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


Forty Shades Of Grey said...

I didn't watch the closing ceremony, I've been at a festival all weekend, but I totally know what you're talking about. At the festival there was one punk/rockabilly stage which had some of my favourite bands playing on. There was (to the best of my recollection) one female band member out of four days of music, and every night the guy that ran the stage would send out at least three groups of semi-naked women to dance by the sides of the bands. It was like a bloody slap in the face, he might as well just straight up put a sign up saying 'WOMEN DON'T MAKE OR LISTEN TO MUSIC, THEY'RE JUST DECORATIONS'. It's also fucking offensive to the blokes too, insinuating they can't possibly enjoy anything unless there's also a pair of tits to stare at. It really ruined one of my favourite bands, and I spoke to my other female mates and they felt exactly the same :(

joanna said...

Spot-on, Sian. As mum of 11 and 10 year-old daughters who have embraced the spirit and enthusiasm of the Games, watched their home team women footballers, home team female tennis players, talked about whether football-playing 10 year-old might aim for GB Team in 2020, felt that the closing ceremony was sending them distinctly mixed messages about women's role. Felt as though the air had been let out of our tyres, and a bit cheated, somehow.

sian and crooked rib said...

FSOG - absolutely. UK Feminista research found that 70% of glasto acts in 2010 were men, and it's so common now to get audience women up on stage to dance for the main men.

Joanna - i hope your girls do get into the 2020 team! as i say at the end of the post, i really hope that the spirit of the olympics continues around positive women's representation, that the closing ceremony was a blip... i felt cheated too.

Charlotte. said...

This is exactly what I was thinking! So sad as well as the whole coverage of the games seemed to be such a huge step in the right direction, not just with the athletes but with Clare Balding being the best commentator/presenter by far.

Sam Evans said...

I’m not sure that I agree with this – the footage of Jessica Ennis achieving gold whilst Emeli SandĂ© sang her interpretation of Imagine was one of the key moments of last night’s entertainment – a pairing of soul and strength that will ‘inspire a generation’ as per the overall theme of London 2012. Jesse J, Annie Lennox and The Spice Girls (arguably the epitome of girl power) were also highlights, along with Darcy Bussell whose talent created the backdrop of the most poignant moment of the closing ceremony - extinguishing the flame.

Yes, there were many women who *could* have graced the stage but then again, there would have been even more bleary eyed people as a result on account of an even later night!

sian and crooked rib said...

Sam - i definitely didn't have a problem with the women who were performing, and i agree that my eyes certainly weren't dry when Emeli Sande was singing to the montage - reminding us of how great the women in the games were! I was just frustrated that it was SO many men performing and so few women - in terms of music i counted the following:

live women performers = spice girls, emeli sande (twice), jessie j (twice), annie lennox. recorded women song: kate bush. And then live male performers: madness, ray davies, pet shop boys, beady eye, tinie tempah, brian may, one direction, take that, george michael, the who, taio cruz, russell brand, muse, kaiser chiefs, eric idle and fatboy slim.
And then recorded male songs: david bowie, john lennon, blur, freddie mercury.

and that in terms of who was doing the standing around looking pretty and idealised and silent it was women.

here's a great article on the amazing women athletes and what they're legacy to young women's self esteem could be!

e.f. bartlam said...

I didn't see the closing ceremonies but I can't find any mention of PJ Harvey.

If she didn't perform...wipe it from the history books and pretend it neve happened.

Jaycee said...

I totally agree, Sian. Watching the closing ceremony, I felt as though I'd been transported back in time, and not just because of the musical trip down Memory Lane. With only a few exceptions, women were presented as little more than decorative wallpaper, to provide a backdrop to the alpha males strutting their stuff.
Last night seemed to me, on the whole, a self-indulgent flight of fancy devised by blokes for blokes, and a million miles away from all the courageous and memorable performances by women athletes in the Olympics. Fortunately, they produced lasting images which will be recalled long after the triviality and sexism of the closing ceremony fade into obscurity.

Charlotte Rowland said...

I totally agree. It was infuriating to watch, and completely deflated all the elation the rest of the Olympics had made you feel. I had a good old rant about it on my blog too - And beyond the musical performances, it just felt like everywhere you looked women weren't being equally represented - the politicians box, the 'big bosses' of the olympic organising committee etc. I can't help concluding though, that the Olympics have inspired change - people are already talking about getting more women's sports on the telly outside of the Olympics. Hopefully the closing ceremony was just a blip, and the positives of the olympics for women will begin to show.