The Blog

The Ugliness is Within, Not On TV

Any female on British TV who hasn't wept over her appearance at one point is either lying, or Holly Willoughby. It's so depressingly important.

When I first saw Mary Beard, an erudite whirl of crimson speeding on her bicycle around the Eternal City, I thought I'd turned on BBC4 by mistake.

After all, she must be Danish, right? And this must be subtitled? Because I imagine only in sensible places like Scandinavia do they still allow women of her age and her face a prime time slot (not to mention such heavy promotion of cycling.)

But no, Mary Beard and her excellent, self-penned Romans series were on primetime BBC2, and I thought it meant that we were ushering in a new era of female presenters where it didn't matter if your age meant your face was mapped like the Crossrail route for London.

Any female on British TV who hasn't wept over her appearance at one point is either lying, or Holly Willoughby. It's so depressingly important. Being caught in the rain on the way to interview a Hollywood A lister assumes the importance of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not because of what bloody Brad Pitt might think, but because you could pull off a Frost vs Nixon style interview, and all anyone will notice is what happened to your hair. Your face, your follicles, your frocks - when you're on screen, everyone feels free to comment.

I do it myself. Jane Fonda was speaking in a film called Miss Representation, a superb documentary about the demonisation of women in today's media, and all I thought was "how does her neck look that good for 72?"

Anyway, it's not a brave new world is it, not since that oil painting AA Gill called Mary Beard "ugly." Now Samantha Brick has brought the whole weight of her wisdom to the Daily Mail. I don't agree with the spirit of her article, but on one thing she's right: on TV, and everywhere else, female appearance matters. And in many ways, we women are the authors of our own distorted misfortune.

We're starving our souls to gorge on our bodies. One look at the Daily Mail 'Sidebar of Shame' screams that a woman's appearance is the only thing she offers to the world. And they're certainly not the only culprits. We breathe in our culture like anthrax spores, and it's poisoning us.

Why else do we think we can talk about Mary Beard's 'ugliness' in the national press, and yet not debate whether Andrew Marr's ears or Jeremy Paxman's nose are too 'distracting' for television? Why else is a public figure like Louise Mensch subjected to sexual trolling on Twitter - after giving evidence at a political inquiry?

Talking of Twitter, someone messaged me calling Mary Beard a 'crone' - because she wears her grey hair long. A refined woman, her face alive with passion for her subject, is casually reduced to a hooked nose witch. And it was another woman who called her that.

Even Jane Austen has been given the treatment - after finding a new picture of the distinguished author, the headlines screamed: "Jane Austen: not as ugly as everyone thought." Thank God she lived two centuries ago, she wouldn't have even made it onto Newsnight Review.

With this in mind, why the hell should our daughters aspire to be great or good - when all that seems to matter is whether your face is gorgeous - or just ghastly?