What female celebrity should I be looking towards to explain my life to me these days? Everyone, apparently
Excellent question, Everyone! There is always one woman who becomes the prism through which all concerns about modern women are refracted, whether it’s about sexuality, motherhood, social media or eating. I call her the Ur-Woman. A million years ago it was Madonna. Since then, it has been, among many others, Beyoncé, Gwyneth Paltrow and, most recently, Kim Kardashian, all of whom were at difference times meant to represent everything that is wrong with women today, but also all the pain that is foisted upon all women throughout all time. Now it is the turn of Serena Williams.
I realised Williams had become the Ur-Woman only after I inadvertently perpetuated her Ur-ness. A few weeks ago I wrote a column for this paper defending Williams’s frequent references to her daughter, for which I had noticed she was increasingly being criticised.
Now, I stand by every word of this column, and in fact if I was writing it now, I would go even further and say Williams is to be downright applauded for talking about how annoying her pregnancy was, how awful her childbirth was and how much she now misses her child as a working mother. Women, I say, as I climb up on my soapbox, on the one hand are told their lives have no meaning if they don’t have children, but on the other are expected to pretend to be utterly unaffected by the maternity experience. They should snap back into their jeans three minutes after giving birth, never mention how awful childbirth was lest they upset anyone around them, take as little time as possible off work for maternity leave, then never talk about their kid at work and basically pretend everything is entirely hunky dory, even though a child has been literally ripped out of their body and they are now in charge of keeping that child alive. So I say, and will always say, bravo to Williams for doing precisely the opposite of all that nonsense.
But then something weird happened. By the time my piece was published, people were still (obviously) talking about Williams, but they were now talking about other things: what her anger as a woman meant, what her being pals with Meghan Markle said about female friendship, whether she and her husband are too demonstrative in their affection to one another on social media. And that was when I realised that Williams doesn’t represent working women, or angry women, or women on social media – she represents ALL women. Every single one of us.
I remember back in the day how Madonna was, we were told, simultaneously corrupting and reflecting all women’s sexuality when she was running around with Ingrid Casares and publishing photos of herself with Vanilla Ice. Kim Kardashian, of course, turned a generation of young women into selfie addicts and, as for Gwyneth, well, don’t even get me started .
And yet, this doesn’t seem to happen with men. There’s never a man who represents all men’s problems, or causes them. Obviously, people think men are adults and less likely to idiotically copy any idiotic male celebrity. Do they think men are more varied and women more homogenous and therefore men’s infinite variety cannot be captured but women’s all-encompassing sameness definitely can? But that’s not the entire story here.
All of the above women only became Ur-Woman when they talked about their personal lives: Madonna when she made The Greatest Documentary Ever (In Bed with Madonna) and published her book about desire, Sex; Beyoncé, when she started talking about feminism, writing songs about her marriage and releasing photos of her pregnancy and children; Williams, when she started talking about motherhood. (Kardashian, of course, only ever talked about her personal life, that being what she’s famous for, which accelerated her position into Ur-ness.)
As soon as a woman in the public eye talks about her personal life she is considered to be both “offering herself up for criticism” and simultaneously suggesting she represents all women. Meanwhile, Ryan Reynolds can talk about how he looked after his babies at night when they were born to give his wife Blake Lively a rest, and Pharrell can talk about how he never changes his kids’ nappies, and they aren’t seen as setting impossible standards for men, or representing everything wrong with modern masculinity. They are individuals, not Ur-Men that all men are expected to relate to. This double standard reminds me of how any woman who leaves her house is described by the Daily Mail to be “flaunting her curves” or “showing off her baby bump.” Should she have left them at home? Could she? Sometimes a woman just wants to leave the house, or talk about her personal life. She’s not offering herself up as the ultimate.
Anyway, there’s no point fighting this – the general obsession with female Ur-ness is too strong. So congratulations, Serena, and enjoy your current position as the female lodestar. And if it all gets too much, don’t worry, another Ur-Woman will be along in a minute. Ariana Grande, don’t say you haven’t been warned.