Monday, February 23, 2009

All this, and brains too

I am in the deeply uncomfortable position of agreeing with the Daily Mail. Yes, I've tried having a lie down, a cup of tea and a brisk whack over the head with a heavy object (my cat, Franklin, who could do with losing a few pounds so we don't have to build a new catflap). It didn't help. No matter what angle I read it from - and I've tried a few, as the blood rushing to my head will evidence - I can't help finding this article...well...rather pleasant. No mention of binge-drinking, of gold-digging, of sex or single-motherhood - they should have just headlined it Daily Mail In 'Not All Women Are Brainless Sluts' Shocker!

I don't know if there's an American equivalent of University Challenge, but for the tragically uninitiated, the programme does what it says on the tin. Two teams from different universities compete in a general knowledge quiz show for....the glory, I think. And to meet Jeremy Paxman, who is really quite ace when he's not writing to Marks & Spencers to complain about their Y-fronts. The current series finale is set to air soon, pitting Manchester University against Corpus Christ College, Oxford - a team helmed by Gail Trimble, described by one fellow contestant as an "intellectual blitzkrieg".

So a general knowledge quiz show finalist from Oxford is prodigiously intelligent. What's the big deal? Here's the thing - she may have A* and A's littering her school career, she may have gone to Oxford and then on to a doctorate in Latin literature but she's still...well...a girl. So obviously the majority of comments online have focussed on her looks: "I must admit, I found her sexy" one commenter confesses. "Very sexy, gorgeous smile," another sniggers. And, more bizarrely, "well brushable hair."

Unfortunately, girls with glasses and Jane Seymour-length hair don't appeal to everyone, so the rest of the internet has jumped on the 'let's beat up the smart kid' bandwagon. One commenter on the Guardian article derides her as having "a patronising, spoilt, only-child demeanour; one for whom affirmation can only be realized by the constantly raised arm in the classroom. What I wonder did her parents do to to make her like that." I'm not sure, but at least they taught her how to punctuate.

As usual, we're damned if we do and damned if we don't. If we dare exhibit our intelligence in public, we're smug and self-satisfied. If we don't we're bimbos. It's acceptable for a man to be brilliant, it's permissable to have a steel trap mind when you also have a penis to go along with it. And yet when a woman shows signs of intelligence, it's shocking - and even more shocking when she's considered attractive.

It's not often I find myself rooting for - or even watching - TV quiz shows, but in this case, I am firmly on Team Trimble. TV Scoop blogger 'Mofgimmers' might not want to go to the pub with you, Gail - but if you're ever in North London, the first round's on me.



At 5:12 PM, Anonymous Cassandra Sedgwick said...

I wouldn't say that attacks on intelligence are just confined to women. I think the ways in which intelligent women are attacked tend to be different to the ways intelligent men are attacked, by they are attacked nonetheless.

I'm afraid that this:

"It's acceptable for a man to be brilliant, it's permissible to have a steel trap mind when you also have a penis to go along with it."

Is simply false. Having known men who have been the target of horrendous abuse due to their intelligence, I think this is incontrovertible. Even in the media, intelligent men are styled as 'boffins', and often as interesting, but nonetheless utterly non-masculine and weak, absurdities. It is possible to argue that intelligent women are attacked more often, or to a greater extent, than intelligent men, but thinking that being male shields you from being attacked for being intelligent fails to make sense of the existence of the 'gawky, socially retarded geek / nerd' stereotype that we're all familiar with.

With Gail Trimble, a lot of other factors are coming into play too. Many of them are to do with class and privilege. She is very easily the target of 'reverse snobbery' and anti-intellectualism. I don't think it's so easy to isolate these factors, and say that her critics attack her simply because she is female. It is obviously the case in some instances, but surely not in all.

The captain of the Manchester team has received some abuse, I've seen him described as having a 'punchable face', and there have been quite a few comments on internet forums from women adoring or excoriating the looks of male contestants. Before Lincolon College were knocked out, Mendalblaat was on the receiving end of similar comments of 'he's a fanciable general knowledge machine / he's a prententious geek'.

I think that the main reason Gail Trimble happens to be getting so much attention is because she has been by some margin the best contestant in the entire series. When Lucy Christodolou won with the Warwick team she received less media attention, despite the fact that she too was an intelligent, attractive woman. The reason is that, although she was an outstandingly good contestant, she did not dominate the series like Gail Trimble. Furthermore, though the other members of the Corpus Christi team are thoroughly deserving of their place in the final, and are all good standard contestants in their own right, they would surely admit that Gail Trimble is the overwhelming factor in their reaching as far as they have. This again puts more focus on her. The large defeat of the Exeter team also helped place University Challenge, and Corpus Christi, back in the media consciousness, helping build up interest in their subsequent matches.

Many voices in the media and on the internet, among them men, have jumped behind Gail Trimble, and there is even a group on Facebook dedicated to her. The picture is a very mixed one, and that the inevitable voices of simplistic bigotry have arisen should not be allowed to drown out the widespread praise she is receiving for being intelligent per se, independent of her gender.

At 5:15 PM, Anonymous CS said...

*Daisy Christodoulou


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