Sunday, 1 March 2009

in defence of the bluestocking...

as some of you might recall, i've been a little out of the social loop for the last 70 years or so, locked inadvertently into the basement of the manchester museum whilst archiving my excavation reports. and whilst so much about the world has changed beyond recognition during this long absence, it seems that one thing that has not diminished in this country is a distinct suspicion around intellectual aspiration or attainment. britain it seems has never had much time for a 'clever clogs', the rampant anti intellectualism long discernible in the popular press slipping dangerously over to loathing when it is attributed to women. when i was a girl the term bluestocking was a universal pejorative with women not allowed to graduate from universities until early in the 20th century. such women were unnatural, a disgrace to their sex, scorned, unmarriagable and doomed to spinsterdom as a result, and whilst the term itself might be less prevalent in common parlance, the idea that a woman should be strive only to be decorative to the eye sadly is not…

so just what is it about a display of intelligence by a female of the species that still manages to provoke such apoplexy?

i must admit to being caught completely off guard by the recent furore surrounding university challenge, that old war horse of a programme tucked away innocuously on bbc2 alongside other gloriously unfashionable dinosaurs such as sky at night and the now sadly departed open university late night geek fest (bring it back - it's a national treasure!). almost part of the wallpaper, uc is something of a broadcasting relic, an outmoded survivor of a long departed era - watched by insomniacs and retired classics teachers, it's occasionally wheeled out for gentle nostalgic mockery but rarely makes the national news or provokes the venom of the tabloids.

and whilst the latest revelation that one of the contestants was no longer a student by the semi-final recordings, but had graduated and already secured a job, might currently be overshadowing the original story, trimblegate, as its hilariously being dubbed, disturbs and dismays for a raft of all too predictable reasons. as becomes patently clear with a quick peruse of the newspaper coverage surrounding the high scoring performance of the mighty corpus christi team, most of the media attention has focused rather heavily on the capacity of the team captain, one ms gail trimble, to know so many answers. (such timerity - am i alone in supposing knowledgeability to be the foremost task of a team captain?)

here are just a few of her detractors foaming at the mouth on the web this week:

"hate her hate her hate her!! what a smug b*tch. i found myself willing her to lose! i don't get how anyone didn't feel the same rise of boiling angry hate"

"this horse-toothed snob ruins university challenge every time she is on it with her 'better than thou' attitude"

"...a display of self appreciating arrogance in intelligence"

"i became completely enveloped by my hatred for the captain of Corpus Christi"

broadsheets, tabloids, cyber space and the blogosphere alike have been drowning under the sheer weight of this unseemly invective, with inevitably rather too much made of poor miss trimble's appearance, in particular an unfortunate hair tossing habit which seems to have provoked column miles of boiling rage, leaving her defenders feeling forced to resort to sadly more sexist cliches such as those weary old librarian chestnuts,

“attractive in a blue-stocking sort of way" or "beautiful in a scholarly sort of way",

all of which are not only rather back-handed compliments bordering on apologies but are noticeable in their absence regarding the physical attributes of the hundreds of unkempt, disshevelled and otherwise sartorially inept and cosmetically challenged young men who routinely appear on the programme. as one lone voice timidly piped up,

"it makes me sad how much attention here is focused on how sexy she is or isn't. God forbid a woman be allowed to just be clever"

the whole episode has certainly provoked strong reactions all across the board and political spectrum. an unlikely defence comes from the daily mail via melanie phillips who offers this revealing, bitter assessment;

People would rather see someone who is broken, flawed, a wreck, one of life’s victims. That’s because they themselves feel like that....anyone who embodies demureness and orderliness is jeered at as either frigid or stuck-up. With self-restraint and decorum now a distant memory, what has been unleashed is a culture of bullying, the baying of a mob which will turn not just upon middle-class victims but also upon on its own when offered the opportunity to mock and jeer.

It is the pathological reaction of a crude, vulgar, de-educated and debauched nation, which has so badly lost its own self-respect and sense of itself that it viciously lashes out from the anonymous safety of its collective sofa in order to feel better about itself. It tells us that Britain - that once lion-hearted nation for which humiliation has become its national pastime - is now in trouble.

yet others have noted that there is rarely such sniping at the achievements of an athlete or footballer, excellence in these fields being a source of national pride and much handing wringing whenever we collectively fail to attain such olympian heights at international events and championships. the mantra of successive governments might well be education, education, education, but woe betide anyone who commits the sin of pride that is answering a random collection of arcane questions correctly - and as for women, we appear to be right back where i started, in the 19th century....


Anthroslug said...

I first came across references to Ms. Trimble as a cultural phenomenon while putting about on the inter-webs, and after reading a bit more I don't know if I am relieved or frightened to see that the USA (my own home) is not the only western nation in which education is both called for and looked down upon when someone achieves it.

I have not seen the show, as it is not broadcast here (though, now that I think about it, I'm sure it could be found on Youtube or some such place), but it seems like most of the loathing that has been levelled at the team captain is based around an irrational dislike for those who have mastered some esoteric subject coupled with the ol' classic confirmation bias - people have decided that they dislike her and will therefore find in every action some confirmation of her lack of character and discard anything not consistent with this attitude. Once it feeds on itself a bit, even people who otherwise would have had no opinion or even favorably inclined towards Ms. Trimble may find themselves bending along with the (perceived) masses.

Perhaps I'm missing some cultural nuance (it certainly wouldn't be the first time), but it seems no different from the folks in my hometown who refused to talk to me when I went to the university, or after I finished my masters degree. It's anti-intellectualism as prejudice, and does not give hope for our collective futures.

Yewtree said...

I am shocked and dismayed by the opprobrium heaped upon Ms Trimble, and have blogged about it here. It's probably a combination of the backlash against feminism and the deep suspicion in which intellectuals are held in Britain.

Bluestocking said...

thank you so much for leaving your comments on what might seem such a tiny concern compared to todays big issues! but at the heart of this parochial story are broader themes which you have both so succinctly raised - anti intellectualism and a feminist blacklash. great to have both your perspectives and am enjoying reading your blogs. nice to meet you both!!

sexy said...