How wonderful it is, women owning their power, speaking up, with #MeToo, #Time’sUp and #Nobody’sDoll. This last one is a brave attempt to liberate women on the red carpet from the stiletto heels and plunging necklines that, according to Anna Brueggemann, the creator of #Nobody’sDoll, constitute a kind of straitjacket. She is making a good case and getting ink, as we used to say in the old journalism. In a recent interview with German Vogue, http://www.vogue.de/lifestyle/artikel/nobodys-doll-anna-brueggemann-interview, she argues that the point of fashion couldn’t possibly be that ‘we all look alike’, and pleads for the kind of sartorial freedom that would allow her to wear what she is most comfortable in: a knee length skirt, a turtleneck and sneakers, on the red carpet. Why can’t we simply dress the way we want and still have fun, she asks. Why do we follow the narrow dictates of fashion instead of our own desires and preferences. Why indeed. Full disclosure, she is a niece of mine, as well as an established German actress and writer of screenplays. She has proven her chops in both disciplines, not least by winning the Silver Bear for Kreuzweg, a screenplay she co-wrote with her brother, Dietrich Brueggemann, in 2014. She is also the mother of two small boys, married, and at 35, has reached a certain position in the cultural life of Berlin. She has followers, but she also admits that she’s a bit overwhelmed; a bit tired of all the explaining she has to do. She began working on Nobody’s Doll way back in November, strategizing and emailing when the kids were asleep. When she actually wears what she wants at the upcoming Berlinale, opening on Feb.15, she’ll make a splash for all the right reasons.
Nobody’s Doll is well timed, part of the current wave of female fury crashing over every aspect of life in the West, the seventh wave of a movement that began when the women of Athens decided to withhold sex from their husbands who were forever marching off to some war or other. They said no more sex until you stop this folly. It worked, but only for a while and with much suffering on both sides. According to Mary Beard’s bestseller, Women & Power, the position of women today owes more to ancient Greece than we might imagine, and the roots of our disempowerment are mostly hidden unless you happen to be a Classicist like Beard. She is focused on why women’s voices are still, to this day, largely ignored, from the boardrooms to the podium. She has dubbed it ‘the Miss Triggs problem’, from a beloved thirty-year-old New Yorker cartoon by Riana Duncan. It shows a boardroom full of men and one woman, with the caption: That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs, perhaps one of the men would like to make it.
Beard shows how women can only attain power by aping men, and that this, too, is ancient history with terrible blowback. As one of many examples, she cites the masculine language Aeschylus uses to describe Clytemnestra, in the oldest Greek play, Agamemnon. While she rules the city during Agamemnon’s absence, she also loses her femaleness, becoming a non-woman because she wields power. When she murders the returned husband in his bath, her own children murder her in turn, and thus, ‘order’ and patriarchy is restored. This is one of many grisly examples Beard has at her classical fingertips, and they all make the same point: from a patriarchal perspective, women in power create chaos, and if they insist on it, they will be punished. Nowadays we pride ourselves on being more enlightened than the ancient Greeks, but we still expect women to pretend to be ersatz men. Beard shows a very funny picture of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton, dressed in identical pantsuits, clasping hands and smiling at each other, probably in recognition of how odd they look.
To put this in #Nobody’s Doll territory, the obvious question to ask is, why do two of the most powerful women in the world feel the need to dress like this? It can’t be because they look good, or even ‘fashionable’, so there must be another reason. Those two leaders had no choice; they had to signal, through their pantsuits, that they were actually, deep down, ‘wearing the pants’, just like men. It throws another light on what Brueggemann is trying to achieve: true liberation, the freedom to feel good in one’s skin, no matter what the occasion, the gender, or the sartorial expectations. Maybe Merkel prefers long skirts; we’ll never know, will we. Men can do this more easily, but even they must obey the ‘rules’. And women can’t do this individually; it must be done as a group, as Brueggemann has pointed out. She is right: even Simone de Beauvoir knew this. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir points out that the forest of women’s liberation must be planted all at once; it can’t be done by planting just one tree. Women can only gain power as a group, by standing together, supporting each other, listening to each other and learning from each other.
And that appears to be happening. All over the world, and certainly this coming week, at the Berlinale, when Anna Brueggemann walks on the red carpet in her favourite turtleneck, skirt, and sneakers, surrounded by like-minded and sartorially liberated friends. I am as proud of her as only an old aunt can be, pleased as punch.
And I wish that I could leave it at that, but I can’t. Wonderful as all this is, I am worried that in the long run, it will peter out. Run its course, and then return to ‘business as usual’. I don’t want this to happen; I fear it. I fear it because the inequality and oppression of women is part of a larger, more terrifying oppressor: an out of control capitalist system that is raping the earth while fostering a new Gilded Age that is far more unequal than the old one ever was. The age of the original robber barons ushered in two world wars, the market crash of 1929, and then, the Depression. There’s a reason why so many movies set in the roaring twenties and depressed thirties are suddenly out: they are a mirror to our own fraught time. The signs of disintegration, market turmoil and a renewed appetite for big wars are everywhere; they cannot be dismissed. No serious commentator does.
So here is what I think needs to happen: This great wave of female empowerment must not rest on its laurels; instead, it must rise to the challenge of confronting and taming the evils of capitalism a la Naomi Klein and No is not Enough. Brueggemann herself has already signalled her awareness of the capitalist issue. She talks about the ‘patriarchal gaze’, and the commodification of nature and people under this pitiless system.
But women cannot take on this epic battle by themselves. We need to make common cause with the other half of humanity; the men. They may not be used to letting women lead, but we could reach out to them and say: come with us; we truly need you to win this fight! After all, it’s everyone’s fight if we want the human race to survive. Let’s leave Aeschylus and the ancient Greeks behind, once and for all: the future is already here, with #MeToo, #Time’sUp and #Nobody’sDoll.