Having appeared on last year’s University Challenge final, last week I received a couple of messages on Twitter from a Daily Mail reporter, asking if I would comment on the lack of women there this year – since Balliol College, Oxford and Wolfson College, Cambridge both fielded all-male teams. Not wanting to speak to the Mail, I ignored the messages, and thought no more of them.
Unbeknown to me, members of the Balliol team had also been contacted by the same journalist – although without mention that they would be interviewed for an article on female under-representation. Their response was to issue a thrillingly polite takedown of the newspaper’s “long record of hateful comments about women, minorities and marginalised groups”. History student Freddie Potts was first to reply: “Hi Laura – I have nothing against you personally, but equally I have nothing to say to the fascist rag that employs you.” Astrophysics DPhil Benjamin Pope clarified the team’s press policy: “Hi! As a team, we won’t be interviewed by the Mail. We know it’s not your fault, but we must ethically boycott that hateful publication.”
The response from social media was immediate, as fans, journalists, and even the odd MP, took to twitter in praise of the contestants. “Not all heroes wear capes”, memed one Balliol fan, whilst Alastair Campbell tweeted approvingly: “if only more people had the balls to call them out for what they are”.
Meanwhile, at the Daily Mail: in a superb volte-face of reactionary evil-genius narrativising, the resulting article was headlined “Student equality campaigners slam all-male University Challenge final blaming ‘hostile’ world of quiz societies”. Forced to change tack when unable to find any contestants willing to be quoted in the paper, the article became about how the kind of University quiz tournaments of which the finalists were part are “very hostile to women”. Inevitably, the Balliol team was quoted as having refused to answer questions they had not yet been asked. The Telegraph ran a similar piece, which indicted both the “hostility” of “quizzing environments”, and sexist social media discussion centring on female contestants’ looks.
While I would echo the Balliol team’s emphasis that this is no criticism of individual reporters doing their jobs, the articles have more than a whiff of hypocrisy about them, given the newspapers’ own histories of sexist reporting of the few women who do appear on University Challenge. It’s good that we’re talking about why women are discouraged from putting themselves forward to audition at University level – but it seems ridiculous to point the finger solely at Twitter trolls and putatively misogynistic quiz societies, when the same papers pant over “pretty blonde” female contestants with “beauty AND brains”. Just two weeks earlier, the Mail described Corpus Christi, Oxford’s Emma Johnson as “the hottest contestant ever”, an “overnight sex symbol” who “insisted she doesn’t feel sexy” while wearing hospital scrubs in her job as a trainee doctor – because, you know, saucy uniform &c.
I have a little experience of my own of being the subject of tabloid attention after my appearance on the programme last year, which focused with dispiriting regularity on what I can only think to designate as ‘lady stuff’. (I like to imagine that tabloid editorial meetings are like boardroom scenes from the early seasons of Mad Men, when the characters are brainstorming marketing ideas for products aimed at women: just people standing around, bemused, mishandling lipstick and hosiery, and shouting at each other “WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?? WHAT DO THEY WANT FROM MEN??”) The Mail thus focused on whether I’d received any Valentine’s Day cards, or gifts from admirers as a result of appearing on the programme.
They weren’t the only paper to have reported in this vein. The Telegraph noted that I wouldn’t “walk away empty-handed” from the final, because I had “won” a marriage proposal on Twitter – suggesting that an offer of marriage from an anonymous egg was somehow a prize I could hold in my lady hands, a bit like the actual University Challenge trophy I actually won.
It was a tiny, fleeting moment of insight into how difficult it is not to seem like an idiot in media interviews, and how what you say often bears only a passing resemblance to what you are quoted as saying. In the midst of a long interview about feminism, future career plans, and the experience of taking part in University Challenge, one reporter asks you something like: “what’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you as a result of taking part in the programme?” You say that a couple of strangers sent gifts to your college pigeonhole. The next day, a second paper quotes the interview – you have been FLOODED with gifts. Nay, three articles later, you are INUNDATED with them. In fact, you didn’t so much tell the reporter this as having admitted to it.
I’m aware of how relatively genteel these headlines are, compared to the worst excesses of tabloid misogyny. Christ, it’s not even former contestant Gail Trimble being asked to appear in Nuts. But, contextually, the clickbait seems more sinister. Next to the Mail Online’s article about pretty blonde Emma Johnson revealing she’s single, for example, the Sidebar of Shame has the usual run of female celebrities revealing their baby bumps, flashing their abs, flaunting their enviable curves, showcasing their eye-popping assets, displaying their nipples through an opaque shirt, looking haggard and unrecognisable without make up, turning heads, showing off, putting on a leggy display – and all the other inventive synonyms that the Mail has for women being corporeal, much like other humans. Is there any wonder that women are reluctant to put themselves in the public eye, when they are presented as one long striptease: teasingly exposing themselves to public scrutiny, revealing their bodies and private lives bit by bit?
So, for the newspapers lamenting that so few women choose to take part in University Challenge, and wondering why this can be, I have a few suggestions. Don’t publish articles that launder your own sexist focus through screenshot after screenshot of leering comments from Twitter users, before concluding that social media is to blame for the intense scrutiny to which female contestants are subject. Don’t gratuitously turn the issue of female underrepresentation into a bit of BBC- or Oxbridge-bashing. If you, as a concerned journalist, want to write an article that genuinely attempts to overcome the male-dominated nature of the programme, don’t write it for a newspaper known for its misogynistic treatment of women.
And to any women who are hesitant to take part in University Challenge, I have a plea. Please audition. Please take part. It is ridiculous that, in 2017, media attention will follow you around for a bit, pointing out in various ways that you are, in fact, a woman. You shouldn’t have to deal with this crap. But please don’t stop auditioning.
Hannah Rose Woods is a postgraduate student at Cambridge University and a former winner of University Challenge. She tweets @hannahrosewoods