A blot on female journalism (National Post March 21,2007)

If, throughout her fascinating life, Barbara Amiel Black has come in for a lot of critical press, it is no doubt due in large part to her own controversial statements and choices. She's said some dumb things, but to her credit she's never played the victim in the heat of the blowback. And on the whole she's given as good as she's got. I enjoy a good journalistic joust, as long as the rules of engagement are observed, and certainly before today I have never felt the urge to comment on her roller-coaster public life.

But Barbara, whose back is presently to the wall, has just been savaged in a below-the-belt print assault so deplorable in its naked animus that I feel I must put inmy two cents.

(Full disclosure: Barbara Amiel Black is a friend, whom I've known since our paths crossed at the University of Toronto, where we both majored in English Literature and took an interest in campus politics. She has been a generous professional mentor to me in the years since.)On Monday, Toronto Star columnist Rosie Di Manno published an article entitled "Amiel Melts in Media Spotlight," which began: "There's a term for morbid sexual fascination with the elderly. It's called gerontophilia. In Canada it's also called Barbara Amielia." Di Manno snarls on for several paragraphs, the gist of her anger seeming to stem from the fact that Barbara isn't as gorgeous at 66 as she was at 25 (she is "all pinched and dessicated, mummified"), that her enormous sex appeal was useful in garnering alpha male attention, and that in spite of the attention they got for so long, Barbara and Conrad were only "parvenus" who were "fun to watch while the party lasted."

Di Manno can barely contain triumphalist glee in the fact that beside her 24-year-old stepdaughter, Alana Black, "the older babe wilts, no cosmetic elixir or plastic surgeon's ingenuity a match for the simple, unaffected fact of youth." "Oh, how the envious and the loathing have feasted on their spectacular downfall," she crows.

Di Manno says that as though the envious and the loathing were other people. But they are clearly ? her. For only envy and loathing could account for the virulence of Di Manno's attack.

Try to imagine any male journalist writing--or more important, wanting to write -- such an hysterical rodomontade against a woman suffering conditions of stress that would render most of us gibbering idiots. Under the circumstances, how could it possibly matter if she was less physically attractive than some other member of a plaintiff 's family entourage? What male writer would call attention to such insignificant details?

This gratuitous ad feminem is a blot on the record of female journalists. For it was not written by a writer, it was written by an angry woman. I'm sure male journalists all over Canada are shaking their heads in bemused wonder (or contempt) at this unseemly display of pointless cattiness, as well they might. Di Manno's obsession with Amiel's looks, sexuality and clothes amount to a perfect caricature of everything women say they hate about the media's approach to women.There are so few women opinion journalists. And it isn't because there is a glass ceiling in editorial offices. Women writers who see themselves as writers first and women second are just not falling off trees. Most women don't enjoy public confrontation and choose other avenues to express their opinions. Of those who do get into opinion writing, many are there to advance women's issues. If we're going to see more women columnists who strive for objectivity, those who are already in the game have to set a good example. This wasn't it.

But since Di Manno -- and a million others --have raised the subject, let's set the record straight on something. I was at a party with Barbara three months ago. Far from being "all pinched and dessicated," as Di Manno suggests, Barbara's face is as beautiful and elegant as any woman a quarter century younger. How it stays that way -- Botox, facelifts, whatever -- doesn't matter, because no amount of money and technology can do more than enhance what is already there. She always was, and remains, a remarkably beautiful woman.

That isn't an observation that is worthy of a column, though. Just setting the record straight, which definitely is.


© National Post 2007