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.