Smirk and mirrors

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Today’s Daily Mail mines a new low in sniggering, boarding-school sexism. Never mind Brexit, the groaning lever by which this country is being torn asunder! Who, out of two powerful national leaders at the centre of this tragic division of a nation, has the nicest legs? Come on! They were asking for it, wearing skirts and having their legs sticking out from under them! Legs-it! Geddit?!

The Mail is clever. It does what the Sun used to do, which is to demean women and put them back in the kitchen by objectifying their body parts, but it does so under the cover of being a respectable, Victorian-values “women’s paper”. The cover story here is essentially a bit of filler by star columnist Sarah Vine, which reads like a caption that’s supposedly dignified into journalism by its “decoding” of what Prime Minister Theresa May and Scotland’s First Minister and Leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon look, sit and dress like. “While May’s fingers, elegant with their classic red nails, were relaxed and open, Sturgeon’s grip appeared somewhat tenser,” it mutters in academic assessment. Marshall McLuhan need not shift in his grave.

“But what stands out here are the legs – and the vast expanse on show.”

The legs do stand out. It’s a full-frame crop of a carefully choreographed press shot that presents an uncut, unabashed view of the two women in it. Chroniclers of our time like Sarah Vine can observe all sorts of details, such as Sturgeon’s “right thumb at an awkward angle” and her stiletto that’s “not quite dangling off her foot,” and May’s “stylish navy jacket, patterned dress and trademark leopard-print heels”. But here’s where typing out things that you can actually see turns to cod analysis, with the flourish, “There is no doubt that both women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal. Consequently, both have been unsheathed.”

Society is falling apart. People who voted for Brexit now shout from the stalls on Question Time, having been forced by draconian liberal thinking at the BBC to hand in at reception their flaming torches kept at all times in case the need to run foreign nurses out of town arises. UKIP is still invited onto television discussion shows despite having just lost its only MP. A violent man in his 50s drives a hired car down a pavement with intent to kill and maim and doesn’t even seem to have the excuse of believing in anything much. The views of 51.89 per cent (or in actual fact 51.89% of the 65.38% of the voting-age population that voted) keep being referred to as “the will of the people.” Boris Johnson, who fucked this country, is still in a job. George Osborne, who fucked this country, is in six jobs. Michael Gove, who fucked this country, is married to Sarah Vine. I hope he judges her every decision and act by how nice or horrible her legs are, because it’s all she deserves, according to Sarah Vine.

“May’s famously long extremities,” she slurps, “are demurely arranged in her customary finishing-school stance – knees tightly together, calves at a flattering diagonal, feet neatly aligned.” This “studied pose” apparently reminds us that “for all her confidence, she is ever the vicar’s daughter, always respectful and anxious not to put a foot wrong.” This semi-pornographic fantasy about knees and alignment continues with Vine’s portrait of Sturgeon, whose Scottish legs are “shorter but undeniably more shapely”, her “shanks are altogether more flirty, tantalisingly crossed, with the dominant leg pointing towards her audience.” End the bullshit!

No, it is not “a direct attempt at seduction”; she does not “seem to be saying. ‘You know you want to.’” This is what decrepit high court judges think about women who wear skirts and drink legally  and are sexually assaulted. (Forgive me, I can’t remember if the Mail still hates high court judges, or considers them pillars of a sovereign society. It’s one or the other, depending on the result.)

Here’s my own observation of our current politics: the men and women who promoted the instant fix of Brexit last summer seem incapable of treating its execution with anything other than smirking and laughter.

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Look at guffawing David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on last night’s special pre-Article 50 edition of Question Time.

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Look at smugly grinning Deputy Chair and Health Spokesperson of the UK Independence Party Suzanne Evans on the same Question Time. I know they feel victorious and vindicated by the result of a referendum which, in my view, should never have taken place, and if it did should not have rested on a tiny percentage for either bloc. The Tory government was running so scared of UKIP it tossed off a YES/NO referendum with constitutional and economic effects that will resonate for generations just to shut up Nigel Farage, when it could have very easily designed it so that, say, a 60% majority was required to decide it. Now that UKIP have wrought eternal damnation on the nation, they should really just fuck off. Why is Question Time still inviting representatives of a party with no MPs? The sooner it packs up and goes back to whichever country it came from, the better for the rest of us as we attempt to pick up the pieces of a golf-club dinner-and-dance they threw which frankly got out of hand.

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On the left – although not far enough on the left to have refused a coalition with a mandate-less Tory party – is Nick Clegg, a former yesterday’s man who seems to have found his spine since Brexit; on the right is David Davis, the sort of bully who leans into your personal space and stabs the table with his fat fingers. Look at him laughing his head off at Clegg’s attempt to keep order. He’s laughing because he thinks it’s a huge fucking lark that large parts of the British (if not Scottish) electorate voted to leave the EU without a clue how that would work. (I’m not saying the electorate was ignorant – politicians clearly had no idea how Brexit would work.) People were so disillusioned with a ruined, self-flaggelatingly spineless Labour Party on one hand and elite Westminster-bubble politics embodied by, well, stuffed suits like David Davis on the other, it lodged a massive protest vote against the lot of them. But the same electorate now wishes the same elites it gave a bloody nose to, to sort it all out, and quickly, please. (Or it will start shouting from the stalls again.)

Here’s the big laugh. It’s going to be slow. And laborious. And boring. And disappointing. And painful. And immigrants aren’t going to stop moving freely just because a sign on a lying bus said they would. And if EU nationals and other foreign nationals do leave the UK, it will be from jobs that British people would rather not do. Foreigners who come to this country do so to find work. British nationals who go to other countries do so to be on holiday.

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I don’t even have the energy to pillory this worldwide prick in a gold lift again. One vandal at a time.

I feel ashamed to be British, despite the fact that this country contains some of the most creative, funny, wise, resourceful, smart, community-minded, friendly, selfless, charitable, hardworking, pluralistic, non-xenophobic, Pointless-contestant, animal-loving people in the world. I feel ashamed that even when something objectively amazing happens, like two of our national leaders being women (not to mention the women leading Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives, the woman leading the Green Party of England and Wales, and the woman who’s the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly), our press resorts to the smirk and mirrors of misogyny, and gets a women to do its dirty work.

 

Postscript

I woke up this morning, on the day Article 50 is triggered, with a knot in my stomach, again. The Brexit cheerleaders seem to be dismissing this act of national suicide as a “divorce,” as if it’s nothing really. This says a lot about them. If it’s a “divorce”, it’s one that has already lasted for nine months without anything actually happening, and negotiations are going to last for at least another two years, and nobody’s thinking about the children. That is more of a living nightmare. And the Mail’s response (“CENSORED BY THE LEFT”) says more than its disgraceful “Legs-it” cover did.

MailLegsit2Mar29

 

 

Bear good

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I pity any film up against The Revenant at this year’s big awards. Not because I personally think it is an unassailable piece of filmmaking – although, incidentally, I do think that – but because it has that prevailing wind behind it already, the one that saw films as diversely deserving and undeserving as Shakespeare In Love, Gravity, Terms Of Endearment, The Artist, Amadeus, Kramer Vs Kramer, Gandhi, On The Waterfront, From Here To Eternity, West Side Story and Ben-Hur win big, and across the board, leaving all comers in their jet-propelled wake. As I always state for the record at awards season time: I prefer to be surprised on Oscar night (and Bafta night, and Golden Globes night), but a consensus can sometimes build, whether it’s within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association or the British or American Academies. If The Revenant does what I expect it to (and what it has already done at the Globes, with the big three in the Drama category all nabbed: Picture, Director, Actor), then its nearest rivals may find themselves heading for the exit, pursued by a bear.

I don’t often do this, but I have seen The Revenant twice. I saw it twice in the space of four days. I was so enraptured by its broad canvas, its artistic vision, its sodden tactility, its elemental power, and its on-the-hoof, let’s-eat-the-snow-right-here acting, I had to return to see how it felt when I knew what was coming. I have to tell you, foreknowledge is no witherer of its strange, ugly-beautiful magic. The only hope for the other big nominees is in the female categories, as the women in The Revenant do not get very much to do, it has to be said.

Put away the Bechdel test. It meets the first criterion: it must have at least two women in it. But not the second two: the women must talk to each other, about something besides a man. The film’s principal cast list contains two women: Grace Dove, who plays Leonardo Di Caprio’s deceased Pawnee wife, and Melaw Nakehnk’o, who plays Powaqa, the kidnapped daughter of an Arikara (“Ree”) tribal chief. The first is seen only in wordless flashback, where she is shot dead by a British soldier; the second is glimpsed being dragged off to be raped by a French trapper, then rescued by Leo, but empowered to exact her own poetic revenge on her abuser. You might applaud that outcome, but it takes Powaqa being enslaved and sexually assaulted for it to happen.

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I make no claims for the feminism of either the fictional or fictionalised 19th century menfolk in this western. Will Poulter and to an extent Domnhall Gleason play male characters with a moral compass, but by and large the American and English protagonists are a bunch of cavemen in furs with muskets and Bowie knives. Tom Hardy essays another venal baddie to add to Alfie in Peaky Blinders and both Krays in Legend; he is Leo’s nemesis, and very much a loner, out for himself, with no crumpled photograph of a sweetheart in his man bag. This is a rough, tough world of hunting, shooting, fishing, whoring and breaking things (in which sense: how very like our own Conservative cabinet). There is a fine tradition of independent and able women in westerns, but they tend to be subjugated in what is a deeply patriarchal world.

The Revenant makes no retrofitted liberal concessions to modern thinking, and in a way, why should it? These are violent men, raping the land and natural resources of indigenous people for profit. From this testosterone-stinking malaise, Leo’s Hugh Glass is as close as a Guardian reader as you could hope for: a principled man who married a Pawnee and had a “half-breed” son with her, risking disenfranchisement and worse for sleeping with the enemy. But his Pawnee empathy gives him a spirituality – and a drive to survive – that his peers perhaps do not possess. Their mistreatment of him forces him to live for revenge. The world of The Revenant brutalises even the most open-hearted. It’s like a war movie that’s really an anti-war movie; it can only be such by showing that war is hell.

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Aware of all of this, I was surprised at the vehemently negative response of trustworthy Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr. In a piece at the weekend, she unleashed these sentiments (having seen The Revenant before Christmas). Kicking off with objectively fair images of what’s in the film (“Ritualised brutality. Vengeful blood lust. Vicious savagery justified by medieval notions of retribution”), she then moves to undermine what is a serious film by calling it “the hottest blockbuster of the season … and yours for around £10-£15 this weekend at your local multiplex”. I assume she knows that not all films at your local multiplex are romantic comedies or Pixar animations. She quotes male critics (alright, too many national newspaper critics are male), who have praised the film’s “revenge, retribution and primal violence” and “unthinking, aggressive masculinity.” However, I don’t see this as a binary issue of male versus female, violent versus non-violent, blockbuster versus arthouse.

She does: “I’ll summarise the plot for you: man seeks revenge, man gets revenge. That’s it, basically, for two and a half hours, though there is a brief reprieve when you get to see Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a grizzly bear.” She counts the women onscreen, as I have done, but she misses out the silent squaw in a ruined encampment whom Will Poulter’s character feeds and leave alone, daring not to alert his aggressive “partner” Hardy to her presence. (She does not speak either, but the Native Americans we see seem to be men of few words and many thoughts.)

“The woman is not actually raped, of course,” Cadwalladr faux-complains. “She’s faux raped. Because this is what we call acting. And because The Revenant is what we call entertainment.” Who is calling The Revenant “entertainment”? It’s a fair question. It’s not the first noun I’d reach for. It’s an experience, maybe even an endurance, but was I “entertained”? By the spectacle, the scope and the thrill of the escape, certainly. But it’s tough going, this film. It’s not like a fairground ride, with sanitised ups and downs, it’s a slog. A wet, dirty, infected, sore, painful, blood-stained and spit-flecked assault course for the senses. It’s not boring, but it’s not a showbiz spectacular and there are few jokes or dance routines. To call it “entertainment” – as I rather suspect people in marketing aren’t even calling it – is to make a spurious point.

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I like Carole Cadwalladr’s writing, but she freeforms after this, saying that we “choose to pay to watch women being pretend raped rather than watching women being actually raped for free.” I’m not sure that’s a conscious choice for me. “Even the ending is ambiguous, and leaves many questions unanswered and issues unresolved. Nobody rides off into the sunset,” she correctly observes (in the Observer), thus undercutting her own sneer that The Revenant is “entertainment.” Oh dear. She speaks, disapprovingly, of a “well-oiled publicity machine of the type that fuels an Academy Awards clean sweep”, as if The Revenant isn’t entitled to pitch for recognition by its industry peers. Some Academy members may be disengaged enough to be “bought” by studio enticements, but most of these old, white men will only vote for a film because they liked it, now matter how old, white and male they statistically are. Many of them will still have freewill.

She mocks how “gruelling” the shoot is known to have been, and how “authentically” the actors “suffered”, belittling even that aspect with the aside, “They got a bit cold, apparently.” (Hey, either they suffered or they didn’t. If they didn’t, then the acting is even better.) The cinematography is “gorgeous,” she concedes, but, in conclusion, “the whole thing is meaningless. A vacuous revenge tale that is simply pain as spectacle. The Revenant is pain porn.”

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Putting a word before “porn” is a cheap trick. I should know, I’ve done it on numerous occasions. Certainly there is power in seeing pain acted if it’s done well, and it is done well. But is it pornographic? Leo’s mauled by a grizzly and bears the weeping scars, but this is clever makeup, aided by clever acting. (“Porn,” in the true sense, is sort of not acting, isn’t it? Otherwise customers would demand their money back.)  By the time she compares the artificial, acted violence with real violence, as seen in Isis videos, I was as lost as Glass. That Isis “lift” the techniques of Hollywood to make their nihilistic, barbaric point is not the fault of Hollywood. More people get killed in Gone With The Wind than in The Revenant. When she concludes that Isis “has seen what we want, what we thrill to, and given it to us,” she seems to want to make viewers of fiction feel in some way culpable for Islamic State. “The Revenant isn’t responsible for this,” she then points out, going back into the ring one more time to call a film she didn’t like “tedious” and “emotionally vacant.”

I found it to be otherwise. I would not argue that it’s a violent, masculine, macho film with little space for the input of women. But it is possible to watch it, with its sexual assault and brutal feuding, and not “enjoy” it in the way Carole Cadwalladr implies that we all do. (Unless she just means all men. It’s still inaccurate, if so.)

“Don’t pay £10-£15,” is her entreaty. Do, if you want to see an amazing piece of high-impact, naturally-lit, visually poetic cinema, is mine. And then you will have your own opinion.

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Bad men

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In July 1983, when I was 18, Peter Adamson – the actor known to and loved by millions as Len Fairclough on Coronation St, a character he’d played since 1961 – went on trial for the indecent assault that April of two eight-year-old girls in a swimming pool. As you can see from the blunt-instrument graphic used by the Sun newspaper, the lines between Adamson and his fictional persona were deliberately blurred. I remember the trial well, as I was an avid viewer of the soap at the time. I stuck the above graphic into my diary on Thursday July 21, mid-hearing, alongside this doctored collage from the same newspaper:

LenFaircloughtrial - Version 2As you may be able to see, I wrote “GUILT” in pencil over Adamson’s suit, so I would be able to add, “He’s got guilt written all over him.” This was my 18-year-old’s idea of a joke. A casualty of trial by tabloid – and the red-tops were pretty despicable then, in their early-80s pomp – I had passed judgement before the court had. (It’s a shame I wasn’t more sensitive, but we cannot rewrite our own history.)

In the event, on July 26, the jury found Adamson – and by dimwitted association, Fairclough – not guilty. But it was immaterial; he’d already been tried and convicted in the public mind. Although he lived until 2002 and managed to get some theatre work, he was never again seen on Coronation St, having been written out back in February, before the arrest, ironically for selling stories to the tabloids. A sad figure by all accounts, he struggled with a long-standing drinking problem and died penniless after a 1991 bankruptcy.

The clinical term “paedophile”, although well established, was not in general use in 1983; it was certainly too long a word for the Sun. I suspect, as well as “dirty bastard”, Len will have been branded a “pervert”. I bring up his story partly because it has stayed with me, and partly because at least two equally well-loved Coronation St stars are currently embroiled in court cases over alleged sexual assault: Michael Le Vell, who’s played Kevin Webster since, coincidentally, 1983, and William Roache, the longest-serving Coronation St star of them all, having been Ken Barlow since the first episode in 1960. Le Vell goes to trial in September for 19 charges, including alleged sexual assault and the rape of a minor; Roache goes to Crown Court next month for the alleged rape of a 15-year-old in 1967. Both men deny all charges.

These big tabloid stories interest us – and, one assumes, appall us – because they are men in the public eye. In the wake of Jimmy Savile, which I wrote about at the time, and Operation Yewtree, the truism is to say that each week discredits another previously loved celebrity from the 60s, 70s and 80s (which covers a lot of our childhoods). If any of these multiple, often historic accusations turn out to be true – and when Stuart Hall pleaded guilty to indecent assaulting 13 girls, aged between 9 and 17 years, between 1967 and 1986, he became the first to cross over from lurid speculation to actual admission of despicable deeds – then it will say dark things about society in the not-too-distant past.

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I’m not really here to talk about “the culture” that permitted a now unacceptable degree of “harmless” fun between powerful men and often much younger women, and children, nor about how boundaries have been more clearly drawn in the more enlightened decades since, as to do so often risks sounding as if you excuse the bottom-pinching that was the tip of a much more sinister iceberg. If an ex-Radio 1 DJ is accused, historically, of groping a female work colleague in the 70s, we should not excuse it just because it was time of Carry On films and Benny Hill, any more than rape should be excused because the victim was wearing a skirt. It’s very likely that the victim either didn’t come forward because she feared he or she would not be believed (that’s certainly the case with Savile’s victims), or that he or she did come forward and wasn’t believed.

This past week, Stuart Hazell, who was not a celebrity but achieved a level of ubiquity through his disgusting deeds, was imprisoned for a minimum of 38 years for the murder of his partner’s 12-year-old granddaughter. At the trial, some pretty disturbing insights into this 37-year-old man’s character emerged. With barely time to catch our collective breath about the prevalence of this kind of abuse and murder of children from within families, we saw seven members of a “sex grooming ring” in Oxford convicted at the Old Bailey of abusing six girls, who were targeted, drugged and suffered “sadistic abuse” while aged between 11 and 15. The details are too horrible. I won’t repeat them. Difficult debates are being had about the ethnic background and religion of the men, which largely matches that of the nine convicted last year after a Rochdale sex trafficking ring was exposed. However, there’s a much bigger coincidence, which links Stuart Hall to Stuart Hazell and every other sex offender in between: they’re all men.

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Suzanne Moore has been writing passionately and controversially about this subject in the Guardian from a long-range feminist perspective (today’s column was particularly furious). Her concern is not just the seeming ubiquity of male sexual assault, whether historic or current, it’s the failure as she sees it of men to do something about it. She has harsh words for the authorities, social services, the police, the media, for failing to act, but she asks, legitimately, why women seem to be more enraged about it than men. Does that make all men culpable?

This line unfortunately takes us down the hardline Andrea Dworkin route (the uber-feminist wrote, in a 1987 paper called Intercourse, “Physically, the woman in intercourse is a space inhabited, a literal territory occupied literally”), and is not helpful, especially when most men – surely! – are not potential rapists, respect and like women, and know that a child is a child.

I’m quick to say that society is to blame, but that’s not to let individuals off the hook. If you talk about “a crisis of masculinity” it suggests you wish a return to the good old days when men were breadwinners and “masters of the house”, and I have no love for those Victorian values. The pressure on men today is not to be “the man” but to be a more caring, open-minded, feminised member of a family or social group. You might say that men are not born this way; to be the leader is somehow in the DNA of the hunter-gatherer, the physically stronger sex, the Martian (if we really are from Mars). But society changes, for the better, usually, and to fail to adapt is to die.

I re-educated myself in the 80s, taking onboard new information, discarding orthodoxies handed down to me from less enlightened times, and adjusting my behaviour and my thinking accordingly. This was not unique for the time. (I also went to art school, a more effeminate choice than most, and was in a minority as a male at my halls of residence and at college, which can only have had a good effect on me. I also looked effeminate, by choice, and was called a “poof” often in my teens, which galvanised my instincts about sexual equality.) I really do worry about subsequent generations who have grown up with available 24-hour porn, and especially those young enough to have come of age in the post-Loaded era of Nuts and Zoo. Those boys are going to have to do a lot more adjustment than I did.

Anyway, there’s a link between casual, seemingly benign sexism among male friends and unspeakable acts. I am not a psychologist, but the need to wield power must lie at the heart of sexual assault. To abuse, to rape, to threaten, to kill, are all acts of power. Stuart Hazell wanted something that was forbidden under the laws of the land, but he could not stop himself from taking it. Once the switch flicks, men are capable of bad things. We all do and say things we regret, and relationships break down all the time, and we can find ourselves saying unkind things to people we love, but all of this takes place within boundaries. To raise a hand is to cross that boundary; to break the law is to cross another one.

I don’t think you should hit women, but I don’t think you should hit men, or children, either.

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Tabloid headlines never tell the whole story. They paint men as “evil”, and quote relatives of victims who wish to see them “hanged”. The headlines above from the April Jones and Tia Sharp cases are designed to lure us in on our basest instincts. The “goodies” and the “baddies” are clear cut in the blunt-instrument tabloid narrative, but the stories also offer voyeurism, and that’s where a lot of the bad stuff starts: looking at things you shouldn’t look at, or looking at things that you should look at, but looking at them in a funny way.

We do not yet know if Rolf Harris, or Michael Le Vell, or Max Clifford, assaulted anyone, although we do know that their careers are likely to be over, even if they are acquitted. We live in suspicious times. (Anyone else see Paul Shane’s name the other night and think, “Oh no, not another one”, before sighing with relief when you found at that, no, he had only died?) The historic cases and the contemporary ones tell a sad story about men. I am, at heart, a self-hating man, in that I have no great love for my gender. I am not perfect, but I do consider myself a feminist and have a pretty sensitive radar to everyday sexism.

I felt very uncomfortable about the fact that, for no real narrative reason, and in a 12A certificate film, Alice Eve stripped down to her underwear in Star Trek Into Darkness. This was a Nuts moment, pandering to the young male’s worst instinct, which is to ogle and objectify. It’s not a trivial matter. Stamp this sort of thing out and you get to the root of the problem: some men hate women and don’t even realise it.

Writer’s blog: Friday Pt 1

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I am mentally exhausted after last night, and need to get this out of my system. I did watch the famous runner Usain Bolt easily win the 200m, and I loved the fact that Jamaica won silver and bronze, too. Nice grouping. I was, however, part-impressed, part-horrified that the BBC made a short film about the burning issue of whether the dominance of black athletes in running is about genetics or eugenics. This film took in slavery, Hitler and Darwin, and was intended as a talking point. However, I think John Inverdale handled the ensuing studio discussion – with grumpy Michael Johnson (who made a doc for C4 on the same subject), noncommital Colin Jackson and diplomatic Denise Lewis – really badly, almost as if it was his mission to get a black person to say, “Yes, all black people are alike.”

Was this really the time to have this thorny discussion, BBC? In the build-up to the much-hyped 200m final? It would be churlish to ignore the visibility of black athletes in these events (only one white finalist, a Frenchman), but the debate about genetics versus environment, nature versus nurture, is way too complex to bat around in a studio in a couple of minutes. Johnson seemed to become more and more entrenched behind “nurture” in the face of Inverdale’s evangelism for “nature”, and I must admit I came down on Johnson’s side, for all his over-seriousness. Meanwhile, Lewis wisely threw in climate as a factor. Africa, the West Indies, these are hot countries, and warmth has an effect on muscle; also, it’s self-pollinating – when a country becomes known for certain sports, there is a culture in that country for that sport to be taken up.

As I say, not a quickie for filling time in the studio. Never mind the science; it’s always a potentially reductive argument to say that certain traits are specific to black people, or white people, or indeed to men or women. Black people had to play the minstrel or the butler for decades before civil rights evened up the playing field. If most of the best soul singers are black it’s not necessarily because of genetics, but it could be argued that it’s deeply rooted in the blues and the experiences of slavery. From that starting point, it’s surely the culture of soulful expression that breeds further soulful expression. (How many great soul singers learned to sing in church? That’s not genetic. That’s environmental and social.)

Let’s move on to sexism. This is much easier to treat as a black and white subject than black and white, as the genders are much more clearly defined. At the end of his interview with Olympic gold medal-winning boxer Nicola Adams – women’s boxing’s first ever – Gary Lineker complimented her on her “beautiful smile.” It was his sign-off to the interview, and I’m sure, in the split-second heat of the moment, his brain told him it was a perfectly legitimate thing to say. He lightheartedly congratulated her for not crying like so many other medal winners, male and female, and applauded her for smiling – that’s the context. “You’ve got a beautiful smile,” he said, as a compliment, perhaps unaware that he was not judging a beauty contest. Hey, she has got a nice smile. But she was not being interviewed about her smile, rather, about her amazing prowess in a sport this is only now finally achieving parity within a traditionally male-dominated sport. As such, at such a sensitive moment in the history of women’s liberation, “You’ve got a beautiful smile” made me squirm in my sofa.

Would he have said this to a male athlete? I think not. Would Gaby Logan have said it to a male athlete? Or a female athlete? I think not. It came across as patronising, passive-aggressive and … to use an old-fashioned term … sexist.

Even by writing the word “sexist” down, I realise I sound like a fossil from another century. But casual sexism – the sharp end of which is the abuse and oppression of women, domestic, religious and institutional – has not been eradicated, any more than racism has, or homophobia, or xenophobia, despite great strides in the West and elsewhere.

These were the issues we worried a lot about in the 80s, although by the 90s it had become fashionable to be sexist again. I never bought it. The values I built up over the course of the 1980s have stayed with me. I do not apologise for that.

I Tweeted about Lineker’s sexist remark, and found myself having to debate the matter with people coming at me from all directions. I did my best to reply to the replies that merited a reply, and in many cases found myself in parallel dialogues with all sorts of people I have never met. Many simply concurred. That gave me strength that the fight against sexism is not totally forgotten. The majority of challenges came from men, unsurprisingly. This, in precis, is how the counter-argument ran:

Nicola Adams has got a beautiful smile.

I never said she hadn’t. If I sat at home and commented, “She’s got a beautiful smile,” that would be a perfectly valid observation to make; a subjective one, but valid. I wouldn’t say it to her, necessarily, unless its intention was absolutely understood and we knew each other well. Meanwhile, if I was a powerful, well-paid, well-known male BBC anchorman interviewing Nicola Adam for an important post-win live broadcast on a sports programme about her sporting achievement, I would never comment upon a physical attribute that had nothing to do with that achievement. She does not box with her smile. (Someone said that Clare Balding has commented on Chris Hoy’s thighs; firstly, I bet she didn’t do it to his face; and secondly, his thighs are absolutely intrinsic to his sporting achievement, so you could justify it in any case. We’re allowed to appreciate the physical appearance and attributes of others; this is not about thoughtcrime, it’s about how we express ourselves and what we say out loud.)

Context is key. Women’s boxing is an Olympic sport for the first time in 2012. That’s historic. Nicola Adams is GB’s first medal-winning female Olympic boxer, and the first Olympic gold medalist in the sport ever. She is historic. She is a powerful sportsperson, and, you might argue, an even more powerful sportswoman. Boxing federations have fought hard (ha ha) against women’s boxing being regarded as equal to men’s. I don’t even like boxing, but if men are allowed to punch each other for sport, then so should women be. It strikes me as subtly patronising that women are allowed to box like men, but are still expected to fight shorter rounds (four rounds of two minutes, as opposed to three rounds of three minutes for men), but one assumes this might even out in time. Since you ask, yes, I also think it’s bizarre that women play fewer sets in tennis. Women had to fight to get equal prize money in tennis and were quite prepared to play five sets in order to achieve that at Wimbledon, but the tennis federation left it at three sets. Hey, don’t want Wimbledon to go on too long, do we? Get the women’s matches out of the way quickly and bring on the men. (Anybody doubt that the Williams sisters could go five sets? Or beat the men?)

I’m not much of an expert on sport, as you know, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but women’s football matches are played to 90 minutes, right? (Another victory for women at the Games.) And so it should be. Women should surely be allowed to do the decathlon, too. Institutionalised sexism is all around us, never mind in sport – equal pay, anyone? – so it’s not missing the issue to get upset about a boorish remark made by a male TV presenter to a female athlete. (It was as if this woman in front of him was so powerful, he felt some subconscious urge to attempt to reduce her to a lovely smile.)

I’ve had some vexing responses to my arguments on Twitter, too. One person told me that I am “part of the problem” and that “the media” are too quick to brand someone sexist or racist. (This smacks of the Daily Mail‘s feverish fantasy about “the PC Brigade”.) I’ve also basically been accused of being a killjoy and a sourpuss and been advised to celebrate the fact that a man has complimented a lady. (One Tweeter, female, said, “It is a terrific smile: there has been a fair bit of smile coverage over the Games. Try it yourself!” – which is the reverse-equivalent of a builder on some scaffolding shouting out to a fetching lady, “Cheer up, love!”)

Well, I’m old enough not to worry about being regarded as a grump, or a fossil, and I’m afraid I’m sticking to my guns. The “isms” must be policed, by all of us, wherever they are found. Just as apartheid, segregation and ghettoisation are the logical conclusion of unchecked casual racism, casual sexism points us back at Victorian times when men smoked cigars in the drawing room and talked about politics while the ladies sat around sewing. But had beautiful smiles!

Amusing sexism

My old boss James Brown has launched an online magazine called Sabotage Times and is asking like-minded souls and acquaintances to contribute suitable, unpublished material. I discovered a pretty exhaustive article about Benny Hill I wrote in the late 90s and updated it. You can read it here. I actually wrote it for XL, an Emap men’s magazine that folded soon after. (They published an interview of mine with Jack Dee and a similar hagiography of Sid James while they were still running.) The Benny Hill, which I later failed to flog to GQ, is a pretty straight, factual biography of the man, which I remember researching in those prelapsarian times before broadband and Wikipedia by – read it and weep, youngsters! – tracking down books in secondhand bookshops and buying them, then taking them home and reading them and copying salient facts down. Ah, the age of innocence. Still, nice to see it in print. There’s plenty of other stuff to read there, too.