Clever women remain 'ugly' almost by definition, but this new film should give us hope

The biopic "Hannah Arendt" credits Professor Arendt, responsible for some of the most publicly enduring theories in 20th century philosophy, with an intellectual interiority mostly reserved – at least in the public eye – for white men.

A groundbreaking film about the academic Hannah Arendt has just been released in the UK, enterprisingly titled “Hannah Arendt”. What makes it so important is just this: it is about a clever woman.

The biopic tracks Arendt's experiences reporting on the trial of Nazi SS-Officer Adolf Eichmann, unapologetically centralising her role as a public intellectual. Relationships with friends and her husband, including notable author Mary McCarthy, are also rather sensitively depicted. But they are subplots to the real deal, Arendt's ideas.

Unlike the majority of films or television shows when they deign to give airtime to women, “Hannah Arendt” refuses to replicate the stereotypical territory of acceptable-woman-characters. It is not about Arendt the lover (see: almost all women in films), Arendt as a writerly version of the oh-so-“normal” woman hung up on weight and boyfriends (see: Bridget Jones), or Arendt the supposed high-flyer beseiged by mental health issues (see: Scandinavian drama).

“Hannah Arendt” is, instead, about Hannah Arendt the thinker. It rightly credits Professor Arendt, responsible for some of the most publicly enduring theories in 20th century philosophy, with an intellectual interiority mostly reserved – at least in the public eye – for white men.

Public intellectuals are a dying breed in the UK. You might say they went out with the move from print to new media, the corporatization of the higher education system, and the ascendence of the ideology that value can only be calculated in economic terms. I may be inventing a romantic vision of the past in which people - supported by state-subsidised child-care and a mandatory living wage - spent their evenings in coffee shops discussing the New Left Review, but it's also true that today's tyranny of the hit-counter is a dumbing-down tool that past intellectuals did not have to worry about.

For clever women and girls across the country, this is a problem. Last week Miriam González Durántez, who appears to have better politics than her husband Nick Clegg (not much of an accolade), bashed the “absurd and demeaning stereotypes” today's women still face. Commenting on the perception that girls lack women role models, she wrote: “If we succeed in our professional lives, we’re branded 'scary'; if we follow fashion, we’re 'shallow'; if we like science, we’re 'geeks'; if we read women’s magazines, we’re 'fluffy'; and if we defend our rights, we’re 'hard'.”

She's right, and this negative labelling includes a grotesque opprobrium levelled against those who dare to demonstrate intellect. Clever women remain 'ugly' almost by definition, while attractive women are often stereotyped as 'stupid'. As women are still predominantly valued when beautiful – just compare the women on TV and in film to their male counterparts if you doubt this - those who aim to enter the public sphere solely on intellectual grounds face marginalisation.

The treatment of clever women made headlines in 2011 when classicist Mary Beard received misogynist abuse after an appearance on Question Time, with a denigrating webpage about her hosting comments like “ignorant cunt” and “a vile, spiteful excuse for a woman”. In a characteristically badass response she suggested that the page be counter-trolled with floods of Latin poetry. But it wasn't an isolated incident. Bomb threats made this year against prominent women, including the journalists Hadley Freeman and Grace Dent, showed this is a culture that fights against women's right to intellectual territory.

Why should anyone care about public intellectuals? It's not the kind of career you can get an internship for – not even an unpaid one – bound up as it is in class, race and gender privilege. And I'm not a fan of the strand of thought which identifies “feminism” with getting more white women into boardrooms. Despite an abundance of talent, clever people who are not middle-class white men are allowed limited scope to flourish, a few Audre Lordes and Stuart Halls notwithstanding. Social media's democratising tendencies aside, it's still true that if you write for a national paper, for example, many more people will read your work than if you write a personal blog. As research shows, this means mainstream society's most influential voices are still of the maler, paler ilk.

But our public intellectuals should be celebrated despite the elitism associated with them, simply because their ideas are vital. A quick walk around the libraries of British universities will reveal all-too-many academics who only write books for other academics, whose books countering the original books will only be read by the first lot of academics. I'm pretty sure nobody has ever actually understood David Lewis's On the plurality of worlds - god knows I tried - but it's clear that it wasn't written for anybody who isn't a logic lecturer (although maybe in another possible world it becomes a bestseller? No, I still don't get it). 

Public intellectuals bring this stuff out of the ivory tower and into mainstream consciousness in an intelligible form. They are one of the many groups of people who think up new ways to live, the people who use theory to challenge the status quo. We need them.

And the unrepentent intellectuals who are also women are additionally important, particularly those who are non-white, non-straight, or disabled. In refusing to cater to stereotypes about what women are allowed to be, in failing to be subdued by the abuse, pressurizing and denigration thrown at women who step outside of acceptable female deference, they mark out a wider territory for woman and girls as a whole.

Young girls need to be able to turn on the telly, or open the newspaper, and see adult women speaking as experts on politics, philosophy, science, art, or any other important topic. What's more, young girls need to see they don't have to downplay their own intelligence: it's OK for them to be clever too.

Professor of classics Mary Beard, pictured with her OBE medal, encouraged counter-trolling trolls with Latin poetry. Image: Getty

Ray Filar is a freelance journalist and an editor at openDemocracy. Her website is here.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses