears”. I.e. that Mantel is talking about the image and persona Middleton has to put out for the public and media, rather than her actual face and body (aside from the aforementioned nasty comment on her weight). That’s how her speech read to me, at least, but I admit I skimmed it. I should probably read it properly before commenting further.

If you think Mantel is a mysoginist you need to get some medical help, because your brain is not functioning very well.

But then what Smfs is doing is a classic conservative trick of projection. He is projecting all his mysoginist views onto someone else. Someone who dares to point out the real mysoginists are the gutter media and the Royal men and their lackeys.

We already know from previous crayon scribbling that smfs is a racist. We now know he is a mysoginist too. No real surprise.

Many of the people who attacked the author Hilary Mantel on Twitter yesterday made derogatory remarks about her appearance.

Well, I didn’t: I thought Mantel’s comments and Sunny’s ‘tongue in cheek’ reposting of the highlights was mysogynistic enough without feeling the need to add to it.

This was unwittingly ironic, given that Mantel’s speech to the London Review of Books concerned the objectification of women, and our media’s obsession with looks.

It didn’t ‘concern’ the objectification of women, it was objectifying. It’s a bit rich of Mantel’s apologists to cry misogyny when she descibed Middleton as someone utterly without value except as a baby-making machine.

Is is not possible for women to be sexist against women too?

And transphobic to an extent that would be classed as hate-speech from a man.

Jumpin Jehosephat! – Mantel’s piece was an essay on the way the Royals (and slebs in general) are represented by the press and media; the problem with her piece was that it was conveyed in a literary, occasionally over-lyrical style which many readers clearly didn’t get. What SMFS read as mysoginistic comments were Mantel expressing the kind of re-presentation that the tabloids relentlessly indulge in.

13. Aliases not my strong point

Is it really “free speech” when the platform for expression is only really opened up for a chosen, accepted and blandly inoffensive few?

And even that chosen few are ignored because…tits.

Then we get the whole issue of preferring to discuss why the owner of said tits is being ignored, and how terrible it when she is a thinking, feeling individual human being.

Because, yes, that is terrible.

But when we suggest that maybe other thinking, feeling individual human women, a majority who aren’t and maybe never, met a standard of womanly competency from long ago, when the best thing we could do was birth a few rich man’s heirs and die before we got old and demanding, may have something to say as well – we’re dismissed with the whole arsenal of reasons we’ve seen over the last few days (and also, on this comments thread eh, SMFS, Shatterface and Robert ).

14. So Much for Subtlety

8. Chaise Guevara

My suspicion is that you’re confusing “how she looks” with “how she appears”. I.e. that Mantel is talking about the image and persona Middleton has to put out for the public and media, rather than her actual face and body (aside from the aforementioned nasty comment on her weight). That’s how her speech read to me, at least, but I admit I skimmed it. I should probably read it properly before commenting further.

That seems a specious distinction to me. And not really one supported by the text. Mantel slams Middleton not for how she is, but what her lack of personality and character – as well as for her looks:

“Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture. Diana was capable of transforming herself from galumphing schoolgirl to ice queen, from wraith to Amazon. Kate seems capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother, with no messy deviation.”

Nothing there about the media. It is all a smear on Ms Middleton – which is so brave considering she cannot reply in any way whatsoever.

9. Sally

If you think Mantel is a mysoginist you need to get some medical help, because your brain is not functioning very well.

Pots and kettles.

12. mike cobley

Jumpin Jehosephat! – Mantel’s piece was an essay on the way the Royals (and slebs in general) are represented by the press and media; the problem with her piece was that it was conveyed in a literary, occasionally over-lyrical style which many readers clearly didn’t get. What SMFS read as mysoginistic comments were Mantel expressing the kind of re-presentation that the tabloids relentlessly indulge in.

Sorry but no, it wasn’t. It took its turn in looking at how the media fawns on the Royals, but it was not about that. It did not have a problem with its style either. It made repeated, clear and misogynistic attacks on Ms Middleton for the way she looked and for the fact that she was not a “proper” Royal spouse like Diana. Mantel wasn’t talking about what the media said. She was talking about why the media like Ms Middleton so much – because she is a fake Barbie doll essentially.

13. Aliases not my strong point

Is it really “free speech” when the platform for expression is only really opened up for a chosen, accepted and blandly inoffensive few?

There’s a question that needs to answering because no one was asking it. No one here, even the OP, thinks that idiots should not be allowed to say idiotic things. On Twitter or in the LRB. The whole debate is about whether other idiots should comment on their idiocies.

But when we suggest that maybe other thinking, feeling individual human women, a majority who aren’t and maybe never, met a standard of womanly competency from long ago, when the best thing we could do was birth a few rich man’s heirs and die before we got old and demanding, may have something to say as well – we’re dismissed with the whole arsenal of reasons we’ve seen over the last few days (and also, on this comments thread eh, SMFS, Shatterface and Robert ).

Sorry but is that supposed to be a grammatical sentence? If so, what the hell are you trying to say? No one is objecting to Ms Mantel saying what she likes. No one has had a bad word to say about her up to now. The problem is when she makes vile and nasty comments about a girl who cannot defend herself based on the way that girl looks and her alleged lack of personality. No doubt you find it convenient to play the victim card – as if any woman has been reduced to nothing but a baby-machine outside some ethnic communities for more than 100 years. But it won’t help your case.

15. Chaise Guevara

@ 14 SMFS

The difference between personality and persona is far from specious, given that the latter is partly created by the media and partly by pressure from one’s new family.

I’m still reading it as a criticism of the persona. But at the very least it’s ambiguous, which is enough to see why people might not object to that when they do object to the above comment about Mantel.

16. MonkeyBot 5000

The reactions were negative because the headlines mostly took the form of “Old lady criticises lovable young girl!”

It reflects the nature of our media and the internet rather than our society.

17. So Much for Subtlety

15. Chaise Guevara

The difference between personality and persona is far from specious, given that the latter is partly created by the media and partly by pressure from one’s new family.

There’s the Chaise I know. Changing the subject as he goes along. There is not one word of criticism of any fake persona the media has created in that article. It is all a direct attack on Ms Middleton herself.

It is not remotely ambiguous and if you think so, quote.

I get you hate the Royals and you want to be in with the cool crowd, but don’t let that distort the reality of what was a very nasty piece of work.

16. MonkeyBot 5000

The reactions were negative because the headlines mostly took the form of “Old lady criticises lovable young girl!” It reflects the nature of our media and the internet rather than our society.

A woman who is physically unappealing and it appears rather nasty attacks a girl for being pretty and nice. It may be sexist but as long as a single human being has a pulse in their veins, they are going to find that laughable if not contemptible. That’s human nature for you. Now you can dress that up as misogyny, but the reality remains it was Mantel expressing that, not the Twits on Twitter. They did not go right for a personal attack on her appearance. She opened the door for them by starting in on Middleton. Just like a cheating MP standing with his wife and family.

SMFS
Only you can find this interesting
Although, you take away their jobs, put up their energy bills to pay for Ukrianian football teams but never , never or never have a go at a minor royal.
Eh Shatterface

19. Chaise Guevara

@ SMFS

“There’s the Chaise I know. Changing the subject as he goes along.”

Sigh. We’ve been talking about personality and persona for a while now, you strange man.

“There is not one word of criticism of any fake persona the media has created in that article. It is all a direct attack on Ms Middleton herself.

It is not remotely ambiguous and if you think so, quote.”

You have to delve quite a way in – almost to the end of the first paragraph!

” It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant.”

That’s done-to language: rags were hung on her, attributions draped. So someone (media, Buck House) is placing a fake personality on her. What’s another word for a fake personality? Oh yeah: persona. And then that last line actively discusses how the press is going to look at her.

You’re so desperate to pretend that the article is equivalent to mindless abuse that you’re willfully misinterpreting it.

“I get you hate the Royals and you want to be in with the cool crowd, but don’t let that distort the reality of what was a very nasty piece of work.”

There’s a cool crowd on LC? I don’t hate the royals, if you’re going to ad hom me at least do it accurately. The fact that you have to invent opinions held by me to generate an argument that is in any case fallacious speaks volumes about your position.

As for distorting reality, as is so often the case with your posts, you seem to be projecting your own failings onto others.

Why can I not believe in free speech and still think that insult should be outlawed? Hate speech is: the comments about Mantel are blatant hate speech. I am free, but not to drive at 40mph in a 20mph area having downed a bottle of scotch. Why does wishing to curb anti-social and dangerous speech which undermines freedom of expression (except for the thick-skinned and loud-mouthed) make *me* an outlaw, not the fascists and homophobes and racists and misogynists?There is something wrong with liberalism – it enables the very people it pretends to oppose (see the government).

21. Chaise Guevara

@ 20 Briar

“Why can I not believe in free speech and still think that insult should be outlawed? ”

Because it’s a contradiction in terms. Banning insults prevents some people from expressing their opinion, and everyone from reporting reality (have to pretend a fat person isn’t fat, because you’d put us in jail if we said they are).

Also, you don’t have a clue what liberalism is, given that you apparently think its values should be extended only to people whose views we support. That would be fascism.


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