In 2013, Mary Beard, a well-known Cambridge professor, appeared on the British debate programme Question Time (BBC, 1979-). Following her appearance, she was subjected to a barrage of misogynistic abuse on social media, which, she later said was “quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate." She subsequently published essays on the gender histories of the public sphere, stretching back to antiquity; here, she showed how women have been punished – both physically and symbolically - for daring to speak out in public contexts. Our own media culture has been profoundly shaped by these histories of exclusion, ridicule and silencing; the historical roots of contemporary mediated misogyny run very, very deep.
Much of the commentary about the attacks on Beard focused on the ways that social media enables or encourages misogynistic hate. But quite absent from the discussion was a recognition of the fact that Beard was speaking on television – a particular kind of cultural forum that has its own, distinctive communicative architecture, and which has often proved a very difficult medium for women’s public voices.
Television talk has frequently been understood by scholars as a public good – a form of ‘sociability’ that, through its intimate address to domestic audiences and tendency towards ‘ordinariness’ and ‘friendliness,’ has produced a more democratic, less rigidly class-bound, and more open public culture. But can friendliness and an orientation to the domestic be so easily aligned with democratisation? The domestic sphere can hardly be understood as a power-free space of straightforward conviviality and equality. It is in this sphere especially that women’s speech which is insistent or demanding is construed as ‘nagging’. And so, too, has women’s speech on television that is too loud, too complaining, too political, very often been construed as a form of televisual nagging.
Television, then, presents challenges for women that are both shaped by broader structures and histories of inequality, and that are specific to the medium. The televisual nag is often punished for daring to speak out – we should seek to understand why, as well as stand in solidarity with her.