Sarah Sands: Women with so much to say are too timid by half

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The Independent Online

The British press has long prided itself on being far beastlier than the respectful Americans. Tall poppy syndrome only exists here. Apparently poppies are allowed to flourish in the US as if it were Helmand Province. So how do you explain the devastating coverage of Caroline Kennedy, a woman who is not only American aristocracy but who has also been anointed by Barack Obama?

I gasped when I read the profile of her in Time magazine. It sneered at her attempts to play down her dynastic advantages, it criticised her caution and her motives for running for the New York Senate. Most of all, it basked in her inarticulate public performances. The profile credited a British paper (respect!) for totting up the number of times she said "you know" in her interview with The New York Times. It was 142. It quoted an American columnist, who said that watching Caroline Kennedy was "a cringe-inducing experience, as painful to watch as it must be to endure".

But it was the following sentence that stood out. "Kennedy, who is a contributor to Time, declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article." Not just stabbing a public figure, but a colleague, for being useless at communication.

I witnessed Caroline Kennedy on a platform in New Jersey last spring with her then protégé Barack Obama. She sat on a stool, glamorous and athletic. I cannot remember what she said. Who remembers what Princess Diana said? Who can sing something by Carla Bruni?

Since then, her uncle Edward Kennedy faced a mortal illness with pluck and Obama became President-elect, declaring Caroline to be one of his best friends. Yet support for her roughly equals that for Bernard Madoff. Is it a backlash against dynasties, after Bush? Or a chance to let off some steam about female entitlement?

This still leaves the question of why she performed so badly. She is not stupid or unprepared. The reason was more to do with an excess of cerebral and social refinement rather than a lack of it. It was also a particularly female display of vulnerability. She could not find a reason why she, rather than anyone else, should be listened to or be given public office. I think a man in her position would not have hesitated in the same way.

I have just been assembling a panel to take part in a quiz at the Oxford Literary Festival in the spring. The men I approached gamely accepted, without any questions about the rules or the areas of knowledge. They loved the idea of being tested by the seat of their pants. The women I have approached, who are bold and clever – novelists, television presenters, actresses – all said it was as close as you could get to a public execution. I think of this whenever I watch a television comedy quiz. The female contestants are either quiet, wholly rehearsed, or geisha girls. Even the ladettes sound gobby and giggly.

Of all the hoops of feminist attainment, public speaking is the one that needs attention. The women who triumph tend to be experienced and tough and their confidence is genuine. I never fear for Sandi Toksvig when I hear her on Radio 4. I have no worries for Germaine Greer. Hillary Clinton is a thrilling politician. The only way to beat men at their own game is to go out there and play it.

A fine romance: Never mind the plot, look at those muscles

Isn't it time that Hollywood introduced a Fittest Bod category into the Oscars? It would be the most honest award for Hugh Jackman. I watched 'Australia' prepared for the greatest romance since 'Gone with the Wind', and felt unsettled that so little had changed since then. The romance is a variation on the old theme of taming the shrew. Spirited (sour) women need a good seeing-to and will eventually succumb to the superior power of male chest hair. The breakthrough between Jackman and Nicole Kidman comes not through empathetic notions of equality but as a result of Jackman strip-washing and, oh still my shivering loins, threatening Kidman to do as she is told. Later, she watches him training a horse, and sighs as the animal sinks to its knees. My reservation about Jackman is that he has the body of a hunter but the face of Richard Madeley. Still, the resounding romantic message of this film is that men must go walkabout. Swoon and weep.

So much for teamwork, lads

An ultimatum is a dangerous thing. When people don't give in, you end up looking stupid. No one ever suggested Kevin Pietersen, deposed as England cricket captain, was the sharpest knife in the drawer. I find it hard to forgive the hairstyle, the three lions tattoo and the range of nylon clothing – I guess they demonstrate the style for which the Boers are famed. But I can't help feeling sorry for him. Team games are meant to encourage male bonding, loyalty and selflessness. What a shock to find that your mates are plotting against you.

Pretty strong words from Cheryl

The point of putting WAGs on the front of February's 'Vogue' is the Pygmalion effect. Coleen McLoughlin showed that you could take a girl out of Croxteth and make her look like the Duchess of Kent. I am not sure the same trick applies to the star judge of 'The X Factor'. We know Cheryl Cole has a refined, fawn face. The surprise is in remembering that this tiny quivering creature can sock a lavatory attendant at a night club and call her a "fucking bitch". If Cheryl had posed for a magazine on female wrestlers, it would have been more interesting.

Sarah Sands is editor in chief of British 'Reader's Digest'