The Sun's interview with violinist Nicola Benedetti was a masterclass in sexism

Why have words at all when you could use the space for derogatory comments and suggestive pictures?

Yesterday I stumbled across this "interview" with violinist Nicola Benedetti in the Scottish Sun, in which Matt Bendoris - ostensibly a grown man and not a fifteen year old Nuts columnist - gives a masterclass in female objectification.

In it, Bendoris tastefully focuses on Benedetti's appearance, not her music:

So I guess Nicola won’t be posing for the lads’ mags anytime soon. Pity, because she looks fit as a fiddle when we meet at Edinburgh’s plush Sheraton Hotel.

But Nicola doesn’t always take the bonniest photo — she’s beaky in pics sometimes, which is weird because in the flesh she’s an absolute knock-out.

The classical musician is wearing skinny jeans which show off her long legs. She’s also busty with a washboard flat tummy, tottering around 5ft 10in in her Dune platform wedges.

He also urges Benedetti's cellist boyfriend Leonard Elschenbroich to get her pregnant:

The one possession she never lets out of sight is her 1712 Earl Spencer Stradivarius — made by the legendary 18th Century Italian violin master Antonio Stradivari himself.

No wonder as it’s worth £2million and is on loan from American banker Jonathan Moulds.

Me: “Gie’s a shot.”

She gasps: “Absolutely not! No one gets to touch this baby.”

Talking of babies, she’d like those too.

Nicola says: “It’s eight years since I won Young Musician of the Year. In the next eight years I’d hope to be a better violinist and I’d like to have started a family. I’ll be in my early 30s so I would probably like a baby or two by then.”

Better get busy making sweet, sweet music, Leonard. Lucky boy...

After reading the article, I had a question for Mr Bendoris:

I guess there’s a certain skill in writing about a artist and focusing on their physical attributes instead of their art. It requires you to wilfully ignore all of that talent. Bendoris must have trained in the Sun’s cultural isolation chamber, watching endless streams of Big Brother repeats and reading nothing but his own previous columns. Two weeks later, he emerged sweating and crying, screaming “Art is dead”. He was ready.

It’s like interviewing David Hockney and writing about how long and thick his willy is, asking if viewers would enjoy "elitist" painting more if he’d tie a brush to his dick and shake it at a canvas. Except that wouldn’t actually happen cause, you know, every Sun reader knows willies are horrible - not like lovely boobies though, eh lads?

Why do they bother including words at all if they’re just pushing wank fantasy material? They’d get more suggestive pictures in without all that bloody text. There’s an irony in deriding classical music as "elitist" and then sexually objectifying one of its best modern proponents. It’s not the general public who are wrong for ignoring classical music; it’s Nicola Benedetti for arrogantly refusing to get her tits out and bringing it down to “their” level.

Bendoris’ retort was that he loved “folk who get outraged on someone else’s behalf” which is disingenuous. I’m personally outraged that someone would actually write this shit and try to sell it to me as news. I’m offended that a company thinks I am that stupid, misogynist and ignorant - and you should feel insulted, too. But you know, mostly I’m not offended. I’m just disappointed that in 2012 this passes for journalism and there are still numpties out there willing to defend it.

I don’t think most Sun readers are as lecherous and paleolithic as Matt Bendoris and his editor Simon Houston. I hope they vote with their wallet. Right, enough of this filth. Let’s have some nice classical music.

Alan Williamson is editor of Split Screen, where this post originally appeared. He tweets as @agbear.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti. Photograph: Getty Images
A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.