Occasionally of a Monday evening, my housemates and I like to have our gargantuan gaps in general knowledge affirmed by shouting incorrect answers at University Challenge. This week was one of those Mondays. We assembled some snacks, and sipped a glass of wine. And we allowed ourselves to be amazed by the genuis panels assembled on our TV screen.
"That girl’s so cool,” my friend said, half way through. I agreed. She was talking about Emma Johnson, a 22-year-old trainee doctor who was killing it at the time. She fired a string of correct answers at Paxman – on French ballet; medicine; Swedish cinema – and kept a level head even when her teammates – all male – seemed to speak over her a bit. So inevitably, the headlines the following day read a bit like this:
“Brains and beauty!” screamed The Mirror on their video of Johnson on the show, adding a headline repeating claims she is the “perfect woman”. The Sun asked whether she was the “sexiest contestant ever”, the Express went with “hottest contestant”, the Daily Mail said she’d won “admirers” and Twitter “swooned”.
It’s no secret that University Challenge has quite the diversity problem as it is – as recently as earlier this month viewers remarked that there were 'more women in Trump’s cabinet than in this series'
Which is exactly why it’s unlikely we’ll see more women taking up a seat on the famous benches any time soon. It’s no secret that University Challenge has quite the diversity problem as it is – as recently as earlier this month viewers remarked that there were “more women in Trump’s cabinet than in this series” when two all-male teams appeared on the week of International Women’s Day. Back in July, when Sophie Rudd became the stand-out contestant of the show she appeared on, she was subjected to transphobic attacks and vicious trolling. A former female contestant hit out at Paxman in November last year over “misogynist and sexist” comments he allegedly made months before. In December, when five out of eight contestants for the Christmas special were women, including one all-female team, it made headlines simply because it was so unusual.
But is it any wonder that there are so few women on the show when they are objectified – one astute viewer pointed out how many close-up shots were used of Johnson in the final edit of the show – trolled and harassed as a result? Johnson went on the TV to do a quiz, and left with an army of creeps leering over her looks. Because she appeared on University Challenge – just over 36 hours ago, for context – she’s had national newspapers knocking on her door for comment, forcing her and her bewildered teammates to awkwardly refute publicly made comments on her body. She’s also had an onslaught of Facebook messages and friend requests. So many, she said, that the furore felt like the “2017 version of cat-calling”. A Tumblr has been set up, specifically to document University Challenge “cuties”, following her appearance.
Exhausting, isn’t it? And it’s a shame. The reaction to Johnson’s appearance was demeaning and sad – and University Challenge is, like it or loathe it, is a British institute. But what does it say about us right now? It says that, still, women are underrepresented, that we’re still objectified over our looks rather than valued for our intelligence. And most of all it says that the boys’ club still rules – and that, in the eyes of too many perhaps, girls are there to be seen, not heard.