The Daily Mail has run an article interviewing Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb and I am torn equally between happiness and tears about it. Dr. Lipscomb is a renown historian and the author of several books, including one I found to be extremely valuable during my research, 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII. It is an excellent book and Dr. Lipscomb deserved every sentence every written or said in praise of her scholarship.
So in light of her many accomplishments why in the name of all that is Holy did the reporter ask her about HAIR PRODUCTS and then print it as though it were germane to the interview??
“One minute Dr Suzannah Lipscomb is discussing the bloody foibles of the Tudors, the next she is offering sage advice on the best product for curly hair. ‘Twisted Sista, spelt with an A,’ she says, twiddling her leonine locks while her nose stud twinkles in the sunlight. ‘You can get it at Superdrug, it’s brilliant and it’s really cheap.’ “
Really? That’s your starting point, reporter Elizabeth Sanderson of Daily Mail??
The article also goes out of the way to inform/remind the reader that not only is Dr. Lipscomb brilliant … she is pretty! You know, because that makes it okay for her to be smart and on TV? She is called “striking” only once, but the article features three very attractive pictures of her … all of them highlighting the fact she is young and thin with flowing blond locks and a lovely face.
It is being made clear via unspoken sociocultural messaging that it is “okay” that Dr. Lipscomb is fighting back against sexism is because she cannot be accused of being “ugly”. She is a comely woman and therefore cannot be charged with being a de facto “man-hating” and bitter feminist. These vexing circumstances are not her fault, of course. It’s just aggravating in the wider feminist context that a woman’s pulchritude (or lack of it) is continually signified to be incredibly important and relevant to what she is saying/thinking/doing.
Moreover, I think Dr. Lipscomb would agree that this emphasis on her charms is annoying, considering that she specifically attacks the attitude that only women must look “right” (i.e. a foxy babe) to be seen in a larger medium:
“In terms of television history, we haven’t got there [gender neutrality] yet. Instead, we live in a time where the critic A. A. Gill can claim the classicist, Mary Beard, is too ugly to appear on our screens. Suzannah says: ‘I think that was shameful. It would never happen if you were a man. You would never see them telling a slightly overweight man with white hair to shape up. I’m not saying she’s overweight, by the way – I’m thinking of the male historians who appear on television who may be, you know, not that prepossessing. ‘Yet there is very little comment in terms of their appearance because people are engaging with their ideas.’ And it is that engaging with ideas that matters most.”
Obviously, I am happy that Dr. Lipscomb is receiving mass recognition for her contributions to history. I am thrilled a female historian is breaking into the traditional boy’s club of historical documentaries. I am ecstatic that in the article that she calls Dr. David Starkey out for sexism, and politicians such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair and current Prime Minister David Cameron out for basically lying about historical facts in their stump speeches. Frankly, Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb seems awesome and is someone I would really like to hang out with.
I simply wish her visage wasn’t treated as something of such significant value.
Just as irksome is the likelihood that her charms will be used against her, as well as for her. Someone, somewhere, sometime will imply or state outright that her visibility on TV is due as much to her countenance as her merits. (This happens to men as well, but not to the same extent or with the same frequency.) Her work will be partially or fully negated in favor of acclaiming her “cuteness”, and that sucks.
As a small measure of proof that my discontent doesn’t stem solely from the over-analyzing semi-hysteria of an anthropologist who was trained to look for “messaging”, contrast the way the Daily Mail presents internationally famous author Hilary Mantel with the way it represented Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb. Mantel is almost always in a headshot photo. The only time the Daily Mail has shown a full length picture of Hilary Mantel was in a article about her weight.
That article is also exasperating because although Mantel rails against the cultural construction that fat people are gluttonous “slobs” with lesser morals, the reader is reminded more than once that Mantel was “previously trim” woman who became overweight for sound medical reasons (unlike the rest of us rotund humans who have no “excuse” for our adipose tissue) and now “dreams of being thin again” and feels like she is in an “alien’s body”.
Seriously, as long as there is the endless emphasis on a woman’s appearance then gender equality is going to remain elusive. Oh, and someone please tell the advertising industry that holding men up to the same ridiculous cultural mirror and making them insecure about their looks is NOT what feminists mean by equality!