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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496