We may have made it to February 2014, but there’s always a little space for reflection on the past. In her piece for Exeposé Features, Flora Carr takes a look back on the important female figures of 2013.
2013 was a year defined by songs. ‘Get Lucky’. ‘Wrecking Ball’. ‘We Can’t Stop’. ‘Blurred Lines’. Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke in particular both produced songs that were as catchy as they were controversial. But there is one other song which also raised eyebrows and which I believe defines the women of 2013: Lily Allen’s ‘Hard Out Here’.
Described by Rolling Stones magazine as a “feminist anthem through and through”, Allen addresses sexism and double standards in the music industry. Her video is hilarious and tongue-in-cheek, including her several attempts to twerk. However the song has more serious undertones, not least its hook: “It’s hard out here for a bitch”. And it is.
Anyone, male or female, who believes that, as Allen sarcastically comments, “we’re out of the woods” is kidding themselves. If anything, being at university has reinforced this idea for me. In clubs, a guy will casually skim his hand over a girl’s body, both parties accepting that that’s the way it is. Like it or not, patriarchal ideals still exist in today’s society. But despite this, 2013 was a year for women and about women.
Granted, if there is one woman who stamped her mark across last year’s calendar it was Miley Cyrus. At 21, last year she effectively flame-torched her old squeaky-clean, country singing image. In fact, underneath the giant foam hand she wore for her performance with Robin Thicke at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards she might as well have been holding two fingers up to Disney. And if your dance moves can embarrass Will Smith, the man who invented the ‘Jump On It’ dance, depending on your viewpoint you know you’ve either got it very right or very wrong. She’s hardly the first female pop star to increase their record sales through sexualising their image; nor will she be the last. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to focus on women who exhibited originality.
In the music industry today, to be original you seem to need at least three naked girls and/or giant teddy bear backpacks. But these women didn’t show their tits – just their mettle.
1) Jennifer Lawrence
Debate ranges over whether or not Miley Cyrus and Rihanna, in sexualising their images, are either conforming to the demands of the music industry or playing the music industry to their own advantage. But there is one female celebrity who has famously rejected conformity either way through refusing to lose weight. Oscar winning actress Jennifer Lawrence, a UK size 10-12, told movie executives where to shove it when they demanded that she lose weight in the run up to filming the new The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
In an interview with US Elle Lawrence stated that she’d never starve herself for a film role, let alone for a movie that’s seen by young girls: “I don’t want little girls to be like, ‘Oh, I want to look like Katniss, so I’m going to skip dinner.’” Lawrence also stated that she eats “like a caveman”; “I’ll be the only actress who doesn’t have anorexia rumours”. But being different hasn’t inhibited Lawrence in any way; she’s the third-youngest actress ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and her performance in the romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook (2012) earned her, among others, an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award. And 2013 was also huge for her; her role as Katniss Everdeen has made her the highest grossing female action hero. Who needs Lara Croft?
2) Wendy Davis
Wendy Davis, the Democratic Texan senator managed to make headlines in June 2013 when, as the result of her filibuster, she managed to stall a bill to close most of Texas’s abortion clinics and ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. According
to Senate rules a filibuster (often called “talking out a bill”) permits a senator, or series of senators, to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, delaying or entirely preventing a vote on a given proposal. It’s a neat loophole; but it also required mum-of-two Davis to stand for 11 hours without food or water, toilet breaks or even the option to lean on her desk. In her bright pink trainers, Davis quickly caught the national and international media’s attention.
More than 150,000 people watched the filibuster via YouTube. Thousands more followed on Twitter, especially after President Obama brought it to his 33 million followers’ attention, telling them “Something special is happening in Austin tonight” and using the hashtag #StandWithWendy. After 11 hours – an hour short of the required 12 – Davis was rebuked by Republicans for digressing from her topic (abortion clinics). However, the court proceedings were held up by the crowd’s chanting and other Democratic Senators raising points of order, resulting in the bill’s failure. And despite one Fox news commentator dubbing her “abortion Barbie”, she’s standing to become governor of Texas. Wendy Davis, we salute you. And your pink trainers.
3) Margaret Thatcher
She was a woman even more divisive than Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, but for good or ill she defined a decade of British politics and our parents’ generation. And aside from Elizabeth I or Peggy Mitchell there are few other women who showed as much mettle and wielded such power in a man’s world as the ‘Iron Lady’.
Thatcher died on 8 April 2013 at the age of 87; the event proved that even in death she still holds a certain power over the nation, a sense of fascination. Her death produced a torrent of reactions from the media and public; polarising the nation, like Marmite you either loved or hated Thatcher. In cities such as Leeds celebrations were held in the streets, whilst a campaign on social media networks to bring the song ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ (from The Wizard of Oz) into the UK Singles Chart succeeded, with the song peaking at number two, although most radio shows only played a small segment of the song. MP George Galloway tweeted the phrase “Tramp the dirt down”, in reference to Elvis Costello’s 1989 song by the same name about dancing on Thatcher’s grave.
Many would argue that these celebratory events and messages were justified; Thatcher’s ‘casino capitalism’ and industrial policies resulted in high unemployment and massive social unrest in many parts of the country. But economic policies and industrial relations aside, there can be no denying, despite Thatcher stating that she had little time for ‘women’s lib’, that her battle to the top of a sphere dominated by men made her a pioneer for women’s rights. As Ban Ki-moon, stated this year, Thatcher was “a great model as the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who not only demonstrated her leadership but has given such great hope for many women for equality, gender equality in Parliament.” Thatcher had stated herself, as late as 1970, that “there will not be a woman Prime Minister in my lifetime – the male population is too prejudiced.” But not even the male population could resist the talent and grip of the Iron Lady.
4) Malala Yousafzai
There are few 15-year-old girls whose political activism makes them a direct threat to the Taliban. Fewer still who, upon receiving an invitation to meet with Barack Obama and his family at the White House, would directly challenge the President on his use of drone strikes in Pakistan. And I doubt many have graced Time’s magazine cover of ‘The 100 Most Influential People in the World’.
And yet 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, born in north-west Pakistan under Taliban rule, has done all this and more. Hers is an incredible story.
At the age of only 11 Yousafzai began writing a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC about her life under Taliban rule and their attempts to take control of Swat Valley. She also detailed her strong views on promoting education for girls. A year later the New York Times approached her about filming a documentary about her life; the filming coincided with the Pakistani military trying to intervene in the region, which culminated in the ‘Second Battle of Swat’. Yousafzai rose in prominence over the next couple of years, but as she did so the Taliban came to view her and her outspoken condemnation of girls’ lack of education as a threat.
On 9 October 2012, Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen while returning home on a school bus. After several days spent in a critical condition she was sent to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England for intensive rehabilitation. She has since remained here and, although the Taliban still continues its death threats, 2013 was Yousafzai’s year; she was the youngest individual and only girl to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and on her birthday in July she received a standing ovation at the UN. The day was even dubbed ‘Malala Day’. She’s a teenager who has stared in the face of death for girls’ education rights. Her name may mean grief-stricken but, thanks to her, women’s rights activists are anything but.
5) The female passers-by at the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby.
This last example of female strength is perhaps the most poignant. It’s a story of compassion and solidarity in response to terror and violence. And in the same month as the appeal for Drummer Lee Rigby’s killers, it’s fitting to look back the horrific event.
On 22 May 2013, a British soldier Drummer Lee Rigby, of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was attacked and killed by two men near the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, London. In the court hearing in November the jury was told that Rigby was hacked to death like he was a “joint of meat” by the two Islamist extremists Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale. The men knocked Drummer Rigby down with their car before attacking him with meat cleavers and knives in broad daylight in front of horrified passers-by. It was a sickening event that stunned and shocked the nation. If a man can be virtually decapitated just a few yards away from a group of school children, what does this say about humanity?
But a small flicker of hope sparked during the aftermath of the attack. One woman, Amanda Donnelly Martin, who was with her daughter Gemini, went to the body, stroking Drummer Rigby’s head and protecting him whilst Vikki Cave, a trained first aider, confronted Adebolajo after realising that there was nothing she could do to help Drummer Rigby. In the meantime another woman, Amanda Bailey, stopped the group of children who were passing by following a library trip.
In ‘Hard Out Here’ Lily Allen sarcastically identifies that the ‘best’ attributes a woman can have are a pretty face and cookery skills. But instead Donnelly, Martin and Cave in particular exhibited decency and, above all, bravery, offering comfort and attempting to diffuse a violent threat. Lawrence, Davis, Thatcher and Yousafzai are all well-known, established figures, but in the case of Drummer Lee Rigby’s death the women were ordinary passers-by. They are testament to the fact that female strength can come from anywhere – even in the darkest of places.