As FHM publishes its ‘100 sexiest women’ list, Maxine Frances goes for an antidote and pays tribute to her own female idols, whilst pondering the effect female heroines can have in inspiring young women and girls.
Mid-May is when FHM publishes its annual list of 100 sexiest women, and I alternate between feeling positive about the male gender when there’s a surprise entry on the list, and losing the will to live at the fake-tan brigade that make up most of the numbers. Forget the predictable adolescent male sneers of “you’re just jealous” – yes, I may be a perpetually single woman nursing a figure of student debt that looks like Paris Hilton’s mobile number, while the female denizens of lad-mags flaunt their six-figure salaries and trophy husbands, but I’m not into sour grapes. As I’m about to elaborate on, I have plenty of female heroines, most of whom I would just as happily be with as be. It’s just that they are the ones who are noted for a bit more than their willingness to turn up to someone else’s film premiere wearing very little.
I am using the FHM poll, however much it annoys me, as a springboard for me to think about my various woman idols, what they mean to me and why, especially in the context of my upbringing and my introduction to feminism.
My autobiography in this regard is not perhaps a typical one. My mother was born and raised in East Germany, where, for all its faults, women were considered equal with men, and gender discrimination, as we would understand it was never or rarely an issue. Consequently perhaps, apart from being required to put on my best dress for family get-togethers I was not made to feel hugely aware of my gender as I was growing up – at least, not until my mid-teens. I reacted strongly when I first understood myself as being perceived as a sexual being, with all the gender preconceptions attached to that, and when my mother told me stories of how the other mothers at school in our smalltown Daily Mail heartland had laughed at my wanting a Playmobil petrol station for Christmas as well as a doll.
Trivial as it sounds, seeing a small-screen adaptation of Big Women, Fay Weldon’s novel set in a feminist publishing house, was a call to arms for ,my 14 year-old self. I saw characters whose strength and energy I admired and wanted to emulate. Although, strangely, for a professed feminist I was – and still am – quite insecure around groups of females my own age, it was around the same period in early adolescence I had begun to develop a vivid and sometimes obsessive affinity with particular women – primarily actresses and singers – in the public eye. For years, I kept a scrapbook of press cuttings about them, which, much to my family’s ridicule and amusement, used to stay beside me all the time at home, even in the bath.
So intense were my interests that my parents were sporadically driven to look for some kind of hormonal imbalance theory or medical condition that could explain my obsessive behaviour. They never seriously followed it up, and most of the time I was simply accepted as an awkward teenager – I think, with the hope that as I grew older, I’d get my priorities right, take my head out of the clouds, and, as my Dad once put it, embrace “Life With A Capital L.” But I didn’t buy it. As far as I was concerned, Life With A Capital L had never seemed to have much to offer. By contrast, the heroines I had (and those I could discuss them with) were a warmth, a constant.
When I grabbed a gluttonous slice of junk food (unlike most of my peers, I never, ever felt threatened or pressurised by skinny women), retreated to my room and listened to an actress do a rousing scene or a female singer/songwriter belt out a tune as if nothing else mattered in the world, that energy transferred itself to me. Suddenly, I could lose myself in something, forgetting about things I couldn’t do, wars and injustices I couldn’t stop, possessions I couldn’t afford and kindred spirits I couldn’t find enough of. Celebrated singer/songwriter Tori Amos, summed it up, pretentiously perhaps, but accurately: “Music is the most powerful medium in the world because with it you’re hitting frequencies that remind people they’re more than just a functional being that eats, sleeps, shits and comes.”
Unfortunately, Life With A Capital L has a persistent way of knocking, and when it starts to merge into your fantasy cocoon, you can find yourself in some very unhappy places. By my final year at school, it had become increasingly difficult to square my fantasies about where my life ought to have been headed: sipping eccentric cocktails and trading intellectual musings with my female heroes late into the night, with the solid reality: a clumsy teenager with a limited social life and limited talents. Though I’ve come a long way since, the dark shadow of that era hangs over me still: articles such as this one are as much an attempt to salvage something positive out of the whole experience as to beef up my journalistic portfolio and promote worthy things.
You might think the fact that I can still both fear and hero-worship women for the slightest of reasons, whilst being relatively unfazed, for example, by men with Double Firsts who talk earnestly about receiving Christmas gifts from royalty, would be something more profitably addressed on a therapists’ couch than in a feminist web-zine (I’m sure Nancy Chodorow and other Freud-influenced psychoanalysts would have a field day with it). However, I think it’s quite pertinent and in another sense positive, particularly to all those who say that today’s young girls have no interests beyond making themselves attracted to men.
I also wonder what it is that draws me to take my inspiration from particular women and not from others. Maybe it’s quite straightforward: see the distinction I made in the first paragraph between mere “celebrities” and actors, actresses or musicians. Or maybe not: Whenever I try to quantify something (whether it’s a shallow quality like having the willow-blonde hair that deserted me at puberty, or something with a little more bite like allegiance to the socialist/feminist cause or setting up their own record label) that makes me sit up and take notice, I can always think of a few exceptions to the rule. Then I concede that, though there might be certain traits I admire in women, I don’t necessarily choose to see them in every woman, and there are plenty of women who lack those traits while plenty of men have them in abundance. Therein lies a major issue: In calling myself a feminist, should I really be making such a point of gendering my heroes? Or am I a truer feminist if I don’t make a distinction between the men and the women I admire for their talents and abilities?
Academic Judith Butler added a radical new dimension to feminist theory in the early 1990s when she suggested that the binary between homosexuality and heterosexuality creates gender distinctions – and not vice versa – hence the argument for a fluid approach to both sexuality and gender rather than constructing them as binary opposites. She has become something of a hero to me of late. With her help, I have acknowledged my capacity to love a person, irrespective of their gender, to a point where it seems little more than common sense. So why, then should I make a big fuss about whose music or whose films and plays I choose to lose myself in more often?
For what it’s worth though, I am compelled to come up with a quick show of my female idols as antidotes to FHM‘s Sexiest Woman list that is a product of our unavoidably gender-divided and gender-obsessed society. My own list encompasses many fields from the usual feminist suspects: musicians Tori Amos, Kate Bush, PJ Harvey and Ani DiFranco and some riot grrl pioneers, to Mariella Frostrup, Alison Goldfrapp, comedienne Margaret Cho, actresses Rachel Stirling (star of Tipping The Velvet: about as down-to-earth as you can be when your mother’s Dame Diana Rigg) Miranda Richardson, Emma Fielding, Helen Grace and socialist-feminist Saffron Burrows. This is of course, a very personal and non-exhaustive list but you get the idea, and there’s bound to be something for everyone in there.
Some I celebrate for their eccentricity and their expressed which to deviate from “the norm”, some I celebrate because they can live out bland everyday existences whilst still maintaining a presence or charm that separates them from everyone else in their situation. The list isn’t age-restricted (for God’s sake, if we’re going to celebrate women as a distinctive category, let’s not exclude those over 25). Most importantly, it doesn’t look at the scale of their impact in terms of how many column inches they occupy in magazines or how many people buy what they produce – but the scale of the impact they’ve had on the individuals who are touched by their work, in whatever way, however many or few that may be. Perhaps this, better than anything, answers the question: what makes a woman a heroine? I may have mellowed since my days of reading press cuttings in the bath, but it’s still a question that matters to me, and probably to many young women and girls trapped in suburbia grasping for any scrap of inspiration they can get their hands on…