The Sunday Times

May 6th, 2012

Sorry, oafs, no toxic tweet will stop the brainbox babes

Twitter has enabled people to say in public the nastiest things they really think — for the first time in history and with impunity. It is fascinating. Everyone must be curious about what other people actually feel, simmering beneath what they’re prepared to say out loud, but until recently it has been almost impossible to know. The internet has changed all that.

Unsurprisingly, what has emerged is that the things that people really feel are sometimes revolting and frightening, as Sigmund Freud pointed out long ago. What’s more surprising, perhaps, is that some of them are astonishingly misogynistic: so Louise Mensch MP found last week, when a cacophony of disgusting things was tweeted about her after she had voted against a select committee report on phone hacking that included a statement strongly criticising Rupert Murdoch.

Mensch’s view was the final report ought not to have included this statement since it went beyond the committee’s remit and in any case hadn’t been discussed. She spoke out very publicly, appearing on television and forcefully arguing her case in a confidently adversarial spirit. But the point, surely, is not what her view was. The point is that this woman was suddenly deluged by a torrent of violent and sexual abuse on Twitter, almost all of it from men and most too revolting to print — except on Twitter. Stuart Hyde, chief constable of Cumbria police, who is also nationally responsible for e-crime, said some of the tweets were “pretty horrendous” and could be illegal.

One can perhaps understand the political rage that some of these tweeters feel, but for them to express it in such terms suggests an intransigent misogyny — a fear and hatred of women that feminism has hardly touched. The idea that a woman must be kept in line by sexual humiliation, or that it is acceptable for men to fantasise in public about doing so, is astonishing in a developed society. We associate that attitude with medieval cultures in backward societies, not with literate British men with computers. I had thought that in my adult lifetime these primitive male responses had been at least suppressed. But the old Adam dies hard.

What is it about Mensch that has drawn down upon her this terrible, primitive roar of male sexual deviancy? I realise that many of her attackers are driven by a loathing of anything that might be called right wing in general and in particular by a loathing of the media mogul. But that doesn’t seem to be explanation enough. There seems to be something extreme about the misogyny, as if Mensch’s real crime were something to do with her sex.

She is not alone. Other women who dare to enter into public controversy, such as certain political columnists, report the same kind of distressing abuse. The annoying thing about Mensch, I suspect, is that she is that rare and alarming creature, an alpha female. She has it all: she is brilliant and beautiful. She is clever, famous and a babe.

I don’t want to exaggerate: I have several reservations about Mensch. But no one can deny that she is both good-looking and articulate. Compared with most women MPs she stands out like a racehorse among cobs — a woman who can really pace the men.

Blair’s babes of old were by comparison a drab, beta collection.

Mensch is quick on the intellectual draw, she speaks coolly and incisively without hesitation or repetition, she is not at all deferential or tentative, she usually has a trained lawyer’s precision and she wears her beauty with understated elegance.

This might all seem a bit much, perhaps, to those beta, gamma and delta males who have been howling like Caliban on Twitter: such women are an intolerable threat. It is hard not to feel that some men do still particularly resent women who are not only successful but beautiful as well. (Women may do, too, but at least they do not express their feelings in dreams of violent sexual attack.) Such a woman is a double affront to their status and to their sexuality: she is by virtue of her public success more powerful and by virtue of her glamour out of their sexual league. As Doll Tearsheet unkindly puts it in Henry IV, Part 2, as a sexual putdown to a lowlife suitor, “I am meat for your master.” Alpha women are doubly demoralising to any man who feels insecure on such points.

The problem is that most men in this country aren’t used to such women, because they are still unusual in public life. It is only recently that women of any description have made much of an appearance in public life here. By contrast in much of Europe and the United States, for some reason, alpha women are well established; the brilliant, elegant Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, stands for them all without apparently arousing blasts of misogyny.

Perhaps European men are more confident about themselves than Britons. Whatever the reason, here after decades of third wave or fourth wave feminism, such women are still few. Clearly such change takes longer than one might hope and so far, while women excel in many things, it is rare to find a truly outstanding woman in public life who is also very good-looking, particularly in politics: even Margaret Thatcher, though handsome, was far from babe-licious.

The result has been that some unreconstructed British males are not yet able to deal with such rare birds: they are an intolerable threat to the men’s atavistic idea of their place in the scheme of things. However, the men will have to get used to them appearing in ever larger numbers. Two perfect examples of this type of woman are the detective heroines in the Danish and American versions of the TV series The Killing. Played by Sofie Grabol and Mireille Enos, both women are babes, but with an intent, serious manner and a scraped-back ponytail, much like Mensch, as if to signal that their beauty is beside the point, even if it cannot be denied. They are driven, dedicated to their work and the equal of any man. At the same time they are cool and powerful.

These are the women of the future. There are already a few in the House of Commons — the Conservatives’ A-list produced many more interesting women than Blair’s babes — along with a couple of pioneers in the Lords. Progress has been made.

There are few men who, without the supposed anonymity of the internet, will say nasty things about women. But Twitter suggests that no matter what women prove about themselves, there is something elemental about misogyny and we may never quite be rid of it.