Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Right Kind of Splash?

Laura Burden applauds local MP Penny Mordaunt’s decision to appear on the celebrity diving programme

Penny Mordaunt, appearing on Splash
One of the news items on our school’s website at present details the visit the MP for Portsmouth North, Penny Mordaunt, who spoke to Politics Society in mid-January. The write-up relates: "There was a lively Q and A session with questions covering a wide spectrum of topics; the future of the naval dockyard, EU immigration, the UKIP challenge and why she was a Conservative. Given the recent revelation that she is to appear in the TV show Splash! with Tom Daley, it was perhaps surprising that none of the questions referred to her decision to appear. Possibly this is an indication that PGS students prefer to make waves with the meatier issues when it comes to current affairs!" All very laudable, but I would like to address the issue of Mordaunt’s decision to appear in a celebrity series that commentators have not been able to resist calling, “a bit of a belly flop.”
For the uninitiated, Splash! Is an ITV series in which public figures are taught by the Olympic diver Tom Daley to progress from tentative tumbles into a pool from the side to an advanced, twisting and turning performance from a high board. Viewers watch the celebrity hopefuls take the plunge (after a lengthy, crowd-pleasing pause) and be judged on their efforts. It’s pretty turgid viewing, but no more so than any other TV contest.
Inevitably, Mordaunt’s decision to appear on a television show invited the torrent of criticism reserved for most MPs who dare to spend time somewhere other than the House of Commons or their constituency office. The Daily Mail online message board is one example of this –
 – and Michael Hogan’s review of the episode for The Telegraph happily added to the discussion: “Typically for a modern day politician, though, she deployed too much spin and failed to find favour with the public. It remains to be seen if she’ll claim expenses for her leisure centre locker fee and packet of crisps afterwards.” Her local rival, Labour’s John Ferrett, was quick to call her decision to appear “truly astonishing.” So far, so predictable.

The criticism of Mordaunt that kindled my interest in the issue was not, however, from a political rival or TV pundit but from scholar, classicist and feminist icon Mary Beard. Speaking to The Sunday Times about the profile of women in the media at present, Beard made the rather muted comment that she found Mordaunt’s decision to appear on a popular programme in her swimsuit “surprising.” Cue the second predictable element of the debate – a woman is criticised by another woman for her actions; feminist solidarity is undermined by a schism within the sisterhood?
Beard has reason to be wary of how the media presents women. During 2013 she was the victim of some truly vitriolic online abuse, including a bomb threat and comments along the lines of her being “too ugly for television”. Her decision to brush such inanities aside and remain involved in public life is admirable. Anyone with common sense, both male and female, would agree with her pronouncements that her position as Professor of Classics at Cambridge is the only qualification she needs to appear in BBC programmes about the Romans, and that as long as she is dressed professionally her looks are an irrelevance. Yet is Beard’s sensitivity towards Mordaunt’s decision to show the nation her legs justified?
Certainly, both male and female celebrities have appeared on Splash! and the media has treated them very differently. A male MP has yet to feature on the show but I am fairly convinced that, were he to do so, he would not be referred to as a “Cameron Cutie” or have newspapers gleefully reveal his position in a poll of the “sexiest parliamentarians”, both of which appear on every online article about Mordaunt and her brief diving career. The Daily Mirror announced her decision with the headline that she would “strip to her swimsuit” followed by an excitable announcement that she would “be seen in her bathers”. A cursory search for the male “celebrities” that have appeared in the recent series (Dan Osbourne, Patrick Monohan and Paul Young) suggests that nobody has seen fit to report on the astonishing news that they would swim in – of all things – a swimming costume.
Yet was Mordaunt wrong to make the decision? Ignoring the whole issue of whether MPs should do any work, paid or unpaid outside of their usual role, was she wrong to expose her body to the nation’s scrutiny?
I would say not. The most recent polls, as reported by the BBC, suggest that only 31% of 14 year old girls exercise regularly, compared to 50% of boys the same age. Body image is frequently cited as one of the main causes of females disliking sport or exercising in public on reaching puberty. Indeed, the nation as a whole is grappling with the consequences of ever-rising obesity levels. If an MP takes the decision to train, in her own time, for a new sport and demonstrate to young people that there is merit in trying a new form of physical activity, or to the middle-aged that it is never too late to be active, is that not a positive thing?

One of the most crushing news reports of the year for those who care about the self-esteem of young girls was that of Rebecca Adlington, winner of four Olympic medals, weeping bitterly at her appearance and comparing herself to another contestant on I’m a Celebrity…, “Miss Universe” Amy Willerton. As is the case with most women aged 40, Mordaunt is not stick-thin. She is, however, a perfectly healthy weight and her cheerful disregard for what commentators might write about her body and lack of introspection makes her an excellent role model. It is also worth noting that the headlines she has generated have been much better for the image of our city that those about the MP for Portsmouth South, Mike Hancock, currently suspended by the Liberal Democrats.
Hilsea Lido in its heyday
 Lastly, the free monthly newspaper Portsmouth View dropped through my letterbox this morning. On the front page is the announcement that the Hilsea Lido, mostly thanks to Mordaunt’s donation of her £10,000 fee for appearing on Splash! in addition to the paltry £3,000 raised locally, will almost certainly re-open this summer. Mordaunt’s determination to feature on the show is set to bring tangible benefits to our community; thanks to her, Portsmouth men and women of all ages and shapes will have a chance to experience the heady, unique joy of open-air swimming and make a splash of their own.


  1. Very interesting, a lot of stuff I didn't know in that!


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