Whenever I’m talking about real life heroines and role models, I put on my responsible-and-wearing-a-navy-blazer face. Immediately guarded, I reel off names like Melinda Gates, obvious queen bee Gloria Steinem, Mary Robinson. Women like Malala and Madeline Albright, whose quote, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” has been haunting magazine editorials ever since its pronouncement. All those women are wonderful and driven, but sometimes I feel that as a card-carrying feminist I have to be on my best behaviour when listing women I like. As if I’m forced into a corner of propriety when my personal mantra for these up-and-down twenties is from alleged Nazi collaborator and trousers pioneer, Coco Chanel- “I don’t care what you think about me, I hardly think about you at all.”
Even when I was in my late teens I was careful regarding whom I scribbled about. In one French writing exercise I wrote about Jane Eyre, who was admirable because she stuck by her values and all that. Now that I’m slightly older I find her piousness annoying and tend towards thinking that living in sin with Michael Fassbender sounds like a pretty alright deal.
It was also around this time that I started to read blogs in order to briefly escape from evenings of rote learning and career guidance research. (Aside: Has anyone actually followed those career maps we had to make when we were 17?) Eventually I discovered Jezebel, now the world’s leading feminist website, and it became for me this sort of force, a gateway to feminist news coupled with an infectious irreverence. Jezebel was also, crucially, fun. It made me feel okay about barely starting The Feminine Mystique. The early days of Jezebel felt like a club. There were in-jokes dropped like breadcrumbs across the comment sections. The writers were more than content mills, they were these shiny Brooklyn personalities, each with a distinctive style. I followed, along with other anonymous denizens, the exploits of two writers in particular, Moe Tkacik and Tracie Egan. Moe once wrote an essay about a tampon which went ‘missing’ for a few days and how she still got some while avoiding toxic shock syndrome. Tracy Egan meanwhile wrote under the name Slut Machine, gave agony aunt videos while high, and recounted her sex life in unapologetic detail. (Another aside: Has anything a man written ever been described as unapologetic? Links on the back of a postcard please.) The gamut of their lives were available in the easily searchable archive, tagged and totally there. However, then Moe and Tracy screwed up. Participating at a panel event in 2008, they were drinking and joked dismissively about rape in front of an audience composed mostly of young women. While an apology followed, the whole incident broke whatever spell they had momentarily cast on me. I was mortified at how cool I thought them.
That’s the thing about heroines, role models, girl crushes, call them what you will – you sometimes grow out of them. Be they bloggers or Jane Eyre.
I was thinking about all this when Lily Allen returned last week with her new single ‘Hard Out Here’. The song is a feminist one, a riposte to the over-sexualised music industry and is accompanied by a video wherein Allen’s post baby body is critiqued, she goes under the knife, and dreams a ridiculous but believable music video full of what culture now deems sexy. While most are applauding the song for its empowering aspirations, others have cried foul at the depiction of race in the video. The most twerking of dance moves appear to have been delegated to women of colour. Allen may be railing against the system but if she appears to be striving for change on behalf of white women only does it deserve our support? Being a perfect feminist can be trying, and I doubt Allen intended the choreography to offend in that way, but when one decides to speak out for women it’s probably best to stop and think, to be a little guarded. Who are you speaking for? Are you using the correct tone and words? However one thing I’m definitely gleaning from Allen is her ‘bitches’ list. In last Sunday’s Observer she said “Dolly Parton is a bitch. Adele’s a bitch. Angela Merkel is a bitch …Rihanna’s an inspiring bitch, my mum, Miley’s a bitch, rising. She’s my hero. Kate Middleton is NOT a bitch.”
I’ve decided to keep Chanel on my heroine b-list along with Allen, after all those champions of human rights, because not every heroine is heroic 100% of the time. In fact, you could say that problematic times call for problematic heroines.
Jeanne Sutton @jeannedesutun
P.S. The Lighthouse cinema in Smithfield are screening Gone With The Wind this weekend. Now Scarlett O’Hara, she’s the ultimate problematic heroine-bitch.
Image from The Observer.