Lucy Mangan

Women take to self-deprecation a bit too well

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The most intriguing thing about the Samantha Brick furore that blew up a few weeks ago was how very, very, very strange it was to have a woman speaking in public about herself in anything other than thoroughly self-deprecating terms. (In case you were living under a rock – that was on an island – that was under a hermetically sealed dome à la that Stephen King novel – Brick wrote an article bemoaning the fact that women hated her for being so beautiful and caused a bile-filled outrage.) Obviously she took it, in various complicated ways, Too Far but it still brought home to me how unused we are to hearing any kind of self-confident female voice.

It was brought home further when I watched the recent documentary Elizabeth Taylor: Auction Of A Lifetime, which told the story of the star’s life via a choice selection of the truly uh-maay-zing collection of jewellery she amassed during her already gilded lifetime. In the archive clips, there she was – gorgeous and groomed as any modern celebrity but dispensing salty wit to various interviewers and photographers and setting firm boundaries between them and her, between what they could and couldn’t ask or do as she continued on her regal way.

Her every action and utterance bespoke a genuine confidence that only Madonna comes close to mastering – and hers is an aggressively defensive variation on it, which gives it the air of a superstar pose rather than the organic entity it seems to be with Taylor. The standard bearer of the modern approach is Kate Winslet, she of the ‘sprouting purple broccoli bottom’ – a description so oddly specific that it had the ring of (at least self-perceived) truth and real insecurity shared about it.

A recent survey found that just one in eight women said they had enough confidence to call themselves attractive. Frankly, going by the interviews I read with celebrities and with ‘normal’ people as well as the conversations I have – yes, still, even though we’re mostly into our 30s – with female friends and family about which bits of ourselves we hate the most, I’m surprised it’s that high.

Self-confidence is good in non-pathological doses only

At both public and private levels, women seem to be becoming less able to admit to or ‘own’ their achievements. And is it any wonder when, whenever they do, they are jumped on – by the press and punters if they have done so publicly, by a much smaller but no less effective circle if privately – for their effrontery. Historian Lucy Worsley was recently monstered for attributing the fact that she does not have children to the fact that she had been ‘educated out of [her] reproductive function’. And – at the other end of many scales – over the years, while some of the animus directed at Katie Price is because she appears to embody vacuous celebrity worship that drains the intellectual life and feminist gains out of (in particular) the younger generation, in much of the rest you can detect the simple anger of the speaker or writer towards a woman whose every move, as far as I can see, speaks only of confidence and a precise knowledge of her worth.

I understand, of course, that part of it at least is simply the British cultural tradition that believes there is nothing more unseemly than boasting.

Understatement is our preferred mode of – well, everything, and in everyone, regardless of gender. But women seem to take to it more naturally, more consistently so that even real, proper, admirable achievements – the things for which you should be rewarded (with whatever is most appropriate, be it respect, applause, promotion, power, moral standing or ideally cash) – become lost in a welter of disclaimers and genteel self-deprecations that let them disappear into the ether.

And, as I say, its absolute ubiquity seems to be a particularly modern curse. When I see Taylor – or read, as I am doing at the moment for another project, biographies and autobiographies of stars and writers from a bygone era like Tallulah Bankhead or Anita Loos – I hear a note of innate self-confidence, ringing steady and true beneath whatever anecdote, good time, bad time, event or non-event is being described that I almost never hear elsewhere (unless a Brick is crashing through a window, which is a rather discordant extreme). But in non-pathological doses it’s a great sound. We should all try and make it more.

Pictures: Rex Features

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