LIFE

Cambridge Classicist confronts sexist online abuse

XENIA KOUNALAKI

Mary Beard’s latest book parallels her own experience with vulgar attacks and threats on Twitter with the world of ancient Greece, specifically the portrayal of women in the works of Aristophanes and Homer.

TAGS: Books, Media, Society, Interview, History

Mary Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, is among the most prestigious voices in the field of ancient history. Her rich scholarly bibliography ranges from “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome” to “The Parthenon.” But when it comes to the contemporary issues of pedestrian misogyny and the sexism of political culture, her perspective is perhaps expressed loudest on Twitter, where she is the frequent object of scorn from trolls who hurl abuse at her on everything from her hair to her genitalia. Beard refuses to be silenced. She frequently responds to the hostile comments and reports her abusers. She enlists other Twitterati to team up against trolls. Her persistence on social media demonstrates her broader conviction that women should not be told to shut up nor be cowed into ignoring potential bullies but should claim their own equal standing within the public forum.

Beard’s latest book, “Women & Power: A Manifesto” (Liveright 2017), was published last November. It is a short history of misogyny from antiquity up to the present day. “Women & Power” parallels the author’s own experience with vulgar attacks and threats on Twitter with the world of ancient Greece, specifically the portrayal of women in the works of Aristophanes and Homer. Beard, whom The New Yorker dubbed the “troll slayer” in an extended September 2014 profile, responded to questions from Kathimerini in a written interview.

Which era of antiquity would you deem the most misogynistic, Classical Athens or Rome?

I think it is very hard to give a simple calibration of misogyny. It comes in different forms! But I would rather have been a woman in Classical Rome than in Classical Athens. At least among the elite, Roman woman had many more social and economic rights.

What do you make of the #MeToo campaign? Is there lasting value in it?

I think there is always value in speaking up and in solidarity. We must remember though that this is a good prompt, it is consciousness raising but, on its own, it isn’t the solution.

Do you fear a backlash from people who disdain political correctness?

Not really. There will always be people who make that claim when you try to right any social or political injustice. But for the most part they don’t have real arguments.

I love your Miss Triggs analysis and I totally identify with the situation. How should women deal with this sort of male attitude?

That is in my view the hardest thing. I spent hours and hours when I was younger with my female friends trying to work out how we could get our points across in seminars, how we could get ourselves listened to. It was very “bonding” but it never really worked. For myself I have now solved the problem, but to be honest I don’t know how. The important thing for me is the fact that when I open my mouth in public I do now hear “me”... I am not acting, I am not pretending to be authoritative. I am speaking as myself. That is really really important. But how it happened I haven’t a clue!

Do you believe the commentators who used the image of Medusa to represent Hillary Clinton during the US presidential campaign are conscious of their misogyny? Or is this hateful culture somehow subconsciously encoded in their DNA?

I think it lies between the two. We have inherited the idea of male power over women being displayed in this violent way, and we even take it for granted. (And perhaps there is something deeply Freudian in those snaky locks.) That said, I very much doubt that most of those who have mugs or T-shirts with this image could tell you the story in detail.

Are you of the notion that it’s easier to get an African American elected president of the USA than a woman?

That is a complicated one, and, again, I think it is hard to compare. An African-American president was elected and a female president wasn’t. Does that mean it is easier? That is hard to say. It was different times. I think that the failure of Clinton to be elected had many factors to it. Among other things, the “glass ceiling” metaphor did not speak to a lot of ordinary women in America who think of those women close to that ceiling as rather privileged.

I was surprised that you admire Theresa May and the way she handles the boys’ club attitude by embracing her femininity (her choice of shoes, etc). But is the “sisterhood connection” stronger than political criticism? Should women be more lenient when confronting female politicians?

I strongly object to almost every one of Theresa May’s policies. (Don’t worry, I can’t see any circumstance in which I would vote for her.) But I can also see that women in politics, across the parties, share several problems... And it is sometimes worth thinking about those in general. Politically, I am not lenient with other women, but there are nevertheless some issues we can share between left and right. Most women in the British House of Commons, of every party, want to see more women there. And it is something they can collaborate on.

I am confused about “Lysistrata.” I always thought it was a feminist play, yet you seem to contradict this.

“Lysistrata” is often performed and read as a feminist play. And maybe that is OK. But it is absolutely certain Aristophanes did not write it as such. The whole idea of women refusing sex is a fantastic sexist joke. And the cutting up of the apparently naked female figure of Greece at the end (how they did it on stage, I don’t know) is close to pornography.

Why do you keep responding to or reporting the trolls abusing you on your Twitter account? Do you enjoy your New Yorker title “troll slayer”? Don’t you believe that snubbing them would be the best form of punishment?

This is always a close call. People always say, “Pay no attention and just block them.” But it seems to me that that is another way of silencing women, telling them not to reply, just to take it and ignore. And the end result of that is that the trolls get away unchallenged and in charge of the space. If you see a child in the school yard bullying others, you don’t just tell the victims to ignore them. We shouldn’t do that on social media either.

On the other hand, I do think it is important that everyone finds out for themselves what they feel comfortable with. “Answering back” works for me. But I don’t want to impose it on everyone else.

How can we realistically change the meaning of power in order to strip it off its embedded machismo?

I wish I knew. If I had had a simple solution, I would have shared it in the book. But I do think that recognizing and facing the problem is a good start.

While you draw very poignant conclusions about sexism in ancient and modern times, I feel that you don’t offer suggestions on the means of how to counter this sexism beyond parenting solutions or quotas for women in higher places, so I have reservations about calling “Women & Power” a “manifesto.”

Well, it certainly isn’t a manifesto in the traditional terms of “Here are 5 things we need to do.” But manifestos come in different forms. This is a manifesto for thinking. And I know that, as I intended, it has put fire in the soul of many young women. That is a good enough manifesto for me.

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