Belfast Telegraph

Inverdale was saying the right thing in the wrong way

Editor's Viewpoint

It is a reliable fact of 21st-century life that when there is general outrage about something a public figure has said, a bigger source of insecurity is being uncomfortably exposed.

As feathers fly, you can occasionally glimpse the demon of hypocrisy in the thick of it all.

BBC presenter John Inverdale commented on the looks of Marion Bartoli, the women's singles champion at Wimbledon, asking: "Do you think Bartoli's dad told her when she was little, 'You're never going to be a looker, you'll never be (Maria) Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight'?"

It was clumsy, it was ungallant and it managed the unusual feat of potentially annoying three people – not least Sharapova. Quite rightly, Inverdale wrote to Bartoli and the BBC issued a low-key apology for his insensitivity.

It is the reaction to that insensitivity which is more interesting. Scenting blood, the easily outraged took to Twitter, calling for the broadcaster to be sacked.

Feeling offended, of course, is one of life's great pleasures. It makes everyone feel culturally engaged and morally superior.

In the hue and cry that followed Inverdale's remark, it seemed to occur to no one that, had he chosen his words rather more carefully, he was making a sensible point about our looks-obsessed age.

Put another way, he was asking whether Monsieur Bartoli might once have told the young Marion that the modern world places an absurd value on a person's face and figure, particularly if they happen to be in the public eye. None of that matters if a person has talent and determination.

Why is that advice not given more often? When, for example, we see newspapers featuring pictures of comely faces and slim bodies, at Wimbledon in the sun, or receiving A-level results.

Or when a stand-up comic makes jokes about the face of an acceptably mockable public figure.

Children certainly need to be reminded that your physical appearance matters less than who you are and what you do.

That is now, as I once discovered, an unfashionable message. Having taken part in an event at a children's reading festival, I was talking to a bright, cheerful 11-year-old who told me that, when she grew up, she wanted to be a writer, or a lawyer. The problem, she said, was her parents: they were nagging her to be a model.

What the row over Inverdale's remarks has revealed is that there is, indeed, a connection between the obsession with attractiveness and nastier kind of male sexism.

When newspapers objectify tennis players, taking a wet-lipped interest in their lissom figures, they play the same unpleasant game as those making oafish comments.

Any sensible father will tell his daughter (or son) that, beside real success and character, looks are nothing more than a sideshow.

That was what Inverdale was presumably trying to say and the admirable Bartoli agreed. "It doesn't matter, honestly," she said. "I am not a blonde, yes. That is a fact." Which, translated, means: get over it.

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