Wednesday, 26 August 2009
Smackdown: Astor v. Churchill
Lady Astor: Mr Churchill, you are drunk.
Winston Churchill: And you, madam, are ugly. But tomorrow I'll be sober.
Smirk. Guffaw. Ha ha ha haaaaa. Good for Winnie, eh? Score one to the Bulldog. Great example of the spontaneous wit of a British icon, right?
First, some background. This incident, held up as an inspirational victory for put-upon men in the grip of joyless nagging haridans everywhere, may well never have taken place. If it did, Churchill's likely adversary was probably Labour MP Bessie Braddock, not Nancy Astor. But as this anecdote is widely believed, quoted and revelled in, I'm going to deconstruct it anyway.
So. Churchill has turned up pissed to the House of Commons. Lady Astor, only the second female MP ever elected in the UK and the first to take up her seat in Parliament, clearly thinks this is inappropriate behaviour for a British Prime Minister at a time of international crisis and takes him to task on the matter. Churchill responds by childishly insulting her physical appearance.
Astor has quite rightly drawn attention to the fact that drunkeness in Paliament is inappropriate and unprofessional. This once-famed society beauty is then physically abused by a man who, for most of his life, has resembled a plastic toy left out on the radiator for too long (see portraits above). While Churchill may well have been sober the next day (no doubt burying his head in his hands, wondering what he said to who while on his latest bender), he certainly didn't magically become better looking: the words "a bit rich" and "no oil painting" spring to mind. Given his astonishing lack of facial symmetry, you'd think the man would have kept his head down and not drawn attention to his own physical shortcomings by pointing out those of others. You might even question why someone who was never one of the "beautiful people" should be so depressingly shallow in rushing to pass judgement on the physical appearance of others.
If this anecdote is true, then clearly Churchill (along with so many others) believed that an ugly man, so long as he had a good career, material wealth and all the trappings of success, was to be approved and congratulated, but a woman who didn't measure up to a high standard of personal beauty, no matter what else she may have achieved in her life, could never be regarded as anything but a failure. Even Astor, at one time considered a great beauty, is written off as a waste of space once she has committed the cardinal sin of ageing. Then, as now, success for men was measured by possessions, career, lifestyle. For women, it always boils down to shaggability.
It strikes me that once analysed, Churchill doesn't emerge too well from this famed and celebrated exchange. It exposes him as being sexist, juvenile and unprofessional. Still, that was then. At least we'd never find people obsessing over the appearance of a female politician instead of the way she does her job nowadays. Oh, wait, I forgot...