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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.