The Lead Casket

“Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” The chances are that you, like me, will have recently and repeatedly been confronted by the Daily Mail front page showing British prime minister Teresa May and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon beside this offensive slogan. Perhaps it is not surprising that this misogynist twaddle should appear at the very moment when enormous decisions that will shape our future are being made. Not surprising, but most definitely symptomatic. Ed Miliband tweeted “The 1950s called and asked for their headline back. #everydaysexism” but this kind of misogyny is not the stuff of the past, as Miliband’s hashtag concedes. The only change is that the hate-filled Brexit campaign, like its political siblings across the world, has peeled back the fragile mask that has disguised our society for so long, and opened the floodgates to all kinds of prejudice and ignorance. Xenophobia, religious intolerance, and, as we see demonstrated here, misogyny have all been given the green light. The fact that these two political leaders are women is used to dismiss the important issues at hand. Their appearance is the first thing that registers. Everything else is forgotten.

Miliband is right, this sort of #everydaysexism happens every day, but usually it’s so small it’s hard to make anyone notice. You’re not imagining it. It’s not a chip on your shoulder. When you realise this it’s awful, but also, it’s a bit of a relief isn’t it? If you’ve ever had the feeling that you are ignored, patronised, or that your intellectual contributions are dismissed because you are a woman, then the story of Martin and Nicole  that went viral this March will have held no big surprises for you. In brief, after an initial mix up of email signatures, colleagues Martin and Nicole decided to switch names for a week when signing off their emails. Martin found that, though he was giving exactly the same advice to clients, because this advice was coming from a Nicole, he was dismissed, demeaned, and had to fight to get anything done. Nicole had a great week and was immensely productive when her email sign off became masculine. Good news team: what women have known all along has finally been proven in the eyes of the internet because a man has experienced it! I don’t mean to be churlish, I think Martin did a great job not only sticking up for his colleague Nicole, but for all women experiencing the same frustrations at work by tweeting their findings. It is, however, exasperating, that a male voice is required to authorise female experience. Interestingly, Martin’s tweets have gone viral, Nicole’s account of her experience has not popped into my facebook newsfeed.

While my name isn’t as always seen as overtly feminine (I often get emails and letters addressed to Mr Thomasin Bailey) in person I conform to a traditional model of femininity. I am petite, people feel they can comment freely on the size of my small hands and feet, my voice is high and I am generally quite softly spoken. I am aware that I have to work harder to make people take me seriously. This isn’t a mere suspicion or anxiety on my part. It’s not just that older academics call me “sweetheart” at conferences, or that I get “that feeling”: people often just tell me. I recently had written feedback on a job interview that ran along the lines of, when we met you, we didn’t think you would be able to project enough authority to complete the teaching task well, but in fact you did. It’s no surprise to me when I do a job well, or when I know what I’m talking about, but others constantly share their surprise with me. When I have proven myself, employers, colleagues, and new acquaintances will often spill the beans on their former prejudices, as if forced into an excess of truthfulness by their immense relief. A colleague and I were reminiscing about when we first met. I had thought that our first meeting had gone well and that I had come across alright, if a little too serious. I was wrong. “When you first came into my office, I was so worried. I thought, oh my God! I’ve got to work with Minnie Mouse! But luckily when you started producing work, it turned out you knew what you were talking about.” I laughed. I didn’t question this colleague in depth about why they assumed that someone small with quite googly eyes and a high voice would be unintelligent. The answer is obvious: in our cultural lexicon my type of femininity does not read as intelligent.

To my mind, The Merchant of Venice is a play about a woman who is judged by her appearance and has to fight incredibly hard to be taken into account. Just like Teresa May, Portia has pretty dodgy politics (or shall we say terrible and offensive?) but she is intelligent, able, and determined. Like May, Portia is written off because of her feminine appearance. At the opening of the play Bassanio goes to visit his friend (or sugar daddy, depending on your interpretation of the play) to ask for some money. He has this scheme, see, and he needs a bit of ready cash to carry it off. There are big risks, but also big financial rewards. Sugar Daddy Antonio doesn’t have any money spare because it’s all tied up in trade (lots of different merchant ships), but he promises to use his good name (high credit score) to help Bassanio borrow the money. For those who don’t know the play, this is where the trouble starts. Antonio borrows the money from Shylock (a Jew and therefore excempt from the Christian ban on usury) who demands, as a default penalty, a pound of flesh. Of course Antonio will default - it's a play - but we’ll come to that later. The point is, that Bassanio wants his friend’s help in buying something very valuable that will set him up for life. That something is a woman: Portia.
In Belmont is a lady richly left; 
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word, 
Of wondrous virtues: sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages: 
When Bassanio explains this to Antonio his view of Portia is made clear by the order in which he describes her various appeals. Firstly, she is rich (“richly left” – inherited a lot of money), secondly, she is beautiful, and thirdly, we hear that she is virtuous. Does that sound as if he thinks of Portia as a trophy (wife)? It does to me! This idea is emphasised by numerous comparisons between Portia and the Golden Fleece of Colchis, which was seized by Jason with the help of his Argonauts, which crops up first in the same speech.
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth, 
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks 
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece; 
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos' strand, 
And many Jasons come in quest of her. 
Portia is treated as a prize to be won. As with any possession, her desirability is increased by demand. She has numerous suitors from all over the world. Her father, though dead, colludes in this depiction of his daughter as a large, fairground, cuddly panda, or sack of novelty, over-sized marshmallows by providing the game the suitors must win to claim their prize. Portia’s suitors must choose one of three caskets, if they choose correctly they “win”, if they do not, they have vowed never to marry, so dynastically they lose in more ways than one. Shakespeare shows us the behind-the-scenes Portia with her maid Nerissa, wittily denouncing all her suitors. She is incredibly sharp and funny (oh and quite racist - no question - but so is the play, I can’t help but feel, despite the attempts of many a director on both stage and screen), which are not qualities listed in Bassanio’s business pitch to Antonio. He is only interested in the "speechless messages" of her eyes.

Thomasin Bailey Portia
Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals

Obsessed with the “worth” the “wide world” places on her wealth and beauty, Bassanio does not value Portia the person. He doesn’t even seem to notice that she is very good at getting around tricky contracts, when she manages to get exactly what she wants (guiding Bassanio to the right casket, c'mon he's not the brightest button - think of all the rhyming!) while abiding by her fathers’  own odd bond. This all becomes clear when word reaches Belmont that Antonio has forfeited on his bond, and Shylock, enraged by years of abuse, the loss of his daughter (conversion fantasy sub-plot) and all his wealth, is insisting on taking an actual pound of flesh. Totally ignorant of the fact that his wife is an (evil) legal genius, Bassanio decides to leave her in Belmont, and set off with his bros to solve the problem for himself. Before he leaves Portia gives him a ring to sympolize their union and instructs him never to take it off. Of course useless play boy Bassanio can do nothing for Antonio. Luckily Portia turns up in disguise (as a very vindictive and boyish lawyer) and saves the day. Still in disguise, Portia requests Bassanio’s ring as payment. Without too much persuasion, he gives it to her, demonstrating yet again, how little he thinks of his wife. The cast returns to Belmont where Portia, dressed as a woman again, challenges Bassanio about the ring. A tight spot follows before Portia reveals the big ol’ joke. Bassanio realises he must value his relationship with his wife, and promises never to lose the ring again. Of course, the ring itself is problematic as a thinly, if at all, veiled allusion to Portia’s genitalia which Bassanio now “owns”, but the process reminds Bassanio that his wife is far more than just "fair", and is a force to be reckoned with.  Of course the audience knew that Portia was sharp as a knife from the word go. So why didn’t Bassanio? Why was Portia’s intelligence only visible to Bassanio when she was dressed as a man? Why did she have to work so hard to prove herself?

Well,  unfortunately the answer is simple. In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare depicts the same ignorant misogyny lurking behind that Daily Mail spread. Misogyny allows female beauty to be equated with ignorance, and allows appearance, whether it is judged by society to be attractive or not, to disguise and replace all the other good qualities that might make up a woman. The Sturgeon and May “Legs-it” headline is outrageous, stupid, and an absurd distraction from all the things that we and the news ought to be talking about. It’s also terrifying because it legitimizes this brand of misogyny. If the prime minister of the country can be reduced to the aesthetic quality of her legs, then what will happen to women like us, in the work place and in the home? It shouldn’t have to be this hard to be taken seriously.

Click here for more information about the images in this blog, which are part of my Shakespeare's Women collaboration with Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals.


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