Monday, 13 August 2012

Where were the women in the Olympics closing ceremony?

This post was written for the Evening Standard.

It all started so well.

From suffragettes to Mary Poppins, from children’s nurses to JK Rowling, Shami Chakrabati and Doreen Lawrence – the Olympics opening ceremony brought women into the spotlight, celebrating the our place in British history, literature, politics and culture. Even the most famous British woman in the world got to outshine James Bond, starring in her own mini action flick.

And then there were the games themselves. Lauded the ‘women’s games’, women athletes were finally allowed to compete from all Olympic nations, including Saudi Arabia. Jessica Ennis became the face of the competition. The first team GB medal was won by a woman, our first gold was won by a women’s team. Every day, we saw strong women, passionate women, women jumping, running, rowing, swimming, cycling – their talent and their dedication celebrated across the world.

As we cheered, Lizzie Armistead spoke out against sexism. Zoe Smith hit back against Twitter bullies who were more concerned about her appearance as opposed to her incredible talent. Nicola Adams proved those who thought women shouldn’t box wrong, as she clutched her Gold medal, a huge smile on her face. Everyone agreed that, when it came to nominating 2012’s Sports Personality of the Year, the BBC wouldn’t be missing women from the shortlist again.

I know I wasn’t the only feminist who, watching the Olympics, felt full of hope. Hope that finally, the women’s representation in the media was on the cusp of changing. Surrounded by images and voices of women who were lauded for the incredible achievements, perhaps we were moving towards a new era of positive women role models; a world where women’s value wasn’t primarily placed on how they look, but how they do.  

But then the Olympics closing ceremony started. And it was a return to form.

In their celebration of fifty years of British music, the organisers only managed to find three women solo artists to perform, and one ‘girl group’. They found one woman artist who, although she didn’t perform live, lent her incredible voice to the event. Successful women performers are apparently so thin on the ground, that Emeli Sande and Jessie J were required to sing twice.

Now, I’m not the only one who can be thinking that there are more than four women solo artists and one girl group from across the last fifty years of British music. Where were the women? Where were our rock women, our soul women? Our indie women, our pop women, our dance women? Our Grammy award-winning, Mercury Prize-winning, Brit award-winning women?

The organisers said they wanted the event to reflect British music, to show how great British music was to the world. Are our women singers not part of that greatness? I can’t believe that of all the other women recording right now, or who have shaped the scene over the last fifty years, that none of them wanted to be part of the biggest gig London has ever seen, or were washing their hair.

Of course, women were visible at the closing ceremony. We were there, standing and smiling in sequins, holding the flags. We were there in sexy police uniforms, flanking Russell Brand as he played a Willy Wonka playboy. We were silently dressed as beautiful angels, looking on adoringly as Eric Idle sang Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. And we silently, beautifully, walked across the stage in gorgeous ballgowns, as David Bowie’s voice rang out across the stadium.

Throughout the closing ceremony, women were seen and not heard. We were there to look nice, as men did the singing, the talking. Women’s strength, talent and dedication – so powerfully present and demonstrated over the past two and a half weeks, were almost completely absent.

Watching the Olympics Closing Ceremony, I felt genuinely sad. Because as I watched more and more men take the stage and sing, and felt the powerful absence of women, it was as though normal service had resumed. Where men get to stand up and make things happen, and women get to stand up and be looked at.

But there’s still time to prove me wrong. I hope that the Olympics legacy turns its back on the representation of women offered by the closing ceremony. I hope it reverses the sexism spoken about by Lizzie Armistead. I hope it teaches young girls across the UK that they’ll be valued for what they say and do, and not for how they look. Let’s put that funding in place, let’s give women athletes the TV and media coverage they so clearly deserve. Let’s make the change of the last two and a half weeks last for a whole lot longer than the 2012 London Olympics.


My uncle has given me a list of the running order to check the gender diversity.

It works out like this:

Women singers/groups/recorded: 5 – Emeli Sande, Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, Jessie J, The Spice Girls

Men singers/groups/recorded: 24 – Madness, Pet Shop Boys, One Direction, Beatles, Ray Davies, Elbow, John Lennon, Queen, George Michael, Kaiser Chiefs, Ed Sheeran (with Nick Mason, Mike Rutherford and Richard Jones), David Bowie, Russell Brand, Fatboy Slim, Tinie Tempah, Taoi Cruz, The Bee Gees, Beady Eye, ELO, Muse, Eric Idle, London Welsh Male Voice Choir and London Welsh Rugby Club Choir, Take That, The Who (27 if you count Ed Sheeran's collaborators).

Mixed musical groups: 4 – Urban Voices, LSO, Urban voices collective and Dhol foundation, London Philharmonic

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