This end of year review is part of a series from Backbench’s editorial team as they consider some of the themes that have dominated 2020. The views expressed in these reviews are those of the editors themselves and do not necessarily reflect the standpoint of Backbench as a whole. 

If you had told me on New Year’s Day earlier this year that by the completion of 2020 I would be constructing an analysis on gender, I would’ve assumed you had the wrong writer. I am far from an expert on the subject, usually favouring the topics of US foreign policy or Middle Eastern affairs. However, I was provoked and so the words have come. 

By and large, I seldom get angry. Annoyed? Perhaps. Irritated? Sure. But, not often the can’t speak, can’t sleep, can’t eat anger that is reserved for Hollywood productions. That theory, over the concluding months of the year, has been tried tested and an exception appears to have emerged. 

The year may be 2020, but time and time again qualified and impressive women feature in headlines not because of their achievements but due to their appearance. Over the summer, news of Adele flooded social media platforms and magazines were sold not with information of a new album or musical project, but because of her traffic stopping weight loss.

When Rebel Wilson posted pictures of her weight loss during her self proclaimed year of fitness and dieting, fans across the world mourned the loss of their beloved ‘Fat Amy’ forgetting, of course, that Amy was a fictional character adopted by Wilson. As Clair Woodward for The Telegraph wittily claims, women’s weight loss has now become a “spectator sport”. 

This is, however, a double edged sword. In filling column inches with how incredible these women look we set the stage, allowing readers to take their seats on the off chance that they should fall from their newly found grace of slimness. 

At yet again, we’ve hit another obstacle. In praising these women and their weight loss in headlines, this automatically assumes that the reversal of weight gain should face criticism in the press. In February, we were reminded of how badly wrong this can go with personal attacks from the media. In response, the phrase of the month quickly informed us to “be kind”. We clearly still have much to learn.

But, alas, I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start, as Julie Andrews advises, at the beginning. At the end of February, before we were au fait with the terms “lockdown” and “social distancing” Claire Rothstein’s Be a Lady They Said fashion film went viral with celebrities form Dua Lipa to Madonna sharing it on their social media accounts, just in time for International Women’s Day. The feature exposes the daily contradictions around being a ‘lady’ that society dictates to women. The film tells of how women must look sexy, but not being provocative, while not being too fat or too thin. The reality is obvious, we can never win as this happy medium doesn’t exist.

One of the most powerful moments for gender, for me, came to us via reality television in May. Ru Paul’s Drag Race is not everyone’s cup of tea. However, regardless of where the show sits in your estimation it sets the bar for the art of drag around the world, creating a platform for LGBT+ rights and challenges previously accepted gender norms. Designed by Travis Ostriech and inspired by the “We the People” series by Shepard Fairey, in the most recent series Persian Canadian drag queen, Jackie Cox, walked the runway in a traditional kaftan and headscarf styled with the pattern of the American flag. Not only was the artist challenging what we understood as an Iranian woman, but indeed what constituted an American woman. 

The words “you can be Middle-Eastern, you can be Muslim and you can still be American” filled the air above her as she walked the runway proudly. It was thought-provoking, it was beautiful and it was drag at its’ most exquisite. 

Now, this example takes the issue of gender from apolitical right into the political. In October, commentators had a lot to say when then Senator Kamala Harris and exiting Vice President Mike Pence went head to head, albeit behind some plexiglass, in the VP debates. Rather ironically, the real star of the show seemed to be the fly that landed on Pence’s head during the debate and made a home there. But, sadly the irony did not stop here. 

Harris was soon able to take this in her stride as come November she became the first black female and Asian American Vice President. However, this didn’t stop headlines leading up to election day focus on her facial expressions at Pence’s remarks. Yes, the comment “Mr Vice President, I’m speaking… I’m speaking” exploded onto the internet but the focus is on the wrong sentiment. Girls across the nation idolised her ability to shutdown the alt-right Vice President while simultaneously knowing little of her policy. The wheel goes round and once again we fall into the trap of only touching the surface of a women’s attributes. 

And, slowly, then it hit me; society takes decades to slowly evolve despite what we may think. This year has proved just that. If this is the game we as women are born into then just watch us make a few new rules along the way. These articles will always feature somewhere, so why not try to reclaim the narrative? As the colloquial phrase instructs us, if you can’t beat them, join them. 

The problem arises when we cannot adequately strike a balance. When female celebrities and ordinary women alike become a topic of discussion in isolation from their careers. Rebecca Reid wrote last week in the Huffington Post of her anger over the perceived myth that beauty and fashion are inherently sexist, they aren’t. What, in my humble opinion, is sexist is to assume that these are selected with fickle intentions. 

What remains clear is that we have a way to go. When researching for this piece and tapping in an internet search for “key moments for gender in 2020”, the articles that appeared before my eyes tried to inform me of the successes of women throughout the year. The triumphs of women, and for women, are significant needless to say but this year has finally etched away at our understanding at the very depths of gender. Free period products in Scotland and how Jacinda Arden handled the pandemic are worth acknowledging, but we are mistaken in viewing them as making up the entire discussion of gender. While we may be learning as a society, clearly our internet algorithms are yet to catch up with us. 

As to the question of where next? If this year has taught us anything it is that we are foolish if we believe we can predict it. What we must hope though, is that as our perception of gender and its roles continues to evolve, we take society with us. That we open the door to the cage it has become, free those remaining inside and throw the key far away. 

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