Women presenting history in the media

History is all around us. I don’t just mean in the sense of being able to read events from the past in the landscape and urban environment, although that’s also true. It’s also all around us in a digital sense too, especially in this last week. Dan Snow set up History Hit, a regular series of podcasts on history, and last week extended that with History Hit Live, where a number of celebrity historians presented talks on a whole range of subjects. People like Suzannah Lipscombe, Neil Oliver, Bettany Hughes, Tom Holland, Frank McDonough, and others. The event was tweeted and transmitted live, and was a sell-out event. Fantastic! I always like to see history being spread, accurate information being transmitted in a variety of mediums (although the less said about ‘The Tudors’ the better….).

And then I saw a tweet that stopped me dead. I’m not going to say who it was by as I don’t see the point in starting a witchhunt, and I’d rather discuss the underlying issues than attack one guy. But the basic tweet was a photograph of Bettany, along with the text: “Bettany speaking at History Hit. Fascinating, who knew historians could be so good looking?”

Bettany is a wonderful historian. Passionate about her subject, she is particularly good at putting across complex ideas and I thoroughly enjoyed her last series which explored the lives and philosophies of three groundbreaking philosophers, Aristotle, Confucious and Buddha, learning a great deal about all three in the process. Intelligent, knowledgeable, a best-selling author of two critically acclaimed books and presenter of innumerous television programmes. There are few historians – male or female – out there with a track record to match, but instead of focusing on all that, on all her intellectual, knowledgeable and historian-like qualities… it focused on her looks.

Both Bettany and Suzannah are good looking. This is undeniable, and they are telegenic too; to a certain extent, their broadcasting careers will depend on this as much as their intellectual capabilities. Their fellow male historians on the panel are also good looking and telegenic – many women seem to find Neil rather attractive (he has a tumblr blog devoted to him), for example, but I wasn’t seeing the same bias being applied to Neil, that day, as I was to Bettany and Suzannah. For the male historians, the focus was on what they were saying. For Bettany and Suzannah, it was on their appearance. I doubt that Bettany and Suzannah are alone in this, or even female historians – I’d go so far as to say that women academics altogether probably struggle with this. One of my tutors regularly dresses down in casual jeans, shirt, and what looks to be a well loved, much patched, rather bedraggled, in places, jumper. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of approbrium attached to that. It is simply how he is – he’s a wonderful teacher, a fantastic lecturer (If I can ever deliver a talk as half as well as he can, then I’ll be happy) and his dress sense is simply a part of who he is. But I cannot ever imagine a woman dressing the same way, not and be taken seriously in academia. This double standard is pervasive in society and in academia, and seeing things like that tweet really make me think about it. I find it distasteful – and only one person picked up on the tweet, pointing out that there were far better things to focus on than Bettany’s looks.

So… if we agree that this kind of message is unpalatable, that the underlying culture of regarding men and women differently needs to change, how do we go about changing it? There, I get a bit stumped. To paraphrase a grumpy Doctor McCoy from Star Trek; I’m a historian, not a sociologist! But I do think that women deserve to be regarded in the same terms as their male compatriots, to be regarded first and foremost as intellectual, high-achieving, insightful, knowledgeable … all these things, before any mention of looks. Men do too, to be quite honest, but, the Neil Olivers of this world apart, it seems to be less of a problem for men. My partner, playing devil’s advocate, suggested that perhaps the original poster was comparing Bettany’s image to that of the traditional historian, that of an old, grey man, in a grey cardigan, smoking a pipe by a fire, complaining bitterly about the modern world. Perhaps that was the tweeter’s original intention. But as I said to my partner, if that was the case, why not use a photograph of the entire panel, both men and women? Why not specifically say something like, “modern historians, putting the old image of fuddy duddy historians to bed”. That would have been quite doable in 140 characters. Why focus on Bettany’s looks, rather than the message of the lecture she was delivering? The same person posted pictures of some of the other presenters of that evening. Neil was described as a “TV presenter and author” and a “lovely guy”. Dan Snow was described factually, as a “historian”. Peter Snow, in the audience, as a “Historian and TV Presenter”. With Suzannah he said she was “captivating the crowds”, and that she “apparently was talking about witches” (suggesting that he was watching her without taking in a single word of what she was saying. righttt….). However, I find it interesting that the pictures of Suzannah and Bettany, and the original tweets have disappeared from this chap’s twitter stream. Perhaps the penny dropped as to exactly what he was suggesting with all this.

Either way, although the original tweets seem to have gone away, the attitudes have not. That the original tweets have gone suggests a certain level of shame, which is at least suggesting that parts of society are starting to realise that these attitudes are unacceptable – the first step in changing attitudes is to make people realise that the original attitude is wrong in some way, to hold those attitudes up to the light, to hold an open debate about it

I read a really interesting article this morning on the BBC news site by Roger Scruton, about freedom of speech and the importance of it in making arguments, in discussion, in determining the correct course of action in any debate. In debate, the right to utter offensive words needs to be sacrosanct, to go against, where necessary, the conventional tide, to present an alternative viewpoint, to suggest something that can help people to see matters differently, and to improve the society around us. That doesn’t mean that I think the original tweeter should shut up. It means that I want them to speak out about what they think, because in so doing, others can point to the statement (not the person) and say “see that, that is indicative of this general underlying trend that we think is wrong and needs to change”. Shutting people up, driving attitudes underground is never the answer. And in a way, I feel saddened that the original poster removed their tweets, because in so doing, they almost removed the impetus for a debate, to discuss how intellectually capable women are regarded in society, how they are described differently to men.

These attitudes must be questioned. Statements that reflect them must be held up, not so as to shut up the person making them, but to help to educate the world, to help change the attitudes in the first place. This, rather than legislation, I think, is the way forward to change in a whole range of issues, is how we reach the tipping point in overcoming any kind of cultural hegemony, and the best way to improve a society for the better. And this is why I love history. It reflects people, it reflects society, and helps us, the individual and the society, when we’re willing, to improve for the better.

Advertisements