Monday, November 1, 2010

Dispensable Musings

The story of Mr Stephen Fry, who said some silly things and was upset.

It is a shame. You will be unsurprised to know that I am an enormous admirer of Stephen Fry. His writing, his acting, his comedy, his QI-hosting, his documentaries, and even his Twitter feed. I yield to no one in my admiration for the man. And it is very easy in such circumstances to forgive your role model the sins you condemn in others. And it's almost as easy to overcompensate and savage your role model for sins you would shrug off in others. So it's important to note, just at the start, that I am hopelessly morally compromised and my opinions on this matter, as in all others, are worthless. However, here goes.

The fact is that, on face value, these comments are fairly stupid. They are fairly ridiculous generalisations that are untrue and no doubt offend a lot of women, and gay men. And to say, "oh but there's a grain of truth there" is of course what is said about all ridiculous generalisations; maybe there IS a grain of truth, but a good rule of thumb is, if there's a grain of truth you wish to express, then express a grain of truth, not a wheatfield of wild exaggeration.

But Fry says he was misquoted, having given a "humorous interview". OK. I am willing to hear him out here. Maybe with others I wouldn't be so forgiving, and maybe that's the bias referred to above. But Fry has, I think, earned a certain level of esteem from me, so I'm willing to listen to any explanation and accept it if it's, well, acceptable. Some will not grant him the same indulgence - such as Germaine Greer, who replied to his stupid generalisations with some of her own; but that's Germaine for you, lovably ballistic as always. I don't blame them at all, for we each must make up our own minds as to what we accept and what we rail against. But I'll hear him out. Hell, I'll hear anyone out, really. It's only fair.

Because after all, I think I'm right in saying that Stephen Fry has not, in the past, established himself as an inveterate misogynist. Of course, he has established himself as a comedian, so if it was humour, it wouldn't be out of character. Even if you might not think it was very funny.

(as an aside, here is a video from some time ago, in which he speaks along the same themes, and does seem to be having a bit of fun more than anything; the old "differences between men and women" schtick, with a bit of "aren't men ridiculous creatures" thrown in. So if the interview he gave was a reprise of that routine...he would seem to have a case for grievance here. In my own, as we have established, worthless opinion.

But maybe it wasn't really a joke. If not, it did come across as the musing of a man who is somewhat baffled by matters sexual, which is pretty much the way Stephen Fry has come across for many years now. So maybe he needs some education.

And maybe, humorous or not, he was, as he says, seriously misquoted. But if so, I would like to know what he really said. I hope I get to find out. Unfortunately, everyone who says something idiotic always cries "misquote" or "out of context", so one craves something more if one is to have one's fears assuaged. This is terribly unfair for the genuinely misquoted, of course - to have done nothing wrong, and then have people demand you justify yourself for a non-existent act or sommen, is extremely frustrating. But still, these are disturbing comments, and it would benefit us all, including Mr Fry, to know his response in full.

So I hope he doesn't stay quiet. I hope he comes out and engages. I hope this even if he just puts this affair behind him and never mentions it again. Because even idiotic comments, while they may tarnish someone's sheen, don't destroy it. Stephen Fry, even with a blemish or two, will remain Stephen Fry. Much worse has been said by people who carried on blithely and without a care in the world. Basically, one stupid opinion does not a monster make. Even Spida Everitt has his good points. Even Kyle Sandilands...well, no, not really.

I think Fry is fragile and easily wounded, and retreats quickly in the face of attack. And to be fair, when you have 2 million Twitter followers, it must be somewhat overwhelming when the world comes down on you.

But I hope he comes back. And I hope, if he is able to set the record straight. And if the record we have is already straight, I hope he does learn the error of his ways.

And those are my thoughts, presented for your disposal.


Kitty said...

I had a thought. You're shocked, I know.

I actually liked him better when I thought he was serious in his opinion about women and sex. He sounded more like a simple idiot who needed education.

Now that he's claiming misquote, then his joke becomes something that is intentional. He is deliberately saying something that perpetuates the stereotype that women have no sexual agency and are simply manipulative.

That, frankly, is kinda shit.

Having said that, I agree that he would have copped more flack as a public figure than you or I would (or just myself, oh famous one), and that, despite him seeming to have the strength and defenses of a virtual bomb shelter in relation to the size of his fame, he is just one man. All that criticism is gonna hurt.

Then again, this is the internet. Who takes the internet seriously?

Ben Pobjie said...

Yes, but if it IS a joke (unsure at this stage) then it's not necessarily perpetuating a stereotype; you can play upon a stereotype for comic effect. A fairly prevalent comedic technique is actually to use stereotypes that are contrary to one's own belief. So a joke may or may not be an attempt to reinforce the stereotype; in any case it's unlikely to be a reflection of his own views.

IF it's a joke. Which it might not be.

And nobody cares about the Internet. I know I don't.

Mephitis said...

I'm afraid I've watched the video you've linked to a couple of times and I'm not seeing the funny. But hey, could be me.

I don't think Fry is a monster of misogyny, but I do think he's unthinking in this regard. Which is very frustrating given just how intelligent he is.

But hey, we can't be aware & knowledgeable in all areas, (especially those we have little interest in), even if we are Stephen Fry. (I'm not sure why there's all this we-ing here!)

If he'd only put his hands up and say he made a whoopsie I'd forgive him in a shot. It's the weasel cry of 'misquote' I'm not keen on.

Anonymous said...

I think Germaine is suffering from the 'must reinforce the stereotype' flu as much as Stephen. Intimacy? Really? And she gets to speak for all of us? Women don't go cottaging because a bar or a pub is easier but women don't go 'cottaging' because we are told we are sluts if we do. Cruising is part of the gay world, accepted, expected and fun. Stephen was probably not 'misquoted' and neither was Germaine. Boring that even the big brains have little imagination and are still made inept by their own personal foibles.

njptower said...

so fry said that women don't like sex because they don't hang out in public toilets aka gay cruising areas and have it off with whomever.

frankly that sounds like women have the right idea. Think of the environment! the smells, the furtive nature, the legal consequences of doing it in a convenience.

Germaine is right!

Richard said...

Aren't people allowed to have opinions any more - whether its a joke or not?

Seems in these days of "Political Correctness" any comment that brushes someone's feathers is not allowed; that "opinion" suddenly becomes "the idol ramblings of the uneducated"?

Society regularly shows its colours as a politically correct arse, primping and preening itself gloriously showing how wonderful it is while spending its time shitting on the real people with real opinions.

Good article btw. ;)

Justin said...

The main character in Stephen Fry's 1994 novel The Hippopotamus rehearsed this same argument. That character is a boorish drunken misogynist, and I don't think Stephen Fry is any of those things. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

It's a great book, by the way. His best, I think. Turned me into an atheist.

Jane said...

So given his previous comments along the same lines it seems unlikely that this is a misquote.

And the "I was only joking" excuse is a big fat fail. Humour that plays on stereotypes is all very well, as long as it is clear what the comedian is attempting - that is, exaggerating a stereotype for comic effect to show how ridiculous these stereotypes truly are.

But when 'jokes' about women's sexuality are indistinguishable from actual stereotypes that many people really believe, and when most people can't even tell whether it's a joke, then it's just plain old misogyny. Lighten up, love. Geez, you women have no sense of humour! blah blah blah.

When the person who is being stereotyped is laughing along with you, then you have achieved success. If not, shut the hell up and listen to why those people are upset. Hopefully that's what Fry is doing right now.

Meaghan said...

I agree with Anon in questioning why Germaine thinks she gets to speak for all of us women. I don't know anyone else who feels (as I do) that Germaine is half right and half wrong about female sexuality in her collective writings, but I do agree with some things she has written and do think she has some insight into the 'female condition' and defend her in conversation based on this.

From what I can piece together from what Fry has maybe said and what he stands behind is that he thinks women don't engage in the sort of behaviours that some gay men do. What Germaine seems to say is that women either don't need or want to because they don't view sex the way Fry says some gay men in the outdoor pick up set do. My thought is that both need to pipe down because it's so naive to think you can speak for even a handful of others about sexuality and sexual behaviour. I think everyone should be able to go out and have sex however they want, so long as there is consent and no children or animals being involved and harmed. And who has a right to judge if what gets you off is blow jobs with another man in a park at night, group sex with your own gender or missionary position with someone you're in a committed relationship with?

The big picture here is that there are a lot of sexually active people in the world and you as an individual can't speak for any them in regards to what is acceptable to like and do and how they think and feel about what they do.

ernmalleyscat said...

I would have thought 'bungalowing' was a better term then 'cottaging'.

PaulRobert said...

There's a difference between stereotyping and making generalisations about a group of people based on characteristics of the majority of that group. To object to such analyses is as nonsensical as claiming a statement such as "most Africans have darker skin than Europeans" is racist. And to object to the use of generalisations in analysis commentary because "everyone is an individual" is puerile and renders impossible the task of understanding our world.

I'm a tad surprised at the quantity and vehemence of attacks on Fry's comments. It reminds me of the similar, ill-informed hysteria around Akermanis' comments on homosexuality in the AFL. Both men's greatest failing seemed to be in the way they phrased what they were saying (and the sensitivity of the subjects) rather than the actual content.

Akermanis' core argument (if you read the actual interview rather than rely on n-th hand outraged commentary), gay men playing football shouldn't come out because the AFL had failed in it's implied responsibility to tackle homophobia in the league. But this was reduced (absurdly in my opinion) by those outraged to "Aker tells poofters they're not welcome!"

Fry's core argument seems to be that:
(1) as a generalisation, women in our culture are less interested in meaningless, recreational, anonymous sex than men; he makes no comment about whether this is intrinsic (biological) or cultural. Interestingly, Greer seems to agree with him (although in a way that is derogatory to gay men that engage in such practices.)
(2) men, as a generalisation, are more likely to be interested in options for meaningless, recreational, anonymous sex than women.
(3) gay men who are interested in such encounters have many more opportunities to do so than straight men because they are not constrained by that gender imbalance.

By the way, the idea that as a gay man Fry has no right to makes observations about women's sexuality or heterosexual relationships is a tad precious and is no more valid than claiming that all those currently screaming for his apology have no right to comment as they're not comedians.

Andrew said...

To offer the uncalled for input of a random stranger.....

To say that Fry is a misogynist based on the strength of these comments alone is silly. Not due to defaulting to Fry's past record of giving no indication of misogyny, either, but because these comments are not even necessarily evidence of misogyny. The assumption that they should be so interpreted says more about societal attitudes to sex (or perhaps those of the speaker alone) than they do about anything else, I would submit.

Supposing instead he had said the following: "Women clearly prefer alcohol to men. If men liked it as much as women, we'd see a lot more crazy obsessive male binge-drinking, wouldn't we? Men only really drink because they feel they need to to advance themselves socially".

Would anyone be mad? I mean, the first thing that would jar would be the probable falseness of one of the claims (one would assume men DO binge-drink more than women ... I mean, I didn't look this up, but....).

But past that really the worst the speaker can be is wrong, surely. Not evil. They are neither stating anything overtly unjustifiably derogatory about either sex, nor are they proscribing that we discriminate against either based upon perceived statistical differences. What we'd probably do if someone said that would be to have a bit of a titter say "whatever, you've got some mixed up ideas, there" and move on. Or we should, at least.

So why not have the same attitude towards sexual tendencies? Is it not wrong to shame as a 'slut' a woman who is relatively promiscuous because:
A) it is none of your damn business how much sex someone chooses to have and B) how much consenting sex you engage in, all other things being equal, is not a moral issue at all anyway?

Because, if so, why should it be morally bad if women tended to like sex less than men? Why should it be morally bad if they tended to be more interested in long-term relationships than men are? So long as we don't enact laws or proscribe prejudicial behaviors against individuals based along gender lines regarding sexual activities.... who cares?

Stephen Fry is what can only be described as an apparently fairly celibate gay man. Does he have some quaint, simplistic ideas about women and sex? It would seem so. Big deal. Storm in teacup.

P.S. Agree for the most part with the previous comment (Paul Robert).

Meaghan said...

I'd have to say to PaulRobert that it's a brave person who honestly attempts to generalise the sexual behaviours of any group of people.

You may think it is peurile to suggest that "everyone is an individual" is a good reason to avoid making generalisations where sex is concerned, but can you think of any one out there who could actually make some sort of educated statement about the habits of, say, hetero women or gay men? Sure, there are polls and studies every now and then, but I have to say that no one in their right mind would announce that they know what is going on in the beds and minds of the women they know, let alone the women of our civilization. I'm no anthropologist or sexologist, but from what I know, I believe the last thorough investigation into sexual behaviour in our culture was Kinsey and we've moved on significantly since then.

I don't suggest that people should not try to understand the world we live in- in fact, I believe the opposite. I think accepting that we can't possibly know another person's sexuality intimately enough to talk about it, let alone to the media, is a good starting point for closing our mouths so that we can listen and learn.

My understanding of sexuality is of an entirely individual set of behaviours, thoughts and feelings. I couldn't say what your understanding is, or Ben's or another commentor's, because I respect the fact that I won't fully understand and it is not my place to talk about. Would you presume to speak about a stranger's feelings about Dickens? Or what place 2 Minute Noodles has in their life? Sex means different things to different people and I'm happy to leave it at that.

I merely advocate that we should reserve our opinions and be forthcoming with acceptance. I don't feel like generalising sex achieves anything and in fact, it probably does more harm than good, as Fry has shown.

PaulRobert said...

"Sex means different things to different people and I'm happy to leave it at that."
Fine. Then leave it at that and stop participating in the discussion.

"I merely advocate that we should reserve our opinions and be forthcoming with acceptance."
Having a discussion about human sexuality and practising acceptance are not conditional on each other. I will choose to do both. I must say, you seem to be confusing an analysis of the general with the treatment of individuals.

"I don't feel like generalising sex achieves anything and in fact, it probably does more harm than good"
Well, we'll agree to disagree. It's not possible to have any discussion of social mores without some degree of generalisation.

I'm so bored with everyones' outrage.

Jane said...


Fry's comments (as reported) are misogynistic. It is derogatory to say that "the only reason" women have sex is as "payment" to get into a relationship. It plays into a whole history of women being characterised as manipulative schemers who use sex to get what they want. And it plays into the idea that you just can't trust what women say. Sure, they may say they enjoy sex, but they don't really mean it. Sure, they may say no, but they're just playing hard to get...

This is not about whether it would be morally bad if women liked sex less. The issue is that these comments cannot be divorced from their historical and social context. And males defining women as less interested in sex has been inextricably bound up with virgin/whore classifications, slut shaming, and so on. This is not something we have moved on from so far that we can just blow it off as "a storm in a teacup". Women still deal with this bullshit thinking all the time.

It's all very well to philosophise about the ideally rational way to think and respond, but in the actual, real world, women have to listen to all sorts of infuriating generalisations from men about what women are like, and it all feeds into a culture of misogyny. It's pretty insulting to expect women in these instances to neutrally shake their heads at some mistaken generalising. Context matters. Emotions are important. And shrugging it off as unimportant just perpetuates the problem.

Andrew, your tone is patronising and dismissive. And you presume to tell women how they "should" react to comments such as Fry's. Guess what? Women don't need you lecturing them on what to think or feel. We don't need your superior knowledge and rhetorical skills to convince us silly women that we are making a big deal about nothing.

Oh, and I'm a big fan of Fry's work but as for his past record, the ratio of women to men on QI averages about 1:10. He has one woman on the panel for every two shows, regular as clockwork. Many men wouldn't even notice the disparity or think it's a problem. Same old same old.

Ben Pobjie said...

Well, actually 1 woman every 2 shows would be 1:6, since there are 3 guests each show and Fry and Davies are permanent fixtures, but point taken.

However, not sure you're justified in assuming that the ratio of women on QI is Fry's responsibility. He's the host, not the show-runner.

PaulRobert said...

Are you serious Jane?

"Sure, they may say no, but they're just playing hard to get" At what point in Fry's article (the original, not "as reported") does he advocate rape?

And is "the ratio of women to men on QI averages about 1:10" meant to be evidence of Fry's alleged misogyny? Really?

"Women don't need you lecturing them on what to think or feel." And yet, ironically, you feel the need to lecture Andrew on how his unfeeling thought needs correction. Plus, with more irony, you make generalisations about women, including "hav[ing] to listen to all sorts of infuriating generalisations".

Ok, I'm so bored with the outrage, I'm bowing out of this "discussion".

Mephitis said...

Jane clearly said that Fry's comments "play into" a larger picture of misogynistic attitudes, not that he was advocating rape.

David Barry said...

the ratio of women to men on QI averages about 1:10. He has one woman on the panel for every two shows, regular as clockwork. Many men wouldn't even notice the disparity or think it's a problem.
Fry specifically addressed this in one episode (I can't remember which season, but I think it was a 'battle of the sexes' show; there were two women on the panel that night).

The answer was that the public tends to laugh more at male comedians, for whatever reason, so to keep the viewers happy, they mostly have men on the show.

Tish said...

One thing that I have always genuinely admired about Stephen Fry is his complete lack of malice. His jokes are always at his own expense and no one else's and quite frankly it's hard to believe he would say something so trite more than anything. In the grand scheme of things I can't quite bring myself to be offended by Stephen Fry when Kyle Sandilands still has a radio show.

TimT said...

Hey, interesting thoughts Ben, but yes but no but yes but....

I used to loooooooooooooove these opinionated arguments/discussions you get on the web, like this one, that would start, 'here is an offensive comment by a celebrity!' and then someone else would chime in and go, 'no it isn't! here's why!', and someone else would jump up and down and say, 'YES, you douchebag, it is, and I will prove it!' And so on.

Nowadays I can't be bothered participating in them, so much. They're still fascinating - but fascinatingly endless, not endlessly fascinating.

Media loves nothing more than a very famous person making a very offensive statement. And people love nothing more, apparently, than catching those very famous people out - or defending them - and (inevitably) playing along with the controversy.

Does it say anything much, in the end, about said moral worth of very famous person? Do we end up being nicer/learning more about how to treat one another with more respect/etc from these controversies? I think not.

So in regards to these comments by Steven Fry, there will be some people who think he's been misquoted and some people who think he's been caught out. There will be some people who think he's sexist and some people who think he's just wonderful. Maybe it's just best to sit this one out.

What I mean to say is, hey, at the end of the day, when all's said and done, when you get right down to it, something or other!

Joel Monaghan's Puppy said...


Anonymous said...

Stephen Fry has blogged a pretty convincing explanation I wouldn't be a celebrity like him for anything!