From The Daily Mail April 24 2012
By Mary Beard
As a classicist, I know a lot about revenge: the Ancient Greeks and Romans were horribly good at it. But not the crude, getting-your-own-back sort; they always ensured their retribution was absolutely appropriate to the crime.
So, ever since the acid-tongued TV critic AA Gill sent some of his nasty jibes in my direction in his newspaper column on Sunday (and it wasn’t the first time I’d been at the sharp end of his, frankly, misogynist pen) people have been asking me, what is my vengeance going to be? What would be the most apposite way to get even?
First of all, I’ll tell you what he wrote — or, perhaps more to the point, what he didn’t write.
He is supposed to be a television reviewer, but he said hardly anything at all about Meet The Romans, the documentary about the Roman world that I've written and presented on BBC2. What he was interested in was my appearance.
To be honest, at first reading, his remarks were pretty hurtful. He suggested that I should be kept away from the cameras altogether and, in a topical reference, went on to imply that I belonged on The Undateables, a recent Channel 4 programme charting the dating difficulties of the disabled and facially disfigured.
It’s easy to explode when you first read something like that, especially if you are its victim.
It seems a straight case of pandering to the blokeish culture that loves to decry clever women, especially ones who don’t succumb to the masochism of Botox and have no interest in dyeing their hair. It’s a case of mistaking prejudice for being witty and provocative. And it’s very easy to find yourself thinking: ‘What an odious little twit!’
But the Romans didn’t get even by trading insults or reducing themselves to the unsophisticated level of their opponents.
Throughout Western history there have always been men like Gill who are frightened of smart women who speak their minds, and I guess, as a professor of Classics at Cambridge University, I'm one of them.
In a sense, I suppose, I should be used to such crass remarks as his. After all, they dog most intelligent women, even today — particularly if they dare to put their head above the parapet by appearing on television. For years, sexism was institutionalised in academic establishments. It is only since World War II that women were permitted to graduate from Cambridge University; before that, they could have the pleasure of studying, but only men would be honoured with degrees.
Even in the mid-1970s, when I was an undergraduate at Newnham, then as now an all-women’s college, only 10 per cent of the university’s students were female. There were a few guys around the place who would treat us as just that bit intellectually inferior to them.
There was stereotyping, too. We were the swots and frumps; the generic term for a bright young woman was still a ‘bluestocking’.
I used to enjoy mocking this flagrant typecasting: every time I went to a job interview I reclaimed the stereotype by arriving in a pair of blue woollen tights.
Another intelligent woman who might agree with me is the BBC broadcaster and sports commentator Clare Balding, to whom I’m very grateful for weighing in and supporting me over this latest Gill outburst.
Having also been grievously insulted by Gill in the past, she wrote on Twitter: ‘I like to think he’s intimidated by us. Sad, really, that he’s incapable of assessing women in an intelligent manner.’
Last summer Gill referred to Clare as a ‘dyke on a bike’ when reviewing her travel programme Britain By Bike. Clare, who is openly gay, complained to the Press Complaints Commission and it upheld her complaint. And this isn’t the first time Gill has had a go at me, either. He also took issue with my appearance in his review of my documentary Pompeii: Life And Death In A Roman Town in 2010.
‘For someone who looks this closely at the past,’ he wrote, ‘it is strange she hasn’t had a closer look at herself before stepping in front of a camera. Beard coos over corpses’ teeth without apparently noticing she is wearing them.
‘From behind she is 16; from the front, 60. The hair is a disaster, the outfit an embarrassment.
‘This isn’t sexist or beside the point. If you’re going to invite yourself into the front rooms of the living, then you need to make an effort.’
That was a shock at the time. But get real, I find myself thinking on reflection. It’s both sexist and beside the point.
Sure, I don’t wear make-up. I have nothing against those who do if it gives them pleasure, but actually I feel happy enough in my own skin not to feel I want to bother with it. I don’t dye my hair for the same reason. I ask myself: ‘If I did, what would I be covering up?’ And how do you stop doing it once you’ve started?
To the charge of having big, tombstone teeth, I plead guilty. I inherited them from my mum, just as I did her uncompromising double chin. I’m every inch the 57-year-old wife, mum and academic, half-proud of her wrinkles, her crow’s feet, even her hunched shoulders from all those misspent years poring over a library desk.
I could even try a Socratic point here. Like the great Greek philosopher, I look a mess. But actually, if you took the trouble to listen to him, he had something valuable to impart. I’m nowhere near the towering intellect of Socrates, but at a lower level that analogy could apply to me.
And what is beauty after all? Is it someone who is Botoxed to the eyeballs, or someone who feels beautiful under their own skin?
The real point is not what I look like, but what I do. And the response from most viewers to my programmes is that I present interesting, absorbing and enjoyable ones.
I am gratified, too, that the BBC has always been 100 per cent supportive and not asked me to change my appearance. I’m delighted to be a woman in late middle age presenting programmes on television. I hope, soon, more will join me.
I’ve been deluged with supportive messages on Twitter as well.
‘I’m on the side of Mary Beard. She’s brilliant. Who cares about make-up?’ tweeted one kind viewer; another told me they had been inspired to take up Classics as a result of watching my programmes.
I’m heartened by these and many other favourable remarks. They’re a counterbalance to Gill’s poorly argued, carping sexism.
That’s another thing — even the greenest of my students would not present me with an essay as ill-argued and off the point as Gill’s critique.
Possibly this is where we reach the heart of AA Gills’s problem: maybe it’s precisely because he did not go to university that he never quite learned the rigour of intellectual argument and he thinks that he can pass off insults as wit. It may well be the reason why he feels the need to sneer at intelligent, educated women like Clare and me — Clare also studied at Newnham, Cambridge — so repeatedly.
So what of my revenge?
First, I’d like to invite him to a tutorial in my study at Cambridge and ask him to justify and substantiate his opinions. We could talk them through. Possibly then he would learn a little about the crass assumptions he’s making and why they don’t amount to anything more.
Next, for my Roman-style revenge on Gill, I’d force him to watch each of my programmes from start to finish. And to ensure he did so with appropriate diligence, I’d ask Clare to be on hand to enforce the penalty.
And as Gill is also a food critic —and I’m certain there is a veritable battalion of angry chefs and restaurateurs who would gladly volunteer to help with this bit — I’d force-feed him, like a goose destined for pate de foie gras, his least favourite dishes, while he sat and learned about the Romans.
And then we’d talk about them — and I mean about their substance, not just about my lack of lipgloss.
I do wonder, if he met me face to face, would he be prepared to reiterate the insults he has heaped on me in print? Somehow I doubt if he would have the guts.
I am often asked to review books in newspapers and I always make it a rule never to write anything critical in a review that I would not be prepared to repeat to the author face-to-face — a basic tenet of responsible journalism.
And I ask only one thing of anyone who chooses to condemn me for not quite living up to the stereotype Botoxed blonde Gill seems to want me to become: see my programmes for yourself and decide if it is worth investing your time in watching me, even with my grey hair, double chin and wrinkles.
It’s the content that’s the thing, and I believe it’s interesting and fun (tonight we’ll be visiting a 20-seater Roman lavatory). It’s on at 9pm on BBC2. And, AA Gill, you might even learn something.