Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Mary Beard and the Sheela na gig

Doing my degree was a huge act of faith.  I knew that I would gain lots from the process, but so often a degree is seen as a means to an end - the end being employment.  I remember talking to one of the more coherent taxi drivers who ferried me back and forth from the hospital school I attended.  When I mentioned the possibility of doing a classics degree eventually, he was a bit astounded - who'd ever pay you to classicise?

And although there's not a lot of money in the field, there are positions of employment - jobs which I'm unlikely to ever be able to contemplate.  I'd love to teach in some way, but for the time being at the very least, this is out of the question.  How, then, do I not feel like I wasted the time, effort and money getting my classics degree?

Mary Beard is a classicist who has done very well for herself of late.  I don't think a month has gone by recently when she's not been on the BBC news site (although not always in full toga).  Her blog, A Don's Life, is very successful.  And she's presented some wonderful documentaries.  Of course, if you go on Question Time and deign to offer an opinion...

Have you ever come across a Sheela na gig?  These sculptures (often found on church buildings, particularly in Ireland) depict women spreading their vulvas for...well...the reason's a bit of a mystery.  Some people think that it represents the dangers of female lust.  Others that they're a simple fertility symbol.  I'm inclined more towards the theory that they are an image to ward off evil spirits.  So, why do I mention them?

Well, the furor over Mary Beard's appearance on Question Time resulted in a flood of vile misogynistic abuse on the net. Several times when I've written blog posts, Deb's warned me that there's the potential some twit might start trolling.  But the sad truth is that she's much more likely to be targeted   Women just attract more of this kind of cowardly bullying.

So Mary Beard was targeted - and how did she react?  Well, in my mind at least (which is a very odd mind and in no way representative) she took a leaf out of the Sheela na gig playbook.  Rather than retreating from the comments and insults about her genitalia, she replied, facing evil spirits with the full force of her feminine power (I know...I could hardly bring myself to write 'feminine power'...but bare with me, it is quite late and I lost some sleep last night).

Deb wrote a very important blog post about misogynistic bullying on the net, and she identified two damaging pieces of advice given to women dealing with this kind rubbish.  It's really worth reading the post, but, to very briefly summarise, the advice was to 'be nice' and to 'grow a thicker skin'.  A woman who has been encouraged to act in this way will never be able to deal with abuse head on.  She must ignore it and try to be as nice as possible in the hope of avoiding further attacks.

But Professor Beard did the most powerful thing she could - she named the abuse as clearly as possible.  It takes a lot of courage to actually repeat the nasty things said to you.  I remember my grandmother losing patience with another elderly lady of her acquaintance because she didn't feel capable of repeating in court the threats shouted at her by some yob because it was 'rude'.  Well, if classics as a subject taught me anything, it's that rudeness is sometimes entirely appropriate.  Also, it helps that Mary Beard, having read Catullus and the like, will be familiar with similar levels of rudeness, albeit tempered by poetic genius.  The Sheela na gig exposes her femininity (for whatever reason) creating an image of total honesty and power.  Mary Beard goes on Woman's Hour and uses the word 'vagina'.  In fact, she uses it in relation to her own body.  In doing so, she regains complete ownership of herself*.  And the evil spirits depart.

She has done this for the benefit of those weaker than she.  Those who are harmed more deeply by these silly people.  And what's more, she's calmly addressed the aggressors and, it would seem, has been successful in reforming them (for some time at least - I'm not ever so optimistic about such people) thereby making the world a better place for everyone.

So why do I feel like I didn't waste my time, effort and money getting a degree in classics?  Because my studies have bought my a little closer to heroic figures like Mary Beard.

*Not that I think Mary Beard ever lost ownership of herself - but I think that the abusers felt that they suddenly had some power and rights over her being.  I believe it is this confidence of ownership which allows bullies to do such awful things.  'It's my toy to destroy as I see fit...'