IWD: The Brontë Sisters and The Supermodel v The Mansplaining Academic

16 February 2018

The fallout from Lily Cole’s appointment as creative partner of the Brontë Society says a lot about how women are sometimes judged in the workplace.  

In January, writer Nick Holland threatened to resign from the Brontë Society in response to Lily Cole’s appointment, describing it as a “rank farce” that a “supermodel” (a word he uses as if it is the dirtiest of curse words) could be given such an important role in the bicentenary year of Emily Bronte’s birth.

Cole has a double first in history of art from the University of Cambridge, is a global advocate for literacy and has headed up "innovative projects in the fields of nature, story-telling and the environment". That Holland chooses to zone in on “supermodel” and ignore these academic and intellectual achievements is interesting to say the least.

Because it would be both impossible and disastrous for a young, beautiful woman (particularly one who has made a living from her beauty) to care about and understand the work of Emily Brontë, let alone represent her. And god forbid Emily be enjoyed by the sort of women Cole may attract, and be sullied by the attention of young women, which is of course trivial and of lesser substance than the attention of learned men.

“What would Emily Brontë think [of Cole’s appointment]?” Holland asks, before concluding very definitively: “We all know the answer to that.” Was Emily not a young, vivacious woman? She died at only 30 years old but in her short lifetime she rebelled fiercely against traditional gender roles and stereotypes both in her life and in her work. The Brontë sisters’ writings were extraordinarily progressive and bold, with Anne’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ widely considered to be the first sustained feminist novel, and the character of Cathy in Emily’s Wuthering Heights violently breaking free from the shackles that 19th century society had forced upon her as a woman.

So why should a young, intelligent woman, whose work touches upon many of the elements Emily loved and was inspired by, be a poor choice for this important role? I suggest this reaction has a lot to do with the fact that the way certain attributes and professions are perceived in women (in this case being young, attractive and working as a model) can lead to misconceptions as to women’s abilities in the workplace. The way women are perceived in a professional setting can be influenced by all manner of insignificant factors, but all too often the relevant considerations, for example education, experience and capability are overlooked and taken for granted.

A personal example. Between the ages of 18 and 21, I worked at the Oval Cricket Ground. Below is a genuine exchange I had whilst there.

Male spectator: ‘Do you work here?’ (Clearly I do, I’m wearing the branded t-shirt and the silly hat)
Me: ‘Yes.’

Him: (staring in a mixture of disbelief and horror) ‘No… you’re too good-looking to work here.’

His friend: ‘Do you know about cricket?’
Me: ‘Yes.’

His friend (both of them still entirely unconvinced) then proceeded to ‘test’ me with an insultingly basic cricket quiz, just to be absolutely sure that I was suitably qualified for my position. I am 100% certain they wouldn’t have subjected a young man of my age to the same treatment.

So because this individual considered me, a young woman, to be physically attractive, it was inconceivable that I could possibly be anything beyond that. More to the point, it was impossible for me to possess knowledge and expertise.

I use this anecdote to illustrate the point that women in the workplace are still subject to a higher degree of examination and doubt than their male counterparts; their work judged against different standards which are usually more difficult to quantify and therefore satisfy. Perhaps this is why then, nearly 200 years after Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights under a male pseudonym, some female writers, such as JK Rowling and Robyn Thurman, are still choosing to follow suit.

And why Lily Cole, in response to Holland’s reaction, wondered whether she would have been better off producing her work for the society under a male name so that it would “be judged on its own merits” and she could avoid exactly the sort of scrutiny and unfair criticism she has now been subjected to.

Dismantling the gender bias that still exists nearly two centuries later by challenging the prejudices surrounding women’s capabilities in the workplace is therefore a crucial element of the campaign to #PressforProgress for gender parity.

So, for what it’s worth, I don’t think Emily would have had any time at all for a man who judges a woman based on her looks and not her qualities, and whose perception of a woman’s ability is warped by the strange notion that being young and attractive, and being intelligent and effective in a demanding role, are somehow mutually exclusive.

IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.

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