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.

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If only I could wangle a job in the John Lewis menswear department I’d get to say, “Suits you, sir”

I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

So now that I have made the news public that I am even deeper in the soup than I was when I started this column, various people – in fact, a far greater number than I had dared hope would – have expressed their support. Most notable, as far as I can tell, was Philip Pullman’s. That was decent of him. But the good wishes of people less in the public eye are just as warming to the heart.

Meanwhile, the question is still nagging away at me: what are you going to do now? This was the question my mother’s sisters would always ask her when a show she was in closed, and my gig might have been running for almost as long as The Mousetrap but hitherto the parallels with entertainment had eluded me.

“That’s show business,” she said to me, and for some reason that, too, is a useful comment. (I once saw a picture of a fairly well-known writer for page and screen dressed up, for a fancy-dress party, as a hot dog. The caption ran: “What? And give up show business?”)

Anyway, the funds dwindle, although I am busy enough to find that time does not weigh too heavily on my hands. The problem is that this work has either already been paid for or else is some way off being paid for, if ever, and there is little fat in the bank account. So I am intrigued when word reaches me, via the Estranged Wife, that another family member, who perhaps would prefer not to be identified, suggests that I retrain as a member of the shopfloor staff in the menswear department of John Lewis.

At first I thought something had gone wrong with my hearing. But the E W continued. The person who had made the suggestion had gone on to say that I was fairly dapper, could talk posh, and had the bearing, when it suited me, of a gentleman.

I have now thought rather a lot about this idea and I must admit that it has enormous appeal. I can just see myself. “Not the checked jacket, sir. It does not become sir. May I suggest the heather-mixture with the faint red stripe?”

In the hallowed portals of Jean Louis (to be said in a French accent), as I have learned to call it, my silver locks would add an air of gravitas, instead of being a sign of superannuation, and an invitation to scorn. I would also get an enormous amount of amusement from saying “Walk this way” and “Suits you, sir”.

Then there are the considerable benefits of working for the John Lewis Partnership itself. There is the famed annual bonus; a pension; a discount after three months’ employment; paid holiday leave; et cetera, et cetera, not to mention the camaraderie of my fellow workers. I have worked too long alone, and spend too much time writing in bed, nude, surrounded by empty packets of Frazzles and Dinky Deckers. (For those who are unfamiliar with the latter, a Dinky Decker is a miniature version of a Double Decker, which comes in a bag, cunningly placed by the tills of Sainsbury’s Locals, which is usually priced at a very competitive £1.)

I do some research. I learn from an independent website that a retail sales assistant can expect to make £7.91 an hour on average. This is somewhat less than what is considered the living wage in London, but maybe this is accounted for in the John Lewis flagship store in Oxford Street. It is, though, a full 6p an hour more than the living wage in the rest of the land. Let the good times roll!

At which point a sudden panic assails me: what if employment at that store is only granted to those of long and proven service? God, they might send me out to Brent Cross or somewhere. I don’t think I could stand that. I remember when Brent Cross Shopping Centre opened and thought to myself, even as a child, that this was my idea of hell. (It still is, though my concept of hell has broadened to include Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush.)

But, alas, I fear this tempting change of career is not to be. For one thing, I am probably too old to train now. By the time I will have been taught to everyone’s satisfaction how to operate a till or measure an inside leg, I will be only a few months, if that, from retirement age, and I doubt that even so liberal an employer as John Lewis would be willing to invest in someone so close to the finish line.

Also, I have a nasty feeling that it’s not all heather-mixture suits with (or without) the faint red stripe these days. The public demands other, less tasteful apparel.

So I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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