Barry Norman, this is why you’re wrong about sexism

Llandudno, 1983. I’m eight years old and on a family holiday. It’s raining so we’re in the cinema for the afternoon, watching the latest Bond film. We’ve reached that point where Bond happens to find himself in a bedroom with a “feisty” woman who a) doesn’t wear much and b) needs “taming”. And so we watch Bond force himself on her. She struggles, tries to push him off. Eventually she gives in. It would appear that she wanted it really. And I’m eight and I’m thinking is this normal? Is this what goodies do? Is this okay? No one else seems to find it strange – not my parents, not my 11-year-old brother – so I assume it must be normal. After all, he’s James Bond! He’s the good guy! This is what good guys do. I know it’s a fantasy – I’m eight, not an idiot – but I’m uncertain. Is this really a fantasy of how men are meant to be, and women are meant to respond? I can’t make sense of it. If only I’d had Barry Norman, film critic extraordinaire, on hand to explain it all to me.

According to Norman:

For a young man, what was not to like? We all wanted to be James Bond. And somehow, despite – or who knows, possibly because of – his cavalier and occasionally cruel treatment of their sex, women seemed to like him, too.

Well, that clears it up. So eight-year-old me was just not fully attuned to her inner desire to raped / tamed. Glad that’s been explained. But the trouble is, there are other films that have given me this same uneasy feeling. Can the cuddly Radio Times film critic help there? Why yes, of course he can.

Here’s Barry on Pretty Woman:

Richard Gere (every girl’s dream billionaire) is the businessman who picks her up in Hollywood and hires her for a week, partly for sex but mostly as arm candy to be worn at dinners and polo matches… Roberts, of course, has been driven to the streets by harsh circumstances and is really the archetypal tart with a heart while Gere is not nearly so ruthless as he first appears. Suspend disapproval and enjoy because it’s made and played with a great deal of charm

Um… Okay, Barry. Consider my disapproval “suspended”, sort of. But what about Marilyn Monroe’s How To Marry A Millionaire?

It’s all very sexist (Women’s Lib hadn’t been invented then) but it’s amusing enough.

Right. I guess before “Women’s Lib” had been “invented”, these things were okay. Although I’d prefer to let actual women be the judge of that.

Funnily enough, Norman has been called up on these and other comments. Radio Times readers have accused him of being a misogynist. Poor Barry. Poor, poor Barry. And yes, I meant that, at least to begin with. I honestly felt a little sorry for him, albeit in an entirely patronising way, as though he was some bewildered old codger who was only trying to do his best and couldn’t understand why the world had changed. But I was wrong. That’s not our Bazza. He might be getting on a bit but he’s hit back at the critics with gusto. Here’s what he’s had to say for himself, according to the Daily Mail:

God Almighty, what is the matter with these people? I was merely describing in shorthand how these films depict women, not advancing my own views. If people don’t have the intelligence to see that, it is not my fault. I’m not old fashioned.

These are phrases that have been used for years, and are still used now. I think political correctness can be very important, but it does go overboard sometimes. It is possible to be too prickly, possibly a little humourless about things.

I have no idea how God Almighty responded to this particular call for judgment, but personally, this is the point at which any sympathy I had for Norman vanishes into thin air. I’m sorry, Barry. It is not for you – someone who is not affected by a very specific form of discrimination – to tell those of us who are how we’re meant to respond. And as for “describing in shorthand” – give me a break! We’ve had enough of “sexism by quotation” to last all of us a lifetime. The whole of 199s lad culture was devoted to people claiming that they weren’t actually being sexist, but merely referencing historical sexism within pop culture, albeit in a disconcertingly enthusiastic manner. And that’s okay, isn’t it? Well, no. It sodding well isn’t.

Look, Barry, I am not claiming that we cannot watch, read, discuss and enjoy art that is saturated in sexist or otherwise offensive premises. The whole of my literature PhD is based on the works of an author who lived way before “Women’s Lib” had been invented, and it damn well shows in what he wrote. Nevertheless, my thesis has nothing to do with gender studies and it does not involve me constantly commenting on what total sexist knob this great artist was. I don’t think I even mention it once. I wasn’t very interested in that side of things; I was interested in the good bits, the bits that one might call “the universal truths” (although only if one is being horribly trite, but hey, there are worse things to be). Feeling admiration for art that has arisen in an (arguably) less enlightened cultural context doesn’t mean getting a free pass to wallow in the prejudices that infiltrate it, on the flimsy basis that hey, these aren’t your prejudices. Because if you’re adopting that moral worldview in your own response, you’re making those prejudices yours, too.

In the cinema, watching James Bond, I knew there was a particular moral vision being played out. It was not “real life”, but there were essential “moral truths” which seemed to sit uncomfortably alongside how I’d always believed men and women should relate to one another. Challenging these “truths” is important – otherwise what message are children and indeed adults to take from it all? It is not the case that people are stupid and confuse fantasy with reality; the real danger is absorbing the moral norms or, even if you haven’t, feeling afraid because you think everyone else has.

These days I find myself watching a number of TV programmes – Dr Who, CSI, Mock The Week – with this internal monologue still running: Is that sexist? Yes, but not that sexist, no need to make a fuss. No need to make a fuss about that one, either. Actually, that bit’s going too far but what the hell, I’ve watched it up till now without comment … And so it goes. And I don’t believe I’m the only woman or girl who does this. Nor do I believe that this doesn’t get carried over into real life, for me or for anyone else. The next sexist comment, the next grope, and you’re thinking is this normal? Well, it probably is. I won’t say a word. This justifying, normalising monologue can shape a person’s experience of the world, and the limits of what they are willing to do to others and what they are willing to endure themselves.

So, Barry Norman, it really isn’t for you to invite others to “suspend disapproval” or to continue to use “phrases that have been used for years”, even when they degrade others and cause hurt. If you’re such a great critic, have a little self-criticism, and a little distance from the the views which you claim not to be your own.


7 thoughts on “Barry Norman, this is why you’re wrong about sexism

  1. It is confusing to grow up with Bond being so accepted that he is shown at Christmas. I’ve always thought, “what an unpleasant man” but I was in my late twenties before I admitted it to anyone, and even then I was afraid they’d think me odd.

  2. The thing about James Bond is that he is a naughty good guy. A child doesn’t really pick up on it, and a couple of the actors are so charismatic you might miss it, but the point is he breaks the rules all the time. This extends to his treatment of women too, it’s just a shame that it is normalised by the reaction of other characters in the films.

  3. Did you see what the RT subs used as a header for Jackie Grant’s letter about Barry Norman’s sexism? They went with “Not a Norman conquest”. Hoho, let’s set a faintly suggestive pun against this female correspondent’s po-faced criticism of our Barry!

    I thought it was fairly piss-poor, and I took a photo and tweeted it but nobody responded, which is fair enough of course, but then I thought “oh maybe I’m being oversensitive.” #nooooo

  4. I’ve never seen a James Bond movie, ever. Reading this makes me realize: hell, I never want to see a James Bond movie. Ever, ever, ever. 😛

  5. The thing about James Bond is……’s a fucking film.

    The Italian Job hasn’t resulted in people nicking piles of gold and driving too fast in minis

    Is it only you that’s intelligent and middle class enough to see the difference between celluloid representations and how we should behave? Or is censorship your next move?

    Mock the week? you must hate Frankie Boyle…

    1. The thing about James Bond is……’s a fucking film.

      Hence the comments about fiction and fantasty, which you clearly didn’t read (or understand?).

      Is it only you that’s intelligent and middle class enough to see the difference between celluloid representations and how we should behave? Or is censorship your next move?

      It’s always strange to get accused of censorship for simply exercising one’s right to express an opinion about films and critics. Are you suggesting I shouldn’t question Barry Norman’s moral position? What has that got to do with censorship (other than censorship of me)? I’d rather people didn’t make shit films which promote shit moral messages about male and female relationships. I’m not the only person. But this has nothing to do with censoring others (beyond suggesting people end the self censorship that prevents people from commenting on this – a self-censorship you’d clearly like to stay in place).

      1. It’s never *just* a film anyway. Films often serve as propaganda for cultural hegemonies. When James Bond’s sexual violence is depicted as acceptable or even desirable, the films (perhaps unwittingly) offer us a dark window into our own culture.

        I’ll go back to reading my Gramsci now.

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