The sighing puffy newsweasel Michael Buerk has whinged that there are too many ladies in his media life. He’d like them to go away. He claims that the BBC is infested with ladylike effetery, powdered lavender in the newsroom and St Ives Apricot Scrub in the editing suites. Perhaps he’s the victim of reactionary osmosis from his Moral Maze coterie. One might nevertheless accept that an over-abundance of one gender-role within a radio station’s output, say, will become cloying. I’m talking about gender roles here, mind you, not any specific fleshy entity who may or may not play out those roles. It’s the ideology about which one is concerned, and not whether the idiot who brandishes it happens to have convex or concave genitalia.
My University tutor, Professor Vivien Jones, whipped it into us that in her seminar room at least, she would countenance no “essentialist” differences between the sexes. Genders (or “genders”, as she termed them, even when speaking) were merely societal roles, as arbitrary as a preference for cheese-and-onion over salt-and-vinegar. Anyone who claimed anything different, and Prof Jones “problematised” their arse all the way to Otley. Now, of course, the woman was a daft old bat (probably the hormones), imbued in wishy-washy Post Modern nonsense, but she did have a point, albeit more obvious and dull than her high-falutin’ lit-crit jargon would have led one to believe. I wouldn’t go as far as her in brushing la difference completely under the nurture carpet. I would argue that there are clear biological evolutionary vortices (weaker bodies, the burden of the children and the like), which make women, in general, more put-upon than putting. Nevertheless, the full variety of Women’s cultural manifestation in ancient societies makes it clear that we have the merest snippet of a very contingent doily in our conception of what it is that makes a “lady”. However flimsy and tattered it is in the emancipated West, we do still have that doily. Many modern women reject the more pernicious idiocies entangled in its frills, but snip at the curlicues that suit them when cynically useful: the victimhood, the hopeless dizzyness, the faux-naive attempts for conciliation, the stab-in-the-back sisterhood, the pretence at technological helplessness and so on. So, whilst one should never assume a woman has anything of the doily about her, the doily remains a handy accessory for any woman – or, indeed, man – to flap about their person at will.
Now, if the societal roleplay of ladyhood is to be deplored in its excesses, this is not to say that “masculinity” is any more essential or necessarily admirable. The beer-mat of contigent masculinity is, if anything, pressed out of even more a-posteriori material than the doily. Try calling Taliban men, who are wont to wear eyeliner, sissies, and see where it gets you. Maybe they didn’t want women to wear cosmetics in Afghanistan because they wanted to keep all the Revlon for themselves. Our notions of masculinity are utterly confused. There is as much that is hideous and arbitrary in our British beermat of masculinity as there is in the doily of ladyhood. Anyone who disagrees needs only take a sordid peep at the “lads’ mags”, those blockheadedly titled journals of deep tits and shallow desperation.
So, we can accept that having too many ladylike ladies about the place would be as tiresome as having too many laddish men, not to mention laddish ladies and ladylike lads. Where, specifically, might we grant Buerk a limited point? At the moment, it seems that Radio Four has one gaping fixture which has been papered over for so long with a crusty old doily that nobody dare mention the obvious: that its time, surely, has come and gone. Yellowing and peeling, it flaps its way through every weekday, and spins around in tedious circles on Saturdays for bad measure. Women’s Hour has always been a hateful and dull programme. I pity anyone who has the turgid gumption to manufacture a good word in its defence. Wrapping presents to raping peasants, all womanhood is here, the wretched programme seems to boast, its spiteful ghetto inhabited by only the most despicable cretino-leftist Highgate dangly-earingers. The smug, upper-middle class media world that the programme inhabits, with its two presenter hags, reveals the dingy old doily in all its infamy, but perhaps woven from Guatemalan hemp-rope. Don’t be mistaken into thinking it any less a doily: the programme wants to eat its cake (literally, in the case of its hefty main presenter, the USS Jenni Murray) and have it: the veneer of a modern, emancipated woman is pasted onto the parody of Victorian victimhood: Murray signals that a sob-story of such victimhood is on the way when she starts purring in what she imagines is a sympathetic burr, but actually sounds like lashings of fat emphysema on toast. And the “serials”? As worthy as lentils and twice as dull, usually about some drab 18th century consumptive prigette, or some colourfully ethnic woman there to confuse us with a contradictory demonstrations of the wonder of her culture, to whose ancient “could-teach-us-a-thing-or-two” wisdom we must genuflect, whilst despairing its repression of her. Away with it and its pernicious reactionary tinge. Women’s Hour must go. No self-respecting woman would enjoy listening to that jumbled washing-up of a programme, because its confused and narrowly-proscribed conception of a woman shows no deep respect for the diversity of female experience, let alone human. The removal of this dull fixture from the schedules will be a start at reclaiming Radio Four from its own backside. Only a start, mind: don’t get me going on Hudson and Pepperdine.