Thursday, 22 October 2020

What Mary Whitehouse Got Right

Echoing posts about Mary Whitehouse that have been appearing on this site for as long as it has existed, Louise Perry concludes:

Sir Hugh Greene, Director General of the BBC between 1960 and 1969, openly despised Whitehouse, so much so that he purchased a grotesque naked portrait of her to hang in his office. The story goes that Greene would vent his frustration by throwing darts at the portrait, squealing with delight if he managed to hit one of Whitehouse’s six breasts. 

Greene was born in the same year as Whitehouse, but while this public school and Oxford educated man pronounced the word ‘class’ with a long ‘a’, the Warwickshire-born Whitehouse always pronounced it with a short one. 

The war that Whitehouse waged was, looked at from one perspective, a class war. She represented a majority whose world was being transformed by a cultural elite out of step with popular opinion and, then as now, it was provincial people without degrees who stood in opposition to the establishment of the day. If Whitehouse had been alive in 2016, she would surely have voted Leave. 

The working class academic Richard Hoggart once shared a stage with Whitehouse, and wrote later of how “[t]he noise of the enthusiastic crowd of followers was, literally, a sort of music to her ears.” When he attempted to defend a provocative play by Dennis Potter, Whitehouse was outraged: She pointed at me and invited [the crowd] to share her shock that anyone, least of all a “university man” could be so foolishly “clever-clever”. They agreed. 

And yet, unlike most of his academic peers, the “clever-clever” Hoggart understood Whitehouse’s appeal and acknowledged the legitimacy of many of her complaints. And, in retrospect, it is indeed clear that while Whitehouse got a lot wrong, she also got a lot right.

For instance, at a time when the Paedophile Information Exchange was being welcomed warmly within some establishment circles, Whitehouse was one of the few public figures who gave a damn about child sexual abuse, lobbying hard for the private member’s bill that became the Protection of Children Act 1978. Anxiety about paedophilia was deeply unfashionable in the 1970s, but Mary Whitehouse was not in the business of following fashion. 

In this instance, she was quite right, since we now know that at the same time BBC executives were rolling their eyes at the irritating behaviour of Whitehouse and her gang, the institution was enabling the abuses perpetrated by men like Jimmy Savile. 

Looking back at the Leeds and Broadmoor hospital report on the crimes that Savile committed there in the 1970s, his deceptive technique becomes clear. The male doctors were charmed, as were the male porters. Young women were either too frightened or too starstruck to say a word. When anyone stood up to Savile, it was older women: nurses, matrons, grandmothers — the sort of obstinate ladies who flocked to Whitehouse’s campaigns. 

Misogynists have always reserved a particular well of hatred for women like this — creatures with heavy ankles and sagging necklines who have nothing to offer in terms of nubile beauty, but an annoying habit of saying ‘no’ to male demands. Sir Hugh Greene did not throw darts at naked portraits of any of his male critics.

Whitehouse ultimately made a terrible mistake in allying herself with Margaret Thatcher, falsely assuming that here was a woman — a lower-middle-class mother, just like Whitehouse — who would recognise the nobility of her project. But of course, the age of the free market that Thatcher ushered in has led to a proliferation of sexualised entertainment, far beyond anything witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s. 

With no figure like Mary Whitehouse to block them, advertisers and filmmakers have produced increasingly shocking and titillating content, doing their very best to capture our attention and using every tool available, no matter how profane.

Just imagine Whitehouse’s face if she could watch Cuties, or WAP, or a new adaptation of The Lord of the Rings which will apparently include graphic sex scenes. The devoted Catholic J. R. R. Tolkien would have been appalled at such an idea, and even just 20 years ago, Peter Jackson added no more than a bit of light snogging to his otherwise chaste films. But then, in a free market, sexualisation goes in one direction, and one direction only, and for a simple reason: sex sells. 

Whitehouse really was a “little Canute”, clinging onto the past even as she was swamped by emergent cultural elements that soon became dominant. Few people have ever been as loudly consistent in their beliefs as Mary Whitehouse was. And few people have ever lost as hard as Mary Whitehouse lost.

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