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Stephen Fry’s opinions are not important

November 3, 2010

I’ve never been a particular fan of Stephen Fry. I think he’s a moderately talented man, but I can’t for the life of me work out why he’s considered a genius or a national treasure.

He’s clearly an intelligent, sensitive man. I admire his openness about mental illness. He champions many good causes. But he doesn’t seem like a genius to me. About ten years ago I read a couple of his novels. They were passable but nothing amazing. I could list many contemporary British novelists who write far better than he does but don’t get half as much exposure. He’s a good but not great comic actor. He’s a decent but undistinguished director. His documentaries tend to be crowd-pleasing middle-brow exercises (“I’ll drive around America. Me! Stephen Fry! With rednecks! And gangsta rappers!”). His journalism is solid but no more than that. He’s a good quiz show host. It’s not that he’s terrible at any of the things he does, it’s just that I don’t think he’s particularly great at them either – were he not already an established television star I can’t think that his novels would have garnered anything more than a small but loyal following.

Perhaps his real talent lies in the crafting of his own persona: that of an eccentric English boffin, reassuringly upper-class but never snootily posh, a loveable professor: the type who wanders Oxford in tweed and corderoy, undisturbed by the modern world. He’s a comforting image of an England many believe has passed away. We can listen to him on Radio 4, sipping our tea and murmuring, “Oh, Stephen is so terribly clever,” as we think of a more pleasant, civilized time, when David Niven and Roger Livesey strolled through Michael Powell fields.

I should state that there’s nothing wrong with this. As I’ve mentioned, I think he’s a bright, fairly talented man. The fact that many people seem to think he’s a genius is hardly his fault. If people were calling me a genius I wouldn’t be in a hurry to correct them.

Anyway, I’m not naturally predisposed towards Stephen Fry. We’ve established that. Which brings us up to the events of this week, when The Guardian published an article criticising him for an interview in Attitude magazine in which he waffled on for a couple of paragraphs about the fact that he didn’t think women enjoyed sex as much as men did.

I found myself sympathising with him, at least initially.

The whole furore has been ridiculous. Mostly because it doesn’t fucking matter. It’s just his opinion. He’s just some bloke. He’s not The Pope or an elected official. He’s one man and it’s his opinion on female and male sexuality. It’s not as though he’s demanding women be stoned to death or have their right to vote rescinded. From the outcry in some papers, you’d think he was a leading Feminist Gender Theorist who had suddenly gone mad and claimed women must be circumcised. This being Broadsheetland, rather than a muted shrug of indifference, there’s been countless articles about just how much women love sex and what a terrible man Stephen Fry is, as though the women of Britain were unable to have sexual fun without a waspish columnist in The Independent telling them that nasty Mr Fry was wrong, and that ladies really do love orgasms. I think Stephen Fry’s comments were a bit stupid, but I don’t think he’s suddenly some mysognistic monster, sneering down at women from a massive cock-shaped altar. To repeat: He’s a man voicing his opinion. You do not have to agree with him. You can ignore him.

The whole reaction depresses me because it seems emblematic of a climate in which the perameters for debate are so narrow that anything outside the stifling consensus is seen as a heretical attack that deserves at least one stern slapdown from Rosie Boycott. The tone of some of the newspaper pieces has made it sound like he’s commited a crime, rather than make an observation. It makes me want to write an article claiming that women do not enjoy fisting puppies, just so someone can sternly counter with “ALL women enjoy fisting puppies, you patriarchal monster!”

However, the newspapers’ reactions have not been as annoying as those of Fry himself. He claimed to be misquoted and then flounced off Twitter, saying that he’d been treated like the Antichrist. Generally speaking, when someone has been misquoted, they tell the public what they actually said. Stephen Fry hasn’t done this, which leads me to believe he wasn’t misquoted; he just wasn’t expecting The Spanish Inquisition. As for the reaction from the press, well of course it’s over-the-top, but he should expect that. He’s not some naive 17-year-old X Factor finalist – he’s a fiftysomething man who has worked as a journalist and has decades of experience in the public eye. He seems to think that giving an interview to Attitude – a gay magazine – doesn’t count as a public statement and that he doesn’t have to stand by his words. It’s almost as though he’s saying: “Oh, I was talking to the gays. I didn’t realise the straights were also going to read it.” If you do an interview with a magazine (in which you are the cover star) you can’t act surprised when the quotes are picked up in the mainstream press. And since he’s spent the last decade riding a wave of relentless self-promotion (I can’t help but think that a book of Oscar Wilde stories should have Oscar Wilde on the cover, rather than Stephen Fry) he can hardly be surprised when national newspapers follow stories about him. And since he himself hasn’t been averse to giving celebrities or journalists a metaphorical kicking when they have said things he’s disagreed with, he can’t grumble too much.

Quitting Twitter seemed like the action of a child taking home his bat and ball because not everyone loves him. No doubt he will return at some point. He did last time. If I were him, rather than saying I’d been misquoted or treated like the Antichrist, I would explain that it was just opinion. That actually, Stephen Fry’s opinion on female sexuality doesn’t matter; that actually, Stephen Fry’s opinions on most things don’t matter. That women will continue enjoying or hating sex whatever Stephen Fry or Rosie Boycott or anyone else says. That Stephen Fry is not God or Jesus, the Antichrist or a genius. He’s just a normal, flawed human being, the same as the rest of us.

22 comments

  1. Aye, spot on Greg (can I call you Greg?)

    It’s all part of the “right to be offended” that seems to have grown in the last few years. People seem unable or unwilling to shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh well,” to things that happen or said that don’t really matter.

    Oh well.


    • Why do we always mistake upper-middle class genteelness for intelligence??? Stephen Fry actually knows sweet FA about sweet FA and he should stick to that subject in his ramblings.


  2. I have to say, I like this article very much. Odd, I know, me being a Fluffette and all. I guess some would think that makes me a very bad fan…but I tend to see issues from several viewpoints at once, which makes things a bit more complicated! I love Stephen very much for who he is, but I also know that he is a “normal, flawed human being”, not a saint or a poster-boy-cum-deity.
    And I have to agree with you when you say:
    “It’s almost as though he’s saying: “Oh, I was talking to the gays. I didn’t realise the straights were also going to read it.”” and:
    “Generally speaking, when someone has been misquoted, they tell the public what they actually said. Stephen Fry hasn’t done this, which leads me to believe he wasn’t misquoted; he just wasn’t expecting The Spanish Inquisition.”
    Both of these points seem to me to be a pretty accurate reflection of the situation.
    But I still really really want him back on Twitter ASAP :)


  3. You write a great blog post, but I have to say I disagree. To find that someone in the public eye whom (who? whatever, no-one ever called me a genius…) many women admire (including me) holds views which are at the very least sexist is a big disappointment.

    If women and men were entirely equal, and the patriarchy was a myth, and women who enjoyed sex weren’t still stigmatised then maybe it wouldn’t matter. If Fry wasn’t famous and his remarks weren’t so high-profile then maybe it wouldn’t matter.

    But all those things are true, and so it does matter. As a female fan, I feel a bit betrayed that he’s (apparently) said such ludicrous things. I’m fed up of men perpetuating tired old stereotypes about women, especially in such a public way. And I thought The Guardian’s piece about the whole ho-ha was great.


  4. Simon Gray’s ‘Fat Chance’ about the destruction of his play, ‘Cellmates’ following Fry’s abrupt departure from a leading role is interesting.

    Gray’s book makes me doubt that Fry has been open about his psychological condition. I suspect he tries to hide the real, rather ugly one, behind another calculated to gain more sympathy.


  5. bit of a shame you had to write so much about the opinions of this not very important person. Anyway excellent analysis which deserves wide coverage (obviously as an blog commenter I cannot provide this).

    My take was that he has had such got such good press recently and been so high profile people leapt at the chance to give him a good kicking. I can’t see why people are missing him from Twitter if I am honest.


  6. I too enjoyed reading your thoughts. Very well put.


  7. He said something pretty similar about two years ago:

    Roughly transcribed:

    Women, for some reason, like to claim that they are as excited about the idea of sex *inhales_through_teeth* as men are, but, it’s a manifest nonsense.

    I mean, when women hang around in parks looking for casual encounters with men – they just don’t – the only ones that do are prostitutes. They do it for money, which proves the very point. *inhales_through_teeth* They have to be paid to do it.

    Whereas when it’s just men who don’t want to have a relationship, they just want to have sex.

    *inhales_through_teeth*

    Now if women were like that, then we all know the men would say: “oh, thank you!” And for some bizarre reason, women *pause* don’t want you to believe this. “Oh that’s not true at all, I saw a
    waiter the other day with quite nice buttocks that made me quite juicy just thinking about it.”

    And a man would say: “only the other day! what about every fucking minute of every hour of every day – you just don’t get it!”

    You don’t get it, what it’s like to have one of these in your bloody trousers. You have no idea what it’s like, and women don’t, lucky for them.
    ——————————

    Plus ça change.


  8. I think he’s just been typecast as someone who plays boffins, in the same way as Jeff Goldblum has. And his bounces are beyond pathetic.


  9. Agree with your analysis to a certain extent & also dianne’s point of view.

    I’very been a big fan of Stephen for over 20 years, and what horrifies me about the whole debacle is Stephen’s reaction. He really is behaving like my emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend who would swear, run away & then subject me to endless periods of silent treatment until he got his own way.

    It scares me that someone I admire is behaving like an emotional narcisst. Recently Stephen has behaved in ways that indicate he thinks certain rules don’t apply to him (i.e. Taking photos of the Harry Potter set).

    Additionally the ideas he expressed in the Attitude interview are not new. He said similar things in his novel ‘The Liar’. A blogger pointed this out recently (I can find the link if anyone is interested).

    Stephen adores being adored. Right now I think he’s just shitty because he’s found out that adoration is conditional.

    Thanks for helping me to clarify my thoughts. Great blog.


  10. A short passage from The Fry Chronicles (p. 322):

    “There is a vision that comes to me often…

    I picture myself at the surface of an ocean: the course of my life is played out as a descent to the sea bed. As I drop down I clutch at and try to reach blurred-out but alluring images representing the vocation of writer, actor, comedian, film director, politician or academic, but they all writhe and ripple flirtatiously out of reach, or rather it would be truer to say that I am afraid to leap forward and hug one of them to me. By being afraid to commit to one I commit to none and arrive at the bottom empty and unfulfilled. This is a self-aggrandizing, pitiful and absurd fantasy of regret I know, but it is a frequent one…I know I have a reputation for cleverness and articulacy, but I also know that people must wonder why I haven’t quite done better with my life and talents. A jack of all trades and master of none…In less perkier moods, of course, I entirely concur with the judgements of the head-shakers…What a waste. What a fatuous, selfish, air-headed, indolent and insulting waste my life has been.”

    It’s mildly ironic that your criticism (“It’s not that he’s terrible at any of the things he does, it’s just that I don’t think he’s particularly great at them either”) was phrased so much better by the man himself.

    But (p. 323):

    “‘Could do better’ is a meaningless conclusion. ‘Could be happier’ is the only one that counts. I have had five times the opportunities and experiences accorded to most, and if the result is a disappointment to posterity, well prosperity can eat it.”

    I concur.


    • There’s a narcissism in everything he writes. That first paragraph gives the impression he could be the best writer in history if only he could be bothered. I don’t think he could have done better. I don’t think he’s wasted his talents. Quite the opposite: I think he’s done amazingly well with the limited talents he has.


  11. Quite right. His comments were a bit off but don’t carry much weight when up against people’s own experiences. Neither were a lot of the feminist responses particularly helpful as they seemed to think it was all part of a big, patriarchal conspiracy. There were a few grains of truth on both sides but the vast majority of people seemed to think we’d all moved on a long time ago. So we win.

    I was a little surprised to find that he had such a narrow view of sexuality though. His definition of enjoying sex was very one dimensional. And even within this, he focused on cottaging but ignored dogging.

    However, I still like him and this is probably because I’m not an avid fan. I didn’t feel personally slighted. And because I quite like a good flounce myself.


  12. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve never understood the nation’s adoration of Stephen Fry. He’s always struck me as pompous, needy and rather pleased with himself.
    One small but telling example of all these things came in a book I received as a gift – a collection of letters celebrities, including Fry, had written to their 16-year-old selves.
    Most of the contributors had submitted a few witty lines, no more than a page long. That’s all we needed.
    Fry, however, had produced reams. Reams and reams of self indulgent, over written drivel.
    Glad there’s someone else who can see through him.


  13. Gay, Jewish, Bi-polar, drugs, prison. Not most people’s idea of the ideal English man.


  14. In a world of constant cock-measuring entertainment insanity a man like Fry is often a relief to me.
    He’s the anglophile’s dream. I’ve seen, heard and read most of his work and it does have a constant quality to it that may well deserve the bedside table idolatry that it receives. As a non-english speaker, I enjoy his use of your language. It’s unique. It seeps into everything he does. I sat through a Harry Potter audiobook just for the sound of his voice. Rowling’s writing isn’t actually that good. She wrote it to get rich you know. I love to hate it. I admire Fry for breaking his nose with a Dostoevsky novel as a child to craft his crooked-nosed oxbridge persona that irks both the very dim and the very wicked, but tickles and endears us, the ones that namedrop Dostoevsky in a blog rant.

    I always had trouble defining his charm. Up to this day, I fail to come up with someone that ticks all the same boxes he does. I do know that on most subjects, I tend to agree with whatever he says. And it’s not always the conclusions he reaches, but mostly the way he approaches things. That’s what I expect from a good social commentator and a good human being. I know I only follow two twits. The dalai lama and Fry.

    He ranks highly on the thespian do-gooder national treasure list for me. Could you name a public figure that would deserve that designation any more than him? Lumley? Jamie Oliver? Attenborough? Sherpa’s, sausages and sparrow shit, seriously. Bono? That guy deserves a good spoonful of get-yourself-off-that-carefully-manufactured-pedestal much more in my opinion. The One foundation is a fucking fraud.

    Fry certainly propagates important and currently much ignored principles like honesty, empathy and reason, and if that is the result of wanting to be liked so much, so be it. If that requires us to be all kind and soothing when he has a tantrum, so be it. He does stand out for me. And I’ve seen a ton of shit.

    His opinion matters more to me than 90% of the utter clowns that spew their gall because they can.

    One thing he should really not purport to know anything about, are the female intricacies of sex. In this case, his thoughts really are quite useless. ^^


  15. Great post. I like Stephen Fry, except when he’s being an arse.

    I couldn’t care one way or another if he returned to Twitter – it has grown beyond being the Stephen Fry Fan Club.


  16. Following the “it doesn’t matter” vein down to it’s ultimate conclusion – nothing matters. Nothing matters at all, going to see films doesn’t matter, reading books doesn’t matter, learning doesn’t matter (we’ll be dead soon anyway and would the regression of the human race be such a bad thing).

    What matters is that I’d rather have a Stephen Fry to listen to than a Miley Cyrus.

    He has something to say and says it. Genius? I don’t know. I know a few geniuses but they’re not very entertaining.. :-)


  17. top post, I’m nodding my head in agreement as I read. Your persona is that of a quintessentially sensible bloke :)


  18. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful, considered, clear piece and flying in the face of the Fry=God v Fry=misogynistic serial killer nonsense.


  19. I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here and it’s interesting how close it is to what Stephen Fry’s now said on his own blog. I think I have a higher opinion of his talents than you do, but however good a writer/comic actor/etc he is or isn’t, definitely a normal, flawed human being whose opinions (especially on an area in which he has no claim to expertise) shouldn’t be front page news.


  20. I don’t agree that his reaction has been more annoying than the original reaction to his words by feminists/women/liberals. Their reaction I think revealed some deep-seated prejudices against men’s sexuality and especially that of gay men, which are very widespread in our culture. They also were incredibly moralistic and full of a kind of double bind where we are supposed to think all the women of middle england are having rampant orgasmic sex between ‘classy sheets’, but they would never stoop so low as to just go out and fuck a stranger in a public place, because they are not, you know, whores.

    I don’t care what stephen fry thinks either, and I wish I didn’t care what the moralising feminist liberal tankocracy thought either but I think they affect society in general more than auntie Stephen does.



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