'More women look like me than Joanna Lumley'

AA Gill branded her 'too ugly for television', prompting a heated national debate about sexism. Now, Mary Beard speaks frankly to The Lady about misogyny, mellowing with age - and why she still might dye her hair yet...
Dare I say it, but Mary Beard is a lot prettier than the media would have you believe. As we sit down to chat in the offices of The Times Literary Supplement, her face frequently breaks into a girlish smile and her grey hair falls luxuriantly around her shoulders. The most marked thing, however, is that she is so at ease with herself. It may seem trite to comment on Beard’s image, but one can’t deny that it is a hot topic. Ever since her appearance on BBC’s Pompeii: Life And Death In A Roman Town in 2010, she has been castigated by commentators for not subscribing to the level of grooming expected of a woman on television. She does not dye her hair, she does not follow fashion, and she does not wear make-up.

AA Gill famously branded her ‘too ugly for television’, a comment to which Mary reacted with amusement. ‘It was extraordinary,’ she smiles. ‘Although it is perhaps a symptom of wider-spread sexism. My mum was a strong feminist of a particular generation; she died around 15 years ago but would have predicted that this fixation on a woman’s appearance wouldn’t be the case now.’

A professor and lecturer of Classics at Cambridge University, Beard speaks in the relaxed and measured way of a person used to intelligent conversation. She fixes her stare in the middle distance as she talks, bringing her eyes back round to you and smiling as she makes her point. She is wonderfully engaging. For someone with such an impressive mind, it seems ridiculous that when people don’t agree with something she says, the immediate reaction is to comment on her femininity.

‘It sounds terrible, but basically there has been a vast social change within a very short space of time and quite a lot of men still haven’t got used to it. You notice it in all kinds of different ways. If you say of a woman “She’s ambitious”, it’s slightly negative. If you say it of a man it’s wholly positive. You just hope we’re bringing up the next generation differently.’

Although her passion remains firmly with her day job researching and teaching, Beard’s public prominence has steadily increased over the past few years and she is often called upon as a commentator. Did she ever have any ambition to be a public figure?

‘Not really,’ she muses, ‘although my parents were reasonably low-level but politically interested. My mum was a local councillor for a time so there was a strong sense that one had a responsibility to be politically engaged at some level. For an academic, the important thing is not to get drawn too much into always being nice. You’ve got an obligation because you’re not dependent on the electorate, to say it as you see it.’

Beard did just this during a recent appearance on Question Time, when she implied that the migration in the Lincolnshire town of Boston was a positive influence. It was an issue of huge contention, and she was subjected to a tirade of angry responses by email and on Twitter. Beard is fond of debate and is an avid tweeter herself, but even she was surprised by the strength of the reaction. ‘Getting a load of tweets saying “You filthy little s***”, that’s not what you want to wake up to in the morning. Social media and the internet broadens the conversation but we haven’t quite worked out how to make the best of it yet.’

Even in the face of this Twitter trolling (bullying by those who hide behind online anonymity to make vicious comments) Beard is level-headed. ‘We don’t quite know the etiquette of Twitter yet, we’re only just getting the etiquette of emails. My hunch, and it may be an optimistic one, is that in 10 years or so there’s a decent chance we’ll get much more of a shared sense of the ground rules.’

Not only was she subjected to a slew of vindictive direct messages, but another website displayed an obscene graphic, also designed as a blight on Beard’s femininity. The website has since shut down, but Beard did not shy away from addressing the image head on, even posting it for a time on her own blog. ‘I don’t think I would have felt happy with myself if I’d just shut up,’ she explains.

She believes that such behaviour is a symptom of a larger problem. ‘The issue is not getting the rules of internet sorted out, that’s just an epiphenomenon. There are people out there who feel that they’ve got no voice at all, they are probably sort of desperate, fed up and acting out. If you want to talk about migration, let’s talk about migration. But my genitalia are completely irrelevant.’

Her frankness is admirable. She seems so strong in the face of abuse, does she ever have a moment of weakness? ‘Oh yes. I get really cross. The thing is, it’s a hell of a lot easier to deal with when you’re my age. If that stuff had come at me 30 years ago I would have been much less level-headed.’

The other side of it is that she has had heart-warming support from unexpected corners. ‘I’ve got so many letters from mothers of daughters saying it feels great to have somebody suggesting you can get on in life without looking like a model. AA Gill’s comments were very different to internet trolling – what he said was silly sexism rather than violent misogyny – but a lot of women really hated it.

‘Let’s be honest, more people on the planet look like Beard than look like Joanna Lumley. I think there’s a sense that when people hit out at me, they’re also hitting out at a lot of other women.’

She believes that even if she were to take up preening, it would make ‘very little difference. Look at Louise Mensch, she is traditionally gorgeous and yet she still got foul stuff. The insults might be framed another way, but the sexism is the same.’

Despite this unpleasantness, Beard maintains she is honoured to have a public voice. ‘There are lots of people, probably with clever, smarter things to say, who don’t get a chance to say them. It is a privilege.’

Beard is keen to impress that the most crucial thing is self-acceptance. ‘If there’s one thing that is most important to do – at least for women – it is to learn to feel comfortable with the body you inhabit. Learn to feel that it is not an enemy, or an awful hostage to fortune.’ She recently won The Oldie Pin-Up Of The Year award, delighting in the title with typical good humour.

Besides, she reveals she may be reaching for the hair dye yet. ‘I’ve no wish for a makeover, but I have a desire to have vibrantly coloured streaks through my hair, perhaps pink or green. Before I’m 70 I’ll have some streaks, not because I feel I have to, but because it’s fun.'

Professor Mary Beard’s new book, Confronting The Classics (Profile Books, £25) is published on 14 March.