First published in The National, 19 Dec 2016
WHAT does it mean to be a woman today? I’ve been asking that question a lot this year. I have a daughter of ten probing for the same in her own unarticulated way.
She’s absorbing and processing the world, searching for cues on how to journey from girlhood, through the quagmire of adolescence, into womanhood.
She’s looking to me, to my sisters, to my mother and the other women in her life to shine light upon the secret ingredients. She’s learning that womanhood is far more than just age. It’s not just the temporal or the physical – it’s an assimilation and of knowledge that will guide you through life.
As well as looking to her family, she’s looking to the media. As a digital native, she’s maturing in a constant stream of information, from the news, to the internet, to social media. Here she will learn things counter to what I tell her. How should she dress? How should she conduct herself? Which parts of her personality and her talents should she amplify, and which should she dim?
I know I’m not alone in my anxiety, fretting about what the media tells her in tandem to my guidance. I began to look back over the year’s mainstream media coverage in an attempt to grasp the sorts of messaging I’ll need to counter. From this year’s media coverage, here is a portrait of womanhood today:
THE woman of 2016 is at sea – pregnant, in a leaky boat too small for the weight of people it carries. She flees Iraq for Syria after watching Yazidi girls burned alive, and chooses then to make the perilous crossing to Greece. She engages in “survivor sex” to ensure the protection of a male companion for her long journey. Her children are lost – beneath waves, beneath blankets in makeshift camps, beneath the rubble of a bombed city. She is turned away from foreign shores, where quotas rule and humanity is all but absent.
She is released by Boko Haram, two years after she was kidnapped from school in northeastern Nigeria. She returns home, body sharpened by two years of torment, with only a small number of her 276 schoolmates that were taken. She has a 20-month old baby, born in captivity.
THE woman of 2016 is given a custodial sentence for buying abortion pills online. In Poland, she is told terminations will be banned under all circumstances. She goes on strike and takes to the streets, dressed in black, with tens of thousands of her sisters. In America, she will soon be living under the imprint of a president who views pro-choice as criminal. In 2016, where medicine and sense should prevail, she has to protest against the total lockdown of her reproductive rights and bodily autonomy.
THE woman of 2016 is a world-class athlete. In Rio, she competes in the Olympics. She is there through her dedication and talent. She breaks records, defies expectations and earns countless medals. In swimming, she wins gold in the 400m medley, but the world is told her husband is responsible for her victory. She wins bronze in shooting and is credited as the wife of a football player. She becomes the all-around, vault and floor gold gymnastics medalist and is compared to a male swimmer.
THE woman of 2016 is a dedicated UN ambassador. She delivers impassioned, eloquent speeches about sexism and violence against women at universities. She is mocked in national newspapers for her “whining, leftie, PC crap”.
She wears sweats and goes make-up free, finding herself in the crosshairs of women’s mags and tabloid shame-pages. She gets coffee alone and takes a flight with her hair scraped into a bun, all signs of her questionable mental state. She jogs in clothes that are too tight and wanders around in unflattering shorts. She is lifted up in the street by a stranger, and branded ‘unladylike’ when she fights back. She is beaten by her movie star husband and denounced as a gold digger, whilst being shamed for her sexuality and blamed for the volatile breakdown of her relationship.
THE woman of 2016 is robbed at gunpoint in Paris, begs for her life and fears she will be raped. She is told she deserves it because she’s rich, famous and was in a sex tape. Or she is a talented musician, who has sold more than 27 million albums worldwide. She has six Grammy Awards, three Brits, 13 MTV Video Music Awards and 12 Guinness World Records. She discloses she was raped at 19 and has suffered PTSD since. A male journalist says sexual assault is a celebrity accessory and that she only mentioned it to sell albums.
THE woman of 2016 can be grabbed by the pussy. She can’t be a 10 if she’s flat-chested or gains a little weight. She haunts locker rooms and other safe male spaces, spoiling fun and calling out banter. She runs for President of the United States and is beaten by a man who has admitted sexually assaulting women. She’s spent her life working as a children and families lawyer, as an educator, as a senator and then secretary of state – but she’s only famous because of her husband.
THE woman of 2016 becomes the second female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and is reduced to her shoe choice and skirt length.
THE woman of 2016 was murdered with a hatchet knife, and so were her children. By her husband, a teacher, a family man who would do anything for anyone. As the media fawned over him, considered his mental state, cited stress, depression and an emotional snap, she was forgotten about in news reports. Her name was barely mentioned. Her only photo was blurry and indistinct – an afterthought, as she was in the reporting that treated her and her children as supporting roles in the breakdown of a good man. Her safety matters so little that a Tory politician will filibuster for 78 minutes to block a bill that could help protect her from domestic violence.
THE woman of 2016 drank six Jagerbombs in ten minutes – a detail that prefaced the reporting of her rape and murder.
These are only a fraction of the stories we’ve been told, where the negatives far outweigh the positives. This is the woman we’ve fixed in our history for future generations. A woman of contradictions, caught between conflicting expectations and never quite reaching the impossible standards we set for her. It’s not a reflection I recognise of the women I see each day.
When you look at a painting up close, you see detail. The rivets in dried oil, the crosshatch of canvas peering through paint. You have to move out in order to see the full picture. Zooming in on each headline was painful, but it took the accumulation of many to see the message they send in unison. Ten-year-olds are savvy – but they don’t have a lifetime of experience that tells them to kick back against the inaccuracies of this portrayal.
In a portrait, we learn about the essence of a person … and we also see the painter’s truth. The details amplified and omitted offer a keyhole into the mind of the creator. If this is the woman we’ve painted, what does this say about us?