The Confidence of the Mediocre White Man: Stephen Fry, QI and Rape Culture

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I love Sarah Hagi’s plea, “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man”. I’ve been using it to motivate myself – and friends have been reminding me of it, as I negotiate the ever-growing pile of job applications – for a fair while now. The quotation reminds us of the undeserved confidence people gain purely as a result of holding a privileged position: the confidence that their efforts will be seen and rewarded, and, further, their unconscious knowledge that credit for things not strictly merited may well also accrue to them.

Hagi’s point seems particularly relevant today, as I see swarms of angry people complaining about Stephen Fry’s latest idiotic, selfish, misogynistic comment (no link. If you really want to find it, you’ll find it, and the title makes his targets fairly obvious. But I’ll opt out of spreading it further). You see, on the quiet, I’ve been bemused by attitudes to Fry for a while.

There’s much in Fry that invites sympathy and liking. He has the charming patrician accent, the old-fashioned middle-class habit of pausing politely as he invites comments, the self-deprecating humour, the delight in being silly. He has overcome real difficulties, working against homophobia and against both the personal impact and the social stigma of mental illness. And he’s a talented actor, particularly brilliant at ventriloquising Oscar Wilde’s witty quips and despairing philosophies alike.

But he is also, above and beyond these things, treated as a towering intellectual heavyweight. Why is this, exactly?

We all know, I assume, that QI is scripted. We know that Fry isn’t actually the genius who holds all of these tiny details at his fingertips, eruditely sifting through the banks of data in his memory to tell us about his research into the lesser-known puffer fish of Malaysia. We know, too, that QI on occasion gets it wrong – corrected and uncorrected – because it is, of course, not based on the infallible genius of the person in the presenter’s chair but on a host of busy researchers who sometimes stumble. We know, moreover, that even if Fry was already aware of some of the ‘facts’ he quotes, he certainly didn’t discover them. He’s not the researcher here. That’s not his job.

I know a lot of educated, intelligent women – both working within academia and without – and they do research some of these things. They do know (from first-hand discoveries) some of the facts that feed into the image of Fry as a purveyor of learning.

Just on facebook – browsing, without trying to remember or analyse, and just in the past week – I saw articles in the papers discussing research carried out by (amongst others) Dr Charlotte Houldcroft, which offers new insights into the effects of disease in prehistory. I read a proposal by Dr Katie Collins, which explores hidden stories of women’s lives and offers to change the way we think about researching history. I saw a link to a new issue of academic journal including work by Dr Tekla Bude, who interrogates the ways we’ve interpreted displays of royal power and patronage in medieval England; by Dr Holly James-Maddocks, who’s discovered new links between scribes and artists that could change our understanding of how medieval English literature was produced; and by Dr Sarah Baechle, who examines the manuscripts of one of the most famous medieval poems ever written – Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde – and illustrates the complex responses of readers and writers living 500 years ago. I saw British Academy Rising Star Dr Catherine Redford start a discussion group to outreach programmes for bringing university work on English language and literature into secondary school classrooms.

Elizabeth Savage announced her talk on early printing; Deborah Cameron was interviewed on the relationship between language and feminism; Carissa Harris and Liza Strakhov talked about pedagogies of feminism to combat rape culture; Helen Stagg announced the publication of her handbook on infectious diseases. And so it went on.

All of these women are educated and qualified in their research. And their work is painstaking, detailed, often carefully hedged about with awareness of its own limitations and nuances. It’s not easily made into soundbites (I know: I’ve just tried). It doesn’t carry a glib miasma of erudition, the way the QI script does when it’s read out in Fry’s sonorous tones. And that made me realise that there’s something more than slightly suspect about the way information is presented in QI. It’s TV programme equivalent of an Edwardian gentleman-explorer’s trophy cabinet: a mish-mash of tiger skins and elephants’ feet, of bits and pieces souvenired from the Valley of the Kings or the Acropolis, of unexplained butterflies stuck to pins and ‘exotic’ statues and dubious black-and-white portraits of people who didn’t particularly want to be photographed.

I’m not suggesting QI is a hotbed of retrograde, imperialist racism (though it usually groans under the same tedious weight of sexism as other panel shows, Sandi Toksvig notwithstanding). But the attitude towards ‘curiosities’ Fry is paid to promote hasn’t really moved on much from 1904. His role is to play the authority, the collector, bringing us knowledge that’s collected piecemeal and out of context from its sources. And, because he displays his collection with the confidence of the mediocre white man, we somehow forget that it wasn’t his in the first place.

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