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?
The double-Booker winning author Hilary Mantel has caused controversy, after delivering an uncompromising critique of the Duchess of Cambridge. The lecture she gave to the London Review of Books is now online: audio and text.
The Daily Mail and the Metro seem to have misinterpreted Mantel, reporting the speech as a ‘scathing’ and ‘venomous’ attack on the Duchess. But that is not the author’s sentiment at all. Instead, Mantel is critiquing the way in which the illusion of Royalty turns women into objects, vessels, and wombs. I am sure that Kate herself would find the analysis uncomfortable, but the attack is on the Monarchy as a whole, and on media outlets like the Mail and the Metro that feed off the images of Royal consorts.
The backlash towards Mantel puts me in the mind of the Orwell (or was it Hearst) quote: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” The speech is a form of social and cultural criticism rather than journalism, but I think the Orwell/Hearst sentiment applies equally. Mantel’s negative comments about Royalty are precsiely the sort of thing that other people – call them Monarchists, or ‘The Establishment’, or social conservatives – would prefer had been left unsaid. That fact is, in itself, a reason to applaud Hilary Mantel for saying it alound and in public. This speech should shock us into reconsidering the role of Royalty in our society. It should make us revise our stratospheric expectations of the Duchess of Cambridge, too.
It is worth noting that this kind of speech act is precisely the sort of thing that gets censored in other countries. Thailand has strict lèse-majesté laws and many, if not most, other countries, have criminal defamation or ‘scandalising’ laws that would have seen Mantel down at the police station for an interview, or on trial, or in prison. In the UK, we finally abolished our dead-letter analogues in 2009. It should be a source of pride that one of our most celebrated novelists is able to make such controversial statements, unfettered.
This is precisely the kind of social leadership that we need from our authors. I wonder what would have happened if a politician had said the same thing?