Pride not prejudice: in defence of ‘women’s nonsense’
Coping: Enjoyment of Plato and lipstick are not mutually exclusive
“What is going on in that silly brain?” Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightley in the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice
In January 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published. In the latter half of the 18th century, and far beyond the publication of that famous novel, society was awash with what academics have since termed “moral panic”. These novels, written for (and often by) women, were thought to be dangerous.
The general line was that they stupefied impressionable young women, encouraging them to obsess over their appearances and relationships with men. It wasn’t the fact that a woman would be ostracised and sometimes doomed to destitution if she didn’t marry that caused her to be invested in her looks and what men were doing. Yeah, it was definitely the novels.
This berating of women for having an interest in “female things” was, at the time, coming from men. The underlying presumption was that, since traditionally male pursuits had always been the metric of social value, primarily female-oriented pursuits were valueless. In fact, they were a threat to the virtue and (limited) intellect of young women. The fact that novels were selling in unprecedented numbers alarmed such men in the extreme. Women clearly had voracious appetites for this sort of nonsense.
Fast-forward to today, and we still love a bit of “female nonsense”. Along with writing this column, and pursuing a PhD in philosophy, I write a beauty column in this newspaper’s Magazine each Saturday. Like most people, I possess several and varied interests, and it turns out that enjoyment of Plato and lipstick aren’t mutually exclusive. In the last few weeks I have been contacted by a number of men to say that beauty coverage is “stupid” and has no place in a respectable newspaper.
My writing about colourful, scented things that cheer me up is not in any way akin to Austen writing one of the greatest and most beloved novels in English literature. But there is one similarity: the stupidity label that is applied to “women’s content”. These men who contact me – insisting that beauty coverage is dim and devoid of value – were the same men sitting about in Austen’s time chugging brandy and wagging their jowls in a panic.
If the standard of what is worth talking about is intellectual value, why isn’t this standard applied to classically male interests?
While a small number of men are decrying the 500 words a week I devote to beauty in the Magazine, the thick wad of pages at the back of the paper devoted to sport is never questioned. The value of sport coverage comes from the sense of community and joy that sport creates. After all, not everyone who enjoys following a sport actually engages in one physically. It is wholly accepted as valuable because of the subjective merit it has to some people, and these people happen – for the most part – to be male.
Although sport is not an intellectual pursuit, there is an appetite for it. I don’t think a clever man is less clever because he plays soccer on a Wednesday night. Yet I encounter men who tell me they have diminished respect for my intellect because I enjoy a crisply lined eye.
The poor logic behind such thinking goes something like this: things that are interesting to me are objectively interesting, because I don’t see beyond the scope of my own interests or values. This view is often so confidently held that those who hold it argue that whatever they think is intellectually unworthy of discussion should never be written about at all. They are confident of its uselessness; it simply should not exist.
Newspapers used to write mostly about war, economics and politics: subjects of interest to men at the time, and still of interest to many men and women. Today, papers need to appeal to a wider audience. Thankfully, there is a pluralism to the world now that did not exist then. More voices, debate and interests are always good. It is snobbish and myopic to demean people for having interests we don’t share. Why not practise selectively reading what is of interest to us and leaving everything else for those who want to read it.
Thanks to women like Austen, “women’s nonsense” – in all its forms – isn’t going anywhere. Cope with it.