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8 May 2014updated 09 Jun 2021 11:17am

Troll hunter: Blurred Lines – the New Battle of the Sexes on BBC2

Presenter Kirsty Wark focused on the impact of the internet (and, to a lesser degree, the media) on both women and men, whose more sexist impulses it may validate. 

By Rachel Cooke

Blurred Lines: the New Battle of the Sexes

Is misogyny on the rise? I’m wary of saying that it is. When people insist that things are substantially worse for women now than it’s been for decades, I’m all questions. How old are they? Where did they grow up? What kind of school did they attend? Have they ever held down a low-status job? I want to know what kinds of mothers and grandmothers they had. Also, what kinds of fathers. Mine was married four times, which afforded me an early and usefully brisk perspective on the way some men feel about women (when I was eight, he was already on wife number three).

Don’t misunderstand. I loved my father deeply but the only females I ever saw him take remotely seriously were me and my sisters, women who were in some ways a reflection of himself and with whom he did not plan on having sex. A bearded liberal who spent his days bent over a microscope, he displayed on the walls of his lab – not without pride – that old Athena poster of a woman tennis player scratching her backside. I never got to find out how his female students felt about it. Nor did he, I assume. That was how things were, then.

I see, though, that in one sense all of this is irrelevant. What matters is that women feel misogyny is on the rise, there being so many exciting new outlets for the expression of woman hatred. It’s in our faces (or perhaps I mean on our screens) like never before. In her excellent and often shocking documentary Blurred Lines (8 May, 9.30pm), Kirsty Wark thankfully didn’t get too bogged down in trying to ascertain whether misogyny really is growing. Instead, she focused on the impact of the internet (and, to a lesser degree, the media) on both women and men, whose more sexist impulses it may validate. It was disappointing that she allowed the Spectator columnist Rod Liddle to talk so flabbily about how men get trolled as horribly as women – apparently, we should just “man up” and deal with it – without ever asking him why he thought it was acceptable to write of the deputy leader of the Labour Party: “So, Harriet Harman, then. Would you? I mean after a few beers obviously, not while you were sober.”

I’m fed up, too, with having to listen to modishly bearded former editors of Loaded go on about irony and attitude and how hard it is to be a working-class man these days (like any of them would know). But in the main, Wark’s material was cold-shower sobering. The unstoppable vileness – from Frankie Boyle telling “jokes” about vaginas to a Stirling University men’s hockey team singing songs about inducing miscarriages on a public bus service – seemed even more than usually shameful, piled end to end in this way. We all know what followed when Mary Beard appeared on Question Time but Wark had thought to look at social media responses to all women guests on the show over the course of the first three months of this year. Dear God, it was ugly. Does this stuff keep some women from public life? Yes. For my part, there are pieces I avoid writing for fear of what will follow on Twitter and “below the line”.

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Perhaps I’m a wimp. There were lots of splendidly fearless women on-screen here and as the programme aired, doubtless the haters got busy with their smartphones, for isn’t it this fearlessness – the sheer temerity of these bitches – that exercises the trolls the most? I loved the sanguine young woman gamer who boasted that she is now able sometimes to enjoy “a whole week” without any abuse, “providing I don’t play at night”. Germaine Greer reflected on the prescience of her statement that (I paraphrase) most women have very little idea how much men hate them. Say what you like about the internet; at least it has given us a bracing slap round the face on this score.

Most impressive of all, though, was Wark. More than once as I watched, the thought occurred to me that she’s wasted on Newsnight. The requirement to interrupt, sometimes a necessary evil when you’re dealing with robot politicians, was here put on hold. Instead, we were treated to the spectacle of her listening, at which she proved to be rather good. I liked how she transmitted that this was a subject of real importance to her, the sense she radiated of being determined to interrogate it, albeit within the limited confines of an hour-long TV documentary.

The occasional personal reflection – when Wark was at Stirling University in the 1970s, all she could envision, so far as the battle of the sexes was concerned, was sunny and unceasing progress – provided effortless historical context. When she repeated aloud the language of hate, the C-words and the F-words and all the casual references to rape, her voice was clotted with disappointment: a grave, grown-up kind of dismay that seemed, if only for a fleeting moment, to put the misogynists in their proper place at last.

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