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.