We need to talk about Mary Beard

Novus Suetonius
Jan 3 · 5 min read

We need to talk about Mary Beard. The field of classics is sometimes so starved for a “good” public intellectual that we make some real compromises. She’s not Jordan Peterson, for god’s sake. She’s a woman who’s had to deal with a lot of sexism. She espouses generally “good” political stances. And she does, sometimes. Women and Power was a legitimately powerful book. But Mary Beard is going to be feted as the face of public classics at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Classical Studies, and the field is going to talk about all of the good work she’s done, and turn a blind eye to the places she falls very short. The places where her “feminism” falls very short.

Just because someone receives a lot of sexist abuse doesn’t mean that every criticism is sexism. Someone can be good in some ways and bad in others. Someone can make the very good point that women have been silenced ever since the Odyssey — and simultaneously silence other women. White women have been doing this to women of color for a long time. “White Feminism,” or feminism that doesn’t mind pushing down women of color and using them for leverage so White women can advance, is a known and documented problem: your Taylor Swifts, your Lena Dunhams, your Mary Beards. Except T-Swift seems to be trying to do better, which is more than I can say for some so-called feminists.

Like when this happened, in the wake of news about the Oxfam sexual abuse scandal (Oxfam covered up widespread sexual harassment and exploitation allegations — some of which included abuse of people as young as 14, and much of which involved Oxfam aid workers extorting desperate people in Haiti and elsewhere for sex in exchange for humanitarian aid):

To suggest that the “uncivilised” people of Haiti and their “uncivilised” disaster zone are in some way to blame for the misconduct of Oxfam workers is…shocking. Particularly in light of the history of colonial violence in play here. Sexual exploitation obviously exists in every culture, but to particularly blame the colonized for a crime that is historically heavily associated with colonizers makes this really deeply and offensively racist. And, this is practically victim blaming of those being sexually exploited (underaged or otherwise) in a long history of colonial violence which routinely includes sexual violence. #WhiteFeminism if I’ve ever seen it.

People of color (including many many women of color) pointed out how wildly offensive this was. Mary Beard weaponized her army of followers to attack these people with calls for civility. As though there isn’t a long history of people of color being told not to be angry about their colonial oppressors. As though Mary’s words don’t speak more loudly and travel farther than any of the people who would speak up against her. As though Mary didn’t have a popular column in which to reframe and redirect her own words, to make them into something more palatable, without ever apologizing (a half-hearted mea culpa isn’t an apology).

What we did get though, in lieu of a proper apology, was this:

Plus a picture of her crying (seems to be deleted now), which is just about the epitome of weaponizing white fragility.

Ah yes, she has Black friends — problem solved, nothing objectionable here!

Lest this post get picked up by any of her acolytes, I won’t draw attention to anyone’s individual tweets, short of what has been officially published. But Priyamvada Gopal wrote a very thoughtful and patient response to Mary’s “genteel patrician racist manner and this context of entrenched denial” and “wounded white innocence”:

Dr. Gopal never got a proper apology, as far as I know.

Then a bit later, there was Nassar-gate, when she suggested that maybe there were some extenuating circumstances that should be taken into account in the sentencing of a shocking and prolific child sexual predator.

Are we “complicit”? I don’t know, maybe. I guess we’ve all allowed sports to continue to exist. But is she aware that there are Olympic trainers and physicians who are not pedophiles? Does she really not understand that Lance Armstrong consenting to take performance enhancing drugs as a legal adult is not remotely the same as an underaged girl being sexually assaulted? A feminism that sides with a man who abused his training (the training she thinks merits clemency) and position of power to serially assault young women isn’t much of a feminism at all.

Again, she has a platform to respond to the very reasonable responses that ranged from horror to abject horror. But she didn’t apologize. She doubled down and changed the terms of the debate. Sure, we need sentencing reform. Of all the cases out there, is a serial sexual predator really the time to have that discussion?

So then we get to the Pompeii of it all. The discovery of a new graffito from Pompeii had the classics internet excited, and Dr. Kristina Killgrove wrote an excellent piece about the bioarcheology implications of a new date for the eruption. Mary Beard suggested this was overblown and the date didn’t particularly matter. Large numbers of professional classicists pointed out the reasons why it did matter, and Dr. Killgrove (a wonderful but also junior scholar) ended up dealing with a lot of criticism from Mary and her people. Criticism that she shouldn’t have had to face, from a scholar who shouldn’t have been behaving that way. Yet again, she used her blog to speak louder and broader than anyone of her interlocuters can. In a nice touch, she cites another male scholar in her piece — he cited Dr. Killgrove in his piece — about why this might be important. She omitted and dismissed a junior female colleague after getting into long and drawn out argument with her in a very public forum.

These are patterns of behavior. And I’m quite certain some of her responses are ingrained habits from years of sexist attacks. When 90% of the criticisms leveled at you are raw sexism, it must be easy to think all criticism is sexism. And to think that because you’re oppressed on one axis, you couldn’t possibly be an oppressor on another. It is, after all, a favorite refrain of hers that she doesn’t feel like she’s made it. Doesn’t feel like she wields power and influence. She’s just a tenuous, junior scholar who was never going to make it, who also happens to be one of the most prominent public faces of classics:

Maybe she really does feel like an “imposter,” or maybe she has Stockholm Syndrome and can only sympathize with powerful white men, or maybe she is simply selling out to these powers because she believes that is the only way to survive. Being a woman in a patriarchal field in a patriarchal world. The problem is that she is not even remotely fighting for survival — she is wealthy and powerful and more successful that almost any academic could dream of being, and her defense of her actions along these lines are embarrassing for someone of her station, and similarly embarrassing for the Society of Classical Studies made up, as it is, of serious scholars.

Until Dr. Beard can acknowledge her own blind spots and privilege and commit to do better, she’s not the face of my feminist classics. The feminism of the future is intersectional, and the feminism of Mary Beard is for white women.

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