How come, when a man speaks, we hear one thing, and when a woman speaks, we hear quite another?
Take Oscar Pistorius and Hilary Mantel. Nothing much in common, you’d think, except that both of them have made the news for things they did, or didn’t say.
When the strange news broke about the tragedy at Pistorius’s house, a male friend said, ‘oh, he was obviously protecting himself against an intruder. South Africa, you know.’ Then, when we all caught up with Hilary Mantel’s LRB speech which she gave two weeks ago, the Daily Mail denounced it as a ‘savage attack’ on the poor Duchess of Cornwall.
In fact, it was the radio which first propagated the idea of an ‘intruder’, a concept which I’m convinced exists only in Pistorius’s troubled mind. I can’t have been the only one who listened to his petulant outburst at the Paralympics last summer, when he complained about his rival’s blades (which turned out to be exactly the same height as his own), with something of a chill. We all want Pistorius to be a hero. He has clearly overcome so much. He is an amazing athlete. But that doesn’t make him a nice person, as I suspect we will find out all too graphically when the prosecution starts gathering testimony from his exes. Pistorius’s father has spoken out about the ‘sick’ society that wants to build people like his son up, only to knock them down. But society also needs protecting against people who are too impatient, at the very, very best, to say, ‘is that you in there darling?’ before shooting the hell out of the loo door. Yes, South Africa is a violent place, and there are many ‘intruders’ at large, I’m sure. But also, in South Africa, men kill their wives or partners at the rate of one every eight hours. The Guardian quoted one of the government’s ministers, a man, as saying, ‘we must protect our women better.’ Our women? Ahem. I think the problem might lie right there.
Turning to the brilliant Hilary Mantel, both David Cameron and David Milliband have embarrassed themselves by delivering withering condemnations of things she didn’t say. She didn’t criticise Kate Middleton at all – she merely pointed out that the media likes to treat women in Middleton’s position as walking symbols, rather than as people. Then, of course, the press jumps in to confirm her view. There’s nothing that middle-aged male features editors like more than engineering a spat amongst women. Though I’ve never understood the attraction – unless it’s like those catfight scenes in Dallas that men used to love – I’ve often been asked to take part in such manufactured battles. Once, I was asked to write 1,000 words on how Claudia Schiffer had ‘lost it.’ I can’t remember the circumstances, perhaps she looked less than perfect for one millisecond, but I couldn’t refuse – there were at least five other people who wanted my job. So I wrote the piece, hoping to soften the bitchiness with humour, only for it to be absent from the paper the next day. What happened, I asked the features ed? ‘Oh, Cherie Blair was in yesterday so the Editor couldn’t run anything anti-feminist,’ I was told. I was so pleased. If only Cherie Blair had a current equivalent who could stalk the offices of the Daily Mail today and keep their worst instincts in check. Sadly I don’t think Samantha Cameron cuts it.