Lucy Mangan

“What University Challenge teaches us about how women experience the world”

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Lucy Mangan
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While male University Challenge contestants are celebrated, women are picked apart. But we shouldn’t let fear of criticism stop us pursuing our goals, says Lucy Mangan. 

A friend of mine was on University Challenge pre-internet era. She still remembers the comments she got, including two marriage proposals – “one of which also pointed out he would have got more questions right.”

Some things never change. Others do, in form at least, if not content. The comments my friend received came by letter, via the BBC or her university and were manageable in both number and – just about – tone. Now, when a female contestant appears on the show, both can be overwhelming. All can expect to have their looks scrutinised, bangability scored and behaviour analysed (was she flirting with Jeremy Paxman for extra points?). Degrading at best, criminally abusive at worst – and all over social media, on news sites and in tabloids for weeks thereafter.

Male contestants, meanwhile, are celebrated for being themselves (witness last year’s #Monkmania, centred around rather eccentric contestant Eric Monkman, for instance). And that is how it should be.

In a recent interview, the captain of 2015-16’s champions Dr Hannah Rose Woods, and last year’s winning team member, Rose McKeown, both cited the type of attention afterwards as one of the biggest reasons for the show’s lack of female team members (between 70 and 90% of applicants are male).

It got me thinking about how often we recuse ourselves from events or don’t do things because we feel that, aesthetically, we’re not up to it. I do it – shamefully, humiliatingly, I-would-kick-my-own- arse-if-I-couldly – often. I have lost count of the number of (paid!) gigs I have turned down because I can’t bear how I will look on the recording or the pictures, or because I know I will just feel too awful about being seen in the light of day by large numbers of people.

“Whenever I have to get dressed up, I stand in front of two appalling visions – the clothes in my wardrobe and me in the mirror”

When I do make it up and out, I have a constant drone in the back of my mind telling me that I should apologise to everyone I meet for not looking better. Better groomed, better looking, better dressed, better-thinner – it depends what demon is on duty that day.

Whenever I have to get dressed up, I stand in front of two appalling visions – the clothes in my wardrobe (which I can’t renew because I can think of so many people who would look better in whatever I want to buy) and me in the mirror in my bra and pants, being reminded of the old joke about the man asking directions from an old guy on a bench: “Well,” says the old man with a sigh, “I wouldn’t start from here.”

I would like to think I am alone in this sort of self-doubt that sheers into self-loathing with the slightest encouragement (from stress, hormones, the knowledge that there will be a devastating ex at the event to which you have foolishly agreed to go), but I suspect I’m not. It is the logical – unless you are a much stronger woman than I am – result of living within a system that tells us our worth is tied up in the image we present to the world.

Very few of us will ever sit in front of a University Challenge application form and have to consciously weigh up the pros and cons of a public appearance. But we face multiple minor versions of that decision every day. The challenge is to make the right one.

Fingers on buzzers please, your starter for 10: should you listen to your toxic internal voices and stay in? Or club them to death and head out? No conferring. You already know the answer.

Images: BBC Two / Getty Images