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A good friend of mine once gave me some very sage advice – never read the bottom half of the Internet. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading online comments on Daily Mail articles, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Last week, author Hilary Mantel won yet another literary award for Bring Up The Bodies, the sequel to the equally well-regarded Wolf Hall, and I clicked through onto a story on The Independent website to read all about it. And then I did it – I read the bottom half of the Internet. And I really, really wish I hadn’t.
Hilary Mantel’s last two novels won The Man Booker prize, and that’s a pretty big deal. It’s one of those awards where when people say that it’s an honour to even be nominated, they genuinely mean it. Win the Booker, and you know you’ve made it. Win the Booker twice, and people should basically start building shrines and throwing flowers for you to crush underfoot as you walk. Mantel is also the first woman to ever win the Booker twice. She’s been writing novels since 1985, and she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves.
However, some people are apparently less concerned with how good an author she is, but feel somehow entitled to remark on her size and/or appearance. Here are some of the choicest comments from a few different online stories:
“Congratulations but Ms Mantel appears to be clinically obese. I hope she will spend some of her award on some serious diet and exercise or she may not make it to the end of the trilogy.”
“What an unfortunate looking woman.”
“Poor woman she needs a complete makeover. Sorry.”
It would be misleading of me to suggest that every online commentator felt the need to insult Mantel’s physical form – lots of people stuck to debating her writing prowess – but it shouldn’t be happening in the first place. And what the actual fuck makes these people think that this is acceptable? What she looks like, what size she is – none of it has any bearing at all on her ability to write novels. And I have the sneaking suspicion that this is only happening at all because Hilary Mantel is a woman. It’s not like this is an isolated case either; click on any story on the Daily Mail website’s “Sidebar of Shame” that’s about a woman, and somewhere you will find a comment which completely ignores whatever she’s in the news for and either slavers over her appearance or calls her ugly/fat/old/all of the above.
When Classics professor Mary Beard appeared on an episode of Question Time last month, the darker corners of the Internet exploded with hatred for her, and surprisingly little of it was directed at what she was saying. A violent strain of sexually aggressive misogynistic ranting was pointed Beard’s way – “a vile, spiteful excuse for a woman, who eats too much cabbage and has cheese straws for teeth” is definitely the mildest example you’ll find out there, but people said a lot worse. I actually stopped watching Question Time about two years ago, as I realised it made me too angry – there’s always some prick on it I disagreed with. But that’s the point– nobody says you can’t strongly disagree with the things these people are saying, but when your response is purely ad hominem, veering towards either casual objectivising sexism or violent misogyny, well you might just be a douchebag.
Hilary Mantel will continue to write amazing books – the final part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light will hopefully follow in the award-winning footsteps of the two previous volumes – regardless of what people think she looks like. Mary Beard has said she would go on Question Time again, saying “you let every other woman down if you don’t.” Sexism and misogyny are omnipresent in today’s media – and maybe one day, we’ll be free of all that bullshit. But, until then – a word of advice. Never read the bottom half of the Internet.