Hating the ‘world’s smartest woman’

 
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By Khaled Diab

Linda De Win is clever, competitive and middle-aged – would Belgians respect her TV victories if only she were male too?

12 January 2009

At first sight, any quiz show that claims to be a contest to find the “smartest person in the world” should be dismissed as delusional. But anyone who has watched Belgian TV’s De Slimste Mens Ter Wereld will quickly realise that the declared aspiration is very much tongue-in-cheek.

Unlike highbrow quiz shows – such as University Challenge and Mastermind (which I enjoy watching just for the entertainment of getting lost in obscurity and the sense of achievement when I get some answers right) – De Slimste Mens does not deal much in arcane niche knowledge.

Instead, each episode’s three celebrity contestants must make rapid fire knowledge and word associations pitted against one another and the clock, with the winner being crowned the “smartest person in the world” for a day. In addition, humour is provided by a celebrity jury whose role is to mock the contestants and their answers.

Now into its eighth season, De Slimste Mens is so popular that it has won the prize for best entertainment programme on Flemish television two years running. In recent weeks, this easy-viewing show has been at the heart of a controversy centring on one of its contestants: political journalist Linda De Win, who became its joint most successful participant ever, having survived 11 episodes in a row.

The victories of appropriately named De Win, whose day job is grilling politicians and parliamentarians on the political show Villa Politica, sparked a hate campaign of an intensity unknown in the programme’s history.

On Facebook, numerous groups cropped up attacking De Win and calling for her removal from the show. The most popular of these groups counted a peak membership of about 23,000, an enormous figure for tiny Flanders. Comments ranged from the mild, with some claiming that they opposed her because she was “boring”, “arrogant” and “charmless”, while the more vindictive stated opinion of the sort that “woman + ambition = bitch”, that De Win is a “cow” and the most extreme believed that she “must die”.

“I thought I kind of understood how the media worked,” the seasoned journalist said in an interview with De Standaard. “But I watch with dismay what is occurring on Facebook: shocking, what hatred!”

She blames the tabloid press for setting the tone. “That a newspaper like Het Laatste Nieuws has engaged in character assassination of this kind is outrageous.”

As no male candidate has ever elicited such a reaction, though there have been a number of obnoxious and arrogant men, and that beautiful young actresses and models routinely elicit admiration – mostly for their looks – when they appear on the show, De Win’s supporters and fans believe that she has been the victim of machismo and sexism. “The makers of De Slimste Mens think that it is mostly because I am a woman, and one who likes to win,” says De Win. “It seems that the Flanders of 2010 is not ready for a woman that comes across as competitive.”

Many members of the Facebook groups set up against her claim that their hatred of De Win has nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her personality. Some even point to the fact that there are women members of the group. But that’s neither here nor there, since women have traditionally been some of the most ardent upholders and defenders of the patriarchy.

In addition, many people may believe that they dislike someone like De Win – a hard-as-nails 50-something political journalist – because of her personality, but this is partly because, while uncompromising toughness and abruptness, à la Jeremy Paxman, are widely admired in men, such characteristics are often still seen as unbecoming in women, despite decades of female emancipation.

Moreover, age is more of a challenge for women, as highlighted by the controversy surrounding the jettisoning of older female journalists at the BBC. As one former BBC executive put it, “as male presenters got older they become an authority and as female presenters got older they became a problem”. And older female television journalists face a similar challenge in Belgium. “As an [older] woman in the media, you know that you will elicit vicious responses,” notes De Win.

Despite the presence of some last bastions and strongholds of male chauvinism, we must recognise and acknowledge how far things have progressed in recent decades. Last year, Gail Trimble, the grand boffin of University Challenge, became a veritable media sensation, despite the predictable grumbles from the tabloids about her alleged smugness and superiority. The BBC is also seeking to set right its patchy record by attracting more older women presenters to the Beeb.

In Belgium, the intensity of the vitriol targeted against De Win has prompted an outpouring of popular sympathy for her, and she has had her mailbox jammed with messages of support and a number of fan groups have emerged to voice their support for the “smartest woman in the world”.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 7 January 2010. Read the related discussion.

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Taking Hitler off the menu

 
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By Khaled Diab

Was Belgian television justified in pulling an episode of a cooking programme featuring Hitler’s favourite dish?

October 2008

Although I’m not particularly big on cookery programmes, we have been watching Plat Préféré, hosted by Flemish celebrity chef Jeroen Meus, which features the favourite dishes of famous people whose one common characteristic is that they all happen to be dead. 

The episodes on Freddie Mercury and Salvador Dali were fascinating, not so much due to the food that was cooked, but more because of the intriguing insights they afforded into these iconic figures’ lives.

Last week, we were surprised to learn that the following episode would feature not an artist or an actor but Adolf Hitler, one of history’s most destructive figures and one of the most horrendous mass murderers the world has ever known. Although dismayed by the choice, I was looking forward to seeing how the programme would approach Europe’s most-hated figure, and whether I would learn anything new about this most-analysed of political leaders.

Alas, I never got to find out because – faced with outrage from some Jewish, resistance and political prisoner groups – the Belgian television channel VRT decided to pull the episode which was due to air on Tuesday evening.

“Everyone who has lost a loved one to Nazi barbarity or the concentration camps felt unsettled by [VRT] dedicating space to this,” said Francois De Coster, president of the Union of Belgian Political Prisoners, last week. Michael Freilich of Antwerp’s Joods Actueel, a Jewish community magazine, denounced the programme as “trivialising” Hitler and turning him into a “simple man of the people”, claiming that it sent “the wrong signal” to the younger generation.

But I wonder if the revelation that Hitler’s favourite dish was trout with butter sauce would actually change any young person’s views of the man’s politics. In fact, the suggestion is an insult to young people’s intelligence.

Is Freilich really suggesting that someone might switch off their TV after the show and think: “Although he started a world war and killed millions of people, Hitler ate trout, which makes him a regular bloke like us!” With the exception of neo-Nazis, who will look favourably on Hitler no matter what, I don’t think this show will make anyone think better of the Nazi leader.

While I appreciate that any programme that deals with Hitler or the Holocaust is bound to trigger painful memories for those who suffered and their families, I do not accept that this programme trivialises his bloody legacy.

Of course, a case can be made that the inclusion of Hitler among all the artists and celebrities featured on the show was a bizarre decision, probably conceived as a ratings-grabber, given the endless public and media interest in the second world war and the Nazis. In fact, the broadcaster admitted to having made a poor call by featuring the Nazi dictator in “a series in which all other protagonists are famous in the positive sense of the word, such as Roald Dahl and Jacques Brel”.

Nevertheless, thanks to the effective bid to dictate what we can or cannot watch, viewers will never get the chance to make up their own minds about the appropriateness of the programme. But based on the trailer, it would appear that Jeroen Meus makes no attempts to whitewash history when he visits Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest hideaway in Southern Germany to cook the favourite meal of an “atrocious man”, as the chef described him.

“Speaking as someone who almost didn’t exist because of Hitler, I don’t see an issue with [a] television show discussing his favourite meal,” commented one perplexed culinary blogger. “As a Jew, I find that the young chef did nothing offensive at all, and can’t understand the mindset of those who are raising a fuss,” agreed a poster.

The fuss stirred up by this programme reminds me, albeit it to a smaller scale, of the controversy sparked by the German film Der Untergang a few years ago because it explored Hitler’s humaneness – such as his love of dogs and affection for Eva Braun – amid his madness.

But does exploring the person and personality of Hitler – and not depicting him exclusively as a dehumanised monster – actually belittle the memory of his millions of victims and give succour to extremists? At the time of Der Untergang, I found not: I emerged from the cinema just as horrified by his actions but with greater insight into the man behind them.

Besides, there have been literally thousands of books, TV documentaries and films that have explored the minutest details of his life and political career. Max, a film starring John Cusack, not only moves away from the Hitler-as-monster formula, but goes as far as to depict the young Adolf as an artist and his friendship with a Jewish art dealer.

The film speculates about what would have happened had the future Führer found more success as a painter and, hence, stayed out of politics. Is the implication that, had circumstance been different, Hitler may not have become a hateful, bitter and murderous tyrant also sending out the “wrong signal”?

It is my opinion that it is the people who gagged this essentially harmless cookery programme who are sending out the wrong signal by curbing freedom of expression and inquiry. As long as they do not represent a danger to others, everyone has a right to express themselves and, as I’ve argued before, even to offend.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 29 October 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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