THERE’S a famous cautionary tale by Hans Christian Andersen about intellectual vanity. It is, of course, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and it was referenced in the news on Friday by an exhibitionist academic of whom nobody was aware. Victoria Bateman, an economics lecturer at Cambridge, has decided that the best way of getting people to listen to her about what she sees as the impending catastrophe of Brexit is to take her clothes off. Last month in Cambridge she apparently delivered a lecture against Brexit while naked, before asking the audience to sign her body as a petition. Shortly after the 2016 Referendum she walked naked into a meeting at the Faculty of Economics in protest at the result (a protest against democracy, then) with the words ‘Brexit leaves Britain naked’ across her breasts and stomach.
Her latest performance took place in the studio of BBC Radio 4’s Today where, at the start of a live interview, she ambushed presenter John Humphrys with her nudity and the same four words. Although Humphrys seemed genuinely surprised by his guest’s sudden nakedness, it is possible he’d known it might happen, given Dr Bateman’s track record with this sort of publicity stunt. Whatever the situation there, he went immediately into a cool and composed question about Dr Bateman being nothing more than an exhibitionist.
The giggly Dr Bateman, clearly delighted with her childish and attention-seeking antic, pursued a line about ‘exposure’. She said there were three important messages she needed to get across: Brexit leaving Britain exposed, Brexit exposing the nasty anti-immigrant inclinations of Leave-voting British people, and Brexit exposing how it was government policy failure that had made poor, deluded, nothing-to-lose people vote the wrong way. So in Dr Bateman’s universe, being in the buff was not just self-indulgent, seen-it-all-before (yes, really) shock tactics, but a clever metaphor.
Here’s the thing, though. However clever Dr Bateman feels she is, she’s not had what it takes to bring much of an understanding to a much-loved fairy tale. The reason the emperor falls prey to a con trick in which his nakedness will bring ridicule and general all round merriment is because of his assumption that, because of his social status, he is clever; his conviction is that he is more intelligent than his subjects, the vulgar common people who just don’t have enough brains to be able to see the invisible magic cloth. Of course, it takes a member of the daft and deluded lower orders to tell it how it really is. Strange that the muddled Dr Bateman feels she can align herself more with the masses, pointing out the naked truth, than with the foolish and gullible ruler. The key line comes in the midst of the plot: how was it possible for clever people to be so silly?
One of the things that the interview did reveal was how frustrated and piqued she clearly is that not more people are reading the `thousands of words’ she has written about the horrors of Brexit. Perhaps she simply isn’t a very good writer. I have no idea whether her prose on macro-economics is sparkling and well argued or turgid and incoherent, but does she really think she can con anyone that she isn’t just another attention seeker? Because we can all see through that one.
Humphrys suggested that arguments can be advanced perfectly well by clothed people carrying a banner with their message on, and that this was just attention seeking and inviting people to look at her body. This was the point where the exposed lecturer said she was ‘completely comfortable’ with her body, before launching into a diatribe on what she saw as men’s historical control of women’s bodies. His observation about societal norms, conventions of modesty, etiquette and respect for the feelings of others cut little ice. Her response was that people who do mind having to have naked individuals around them need to ask themselves searching and presumably uncomfortable questions.
Similarly, she was unable to compute the idea that delivering her political message whilst starkers could be counter productive; she was unable to understand at all that far from giving herself more of a voice, she was undermining it by transforming herself into something merely to be looked at. The fact is that she hasn’t been able to get the audience she wants with her clothes on, so she has decided to take them off. This is not about agency in the way she thinks it is but just being part of a wider movement that uses women’s bodies to sell things, in her case to promote a message that people just aren’t listening to. It is that stark, isn’t it? Nobody’s paying attention until her clothes come off. There’s progress for women, Dr Bateman. Thanks for that.
Perhaps there is a case for seeing Dr Bateman as naive and vulnerable as well as cynical and calculating, so child-like is her insistence in the telling statement about her nakedness: ‘I am completely comfortable.’ In other words, all about her. The child at the centre of her own universe. Wanting to be naughty, trying to shock, oblivious to manners or the feelings of other people. In a sense, Dr Bateman is to be pitied in her exhibitionistic disorder. There will be those who will pause to stare, point, chuckle and leer (’fraid so, Dr Bateman), but most of us will move on without even bothering to look. As was the case in the Today studio with fellow presenter Nick Robinson and his ‘strategically placed’ computer. Of course, she’ll have her aiders and abetters for the next disrobing, but there’ll be plenty yawning and rolling their eyes and muttering that poor Bateman’s had to get her kit off again.