When I started writing about feminism, I was mainly into the heroines. The bold, the brave, the outlying, the trailblazers. All the women who feature in 100 Women Who Made History, or any of the other books you buy a 13-year-old for their birthday when they’re having a bit of a wobble and are feeling sad about their knickers, or legs. Queens! Pirates! Astronauts! Mathematicians! Rock stars and geniuses! Pioneering women who could do anything!
However, as time has gone by I’ve become less interested in them because I’m not sure amazing women are that helpful for teenage girls after all. I mean, it’s all a bit of an effort, isn’t it? Being a mould-breaking iconoclast, genius and unstoppable force of nature? The message that if you’re constantly astonishing and willing to make every day a battle, you can succeed? I mean, duh. Girls in the 21st century — with all their anxieties and depressions — don’t need to be told to make more of an effort. That’s not the inspiration they need right now. They’re already mercilessly flogging themselves to be perfect. They already have worried therapists telling them: “Dude, relax a bit.”
This is why, these days, I’m more into unexceptional women. Women who are just clocking in. Coasting. Cruising. Or, as I wrote in How to Be a Woman, “We will know feminism has finally done its job — of bringing about true gender equality — when women can be as awful, dim, nuts, lacklustre and thoroughly average as men.”
In 2023 we need women who girls don’t have to look up to — but can look sideways at, instead. Or even down upon. And, in this way, find some comfort, and relief. Some reassurance that they won’t have to be 300 per cent better than any man to succeed, and that the world will find a place for those . . . less than extraordinary.
Consequently, my Women of the Year are those who have not been peerless, inexhaustible mavens, but who have, for totally different reasons, been oddly inspirational. And my first nominee brilliantly fulfils all my 2011 wishes — for women who are as awful, dim, nuts, lacklustre and thoroughly average as successful men — because: it’s Liz Truss. Yes! Liz Truss! Bet you didn’t expect to see her being nominated for Woman of the Year! But yet, under my calculations, she absolutely needs to be here — not for being Britain’s third female prime minister, but for being the first who was as spectacularly terrible at the job as any male prime minister, such as Boris “My whole cabinet has just resigned” Johnson, David “Let’s have a massively divisive referendum!” Cameron, Frederick “I lost America” North or John “I only got the job because I was George II’s tutor, then introduced a cider tax, provoked riots and resigned after a year” Stuart.
Come on, it is a massive achievement for womankind that someone from our gang — still so underrepresented in politics — managed to get the top job despite being so evidently the kind of person who would get fired from working the counter at Greggs after a week, let alone from being prime minister. As Miley Cyrus sings, she came in like a wrecking ball, delivered an insane mini-budget, threatened to crash the entire British economy, sacked her chancellor, disappeared so alarmingly that Penny Mordaunt had to specify that she was not “hiding” under a desk and was, eventually, beaten by a lettuce, after 49 days on the job.
In terms of personal impact she has managed to be a reverse-Midas for almost everyone in this country — turning everything she touched to shit, as I’m sure your new, gigantic mortgages bills can confirm. And even now she won’t go away — basically trying to declare war on China on her own, and making admirably confident suggestions for future economic policy, with a borderline magical disregard for the fact that “economic advice from Liz Truss” is a line up there with “cruises from the people who brought you the Titanic”.
Finally, and perhaps most notably of all, she seems to have broken through most women’s natured/nurtured tendency to feel guilty about everything, and blame themselves for everything, with her continuing and frankly awe-inspiring list of who was really to blame for her failure: tldr — everyone apart from Liz Truss. Instead, the real culprits were both “the left-wing economic establishment” and “the anti-growth coalition” — which apparently consists of “Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP, the militant unions, the vested interests dressed up as think tanks, the talking heads, the Brexit deniers and Extinction Rebellion”, plus “people on Twitter” and “people who take taxis from north London townhouses to the BBC”. Why not pop “the capricious gods up on Mount Olympus and, also, the entire 1992 cast of Grange Hill” on that list, Liz? Really finish the job off.
In her way Liz Truss has been as groundbreaking and pioneering for women in politics as Margaret Thatcher, or Barbara Castle, in that, surely, there is no woman alive who can’t now overcome their natural reticence and fear about going into politics — “I won’t be good enough!” “It’s not for the likes of me!” — by simply thinking: “F***ing hell. Liz Truss was actually prime minister. Of course I could give it a bash. The bar is now low enough for any female politician to be as awful as the men. Hurrah!”
For this inspiration, Liz — or binspiration, given how you ended up in the bin — womankind is thankful.
My second two nominees are of a wholly different calibre to Truss. Whatever your personal political views, it’s hard to deny that both were effective, capable, diligent, bright and wholly deserving of their power. But, for me, it was with their resignations that Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Ardern became nominees for Women of the Year, because women also need to feel that they can say when they’re done.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of Margaret Thatcher was her grim, maddened inability to step down when it was all clearly over. The only time you ever saw anything approaching fear in her eyes was in the last weeks of her prime ministership, when the prospect of life after Downing Street clearly terrified her. If you have been a pioneering woman, and made it to the top, the idea of no longer being at the top becomes unthinkable, and synonymous with defeat — and possibly you no longer existing, in any form that you recognise. But, as Elbow sang in the beautiful The Take-Off and Landing of Everything, how you end a relationship, or journey, is just as important as how you start it — and yet we very rarely talk about exit plans, or “after”.
Sturgeon and Ardern left before they were bloodied, exhausted and limping. They jumped off the swing while it was still moving, and landed squarely on their feet. One suspects this will save them a period of healing, wounded, in the wilderness — it certainly saved their parties and colleagues the horror of having to, in political terms, treat them like a poorly badger and finish them off with a spade.
To have the confidence of knowing when to leave — and to believe that there will be other jobs, other chances, other people you can be — is a beautiful example for women to see. You’ve gotta know when to hold them, know when to fold them. You’ve got to be able to believe you don’t just get one pop at mattering, which you cling on to, desperately, until they shoot you off it. That there will be second, third and fourth acts — and that they can start only when you gracefully bow out of the first, while you still have petrol in the tank.
My final nominee, however — and my overall winner of Woman of the Year 2023 — is Rihanna, for her inspiringly low-effort performance at the Super Bowl half-time show in February.
Opinion has been divided on the gig: the superfans called her “Queen” and “perfection”, as of course they would. The more sceptical peevishly pointed out that she didn’t “do much” and could have “risen to the occasion” a bit more. But this second opinion, the “not doing much”, was why I passionately loved it.
For those who haven’t seen it, this was Rihanna’s first live appearance in seven years, and was wildly speculated on beforehand. What would her triumphant comeback be like? How far would she go? What bonkers showbiz cornucopia was about to unfold and blow our minds?
In the event Rihanna basically turned up in an anorak, barely bothered to lip-sync to her songs, knocked out the bare minimum of dance moves, and left most of the heavy lifting to her seemingly 2,000-strong group of dancers.
And this is why it was inspiring.
Remember when Beyoncé performed at the Super Bowl in 2013? And appeared in the centre of the pitch, under a 50ft-high neon statue of herself, with a barrage of pyrotechnics, accompanied by a speech from Martin Luther King? And then ran through all her hits, reformed Destiny’s Child, did the whole Single Ladies dance in 4in heels, sang live with the most flawless range in operation, before reducing the audience to tears with Halo?
Or when Madonna did it, in 2012, and entered the arena on a massive, Cleopatra-style gold throne pulled by a hundred sexy “slaves” and went into Vogue in a 2ft-high gold crown while pretending to play a zither? Then absolutely busted every move in her repertoire, accompanied by MIA and Nicki Minaj, on an LED dancefloor that looked like the closing scene to Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Before bringing on a) a hundred cheerleaders b) a gospel choir and c) CeeLo, before disappearing through the ground in a puff of smoke?
On both occasions these women worked their arses off to justify being given the biggest entertainment slot on global TV. They knew they were representing womankind, and they wanted to absolutely blast all the previous, male performers (Tom Petty, the Who, Aerosmith) out of the water. And they did.
But you know that old saying, “X walked so Y could run”? I like to think Beyoncé and Madonna ran, in heels, so Rihanna could walk, in the comfortable trainers she wore for her performance. In 2023 the biggest female artists in the world shouldn’t have to put on The Greatest Shows of All Time, in corsets and heels, to justify their invites. We’re past that, now. Rihanna is the wealthiest female artist in the world, worth $1.4 billion; the second-biggest-selling female artist in history; she has had 14 No 1s, racked up nine Grammys; and her Fenty fashion and cosmetics lines are runaway bestsellers. It’s very satisfying that she turned up, sang her 11 most famous songs (Bitch Better Have My Money, We Found Love, Diamonds, Run This Town, Umbrella), then went home again. That’s what eg Oasis would do.
Rihanna’s whole vibe was “You’re lucky I’m here” — to the point where, in between songs, she gleefully pulled out a Fenty compact, powdered her nose and did a sweet bit of product placement to an audience of 113 million people. Might as well while you’re there, eh?
And it’s not as if she didn’t provide everyone with a news line — opening her anorak during her first number, she proudly revealed her swollen belly: a hitherto totally secret second pregnancy.
“It’s enough that I’ve turned up here, massively up the duff, and sung your favourite songs in the middle of a football match,” her inspiringly confident, serene expression said.
And it is. I think “enough” is the most inspiring word for women, and girls, for 2023 International Women’s Day. For, surely, the ultimate aim of days such as this is to look forward to a time when women won’t have to campaign, and march, and fight, and justify their space in the room, over and over, any more. A million such battles like this still exist: childcare, equal pay, the appalling rape-conviction statistics, mental health, sex trafficking, online misogyny, repressive regimes, abortion.
But that’s why I want to celebrate all the instances where — in rare, beautiful moments of progress — women, and feminism, have succeeded enough for women to coast, walk, shrug, quit or just be absolutely f***ing, non-negotiably, history-makingly terrible at their job. This is a triumph, too. This is what true equality really looks like: simply, less effort.