In defence of imperfect role models: this International Women’s Day, let’s cut each other some slack.

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The trope of women being overly self-critical is well-worn precisely because it’s so accurate. Women routinely undervalue their skills in the labour market and set impossible standards for themselves in all aspects of life – be it fitness, academic achievement, relationships, or houseplant longevity. Generally speaking, women are much nicer to each other than they are to themselves, as anyone who’s either given or received a nightclub bathroom pep talk will confirm (basically free therapy). On the other hand, there are magazines that profit from literally drawing a red circle of shame around women’s bodies, with insidious not-quite-insult captions like ‘Dani from Love Island flaunts her new curves’. Who’s lapping this up? Reliably, it’s other women; generally trying to make themselves feel better about their own self-diagnosed “imperfections” by directing the bitchy energy outwards rather than inwards for a change. Obviously, men also criticise women, which is equally problematic, but does not represent such a spectacular own goal. 

Clearly, then, we have the capacity to be hugely supportive or depressingly critical of women. I’m not saying that we have to stop all the bitching. It’s human nature, and part of not being overly self-critical is allowing imperfection in the way you think of others as well as yourself. Some people do also just suck. But I think it’s worth examining this contradiction – a woman is either an icon, a queen, a goddess, or else they’re ugly, conceited, or mean. The narrative can turn at any moment; just look at Meghan Markle. There’s not much scope for complexity or nuance in the way we discuss successful women. So why are we not cutting them any slack, the way we would for our friends? 

First of all, there are simply not yet as many successful women as there are men. We’re still catching up, which is to be expected given that women in the UK couldn’t even open a bank account in their own name until 1975. What this means, though, is that when someone does make it – sticks their head above the parapet, and achieves the levels of success which are still, technically, against the odds – we expect far too much of them. There’s a specific vitriol that is frequently directed towards highly successful women – those who have generally tried to do good things, but being human and therefore fallible, might also have made some errors.  

Sometimes these ‘errors’ are real and worthy of critical discussion; Kamala Harris, a hugely impressive woman who has smashed many glass ceilings while fighting for progressive values, has been criticised for some harsh and questionable policies enacted while a prosecutor and Attorney General in California. Politicians often have to make unpleasant compromises to get anything done, and, weighing it up, she’s almost certainly done more good than bad – and as someone who represents so many ‘firsts’, the scale of her potential positive influence cannot be underestimated. In much of the media, Harris has been praised uncritically; touted as an idol and an inspiration. In contrast, the leftist side of Twitter portrays her as if she’d filmed herself drowning a basket of kittens while burning a picture of Bernie Sanders. It’s rare to see her spoken about without some kind of hyperbole either way, in human terms, rather than angel or demon.  

Sometimes the error that women are torn down for is simply one of omission – the ferocity of ‘whataboutery’ (someone raises an issue, and a bunch of other people say ‘well what about THIS? Why are you not talking about THIS?) – cannot be underestimated. For women who have gained a platform for themselves for their activism or advocacy for a cause, it almost seems that the harder they try to be progressive, ethical, or moral, the more keenly some people will look for ways to trip them up – because being good just isn’t good enough. Only perfection will do. The hate directed towards actor and activist Jameela Jamil is a perfect example of this. She’s variously been accused of pretending to have a chronic illness for “the clout”, of “bullying” the Kardashians, or of boasting about her privilege – all for the crime of raising awareness of eating disorders, and for emphasising that Hollywood beauty standards are unattainable for non-millionaires.  

These are just a couple of examples, and I’m not saying you have to like any of these women, or any specific woman at all, for that matter. That’s not the point. What we need to examine is the way in which we react to a lack of perfection in ourselves and other women. If we’re going to gain equality, we need to stop expecting women to be better than men. That just makes it okay for men to expect perfection from us as well, and I didn’t spend all this time growing up in the 21st century and getting all educated just to become a Stepford Wife.  Surely by now we’ve earned a break from internalised misogyny. Why are we creating all this extra work for ourselves? 

Cathi Westall

Cathi is a Masters student with the PoLIS department and Deputy Editor (Print) for 2020/1.

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