Hey, did you hear the one about the BBC putting a man on its “100 Women” List?? No, honestly. This week the BBC included a man on a list supposedly celebrating the work and achievements of women. Sadly, that’s really not a joke. It’s an unbelievably misogynistic, insulting & belittling kick in the teeth to women the world over.
Last year the BBC pledged to better represent women in its international news output and launched the “100 Women” season. This year, the season returned to highlight women throughout the world who, whatever their chosen field, are making a real and positive difference. The season culminated in a conference at which all of the women listed contributed to a series of discussions and debates about contemporary female experience.
But, quicker than you can say ‘patriarchy’, the BBC undermine the entire concept because one of its 100 Women is… MALE. The man concerned is a 25 year old Austrian singer called Thomas Neuwirth. He appears on the “100 Women” list in the guise of his stage persona, Conchita Wurst, and hit the headlines by winning the Eurovision Song Contest earlier this year. But Conchita Wurst, isn’t a woman. Conchita Wurst is a stage persona, a character, a role played by a MAN.
Let me say from the outset that I have no problem with Thomas Neuwirth personally. He’s a very good performer and I’m sure he’s a nice guy, too. And I hasten to point out that I have nothing but respect and admiration for women who are transgendered. I would take very serious issue with anyone daring to suggest that transgendered females are not ‘proper’ women. They are. But Thomas Neuwirth is not. He might make a living impersonating a woman, but he isn’t one. He has said himself that he is not transgendered and that he has never identified as female. He is simply a drag performer. His inclusion on the “100 Women” list, therefore, is offensive and misogynistic beyond belief and on so many levels.
The notion that all a man needs to do is pop on a padded bra and some slap to be considered female would be laughable were it not so debasing and insulting. If only being a woman was as easy as wearing a costume that we could remove. If only it really was so easy to shrug off all that it means to be female in this society, to rid ourselves of all of the issues, anxieties, demands, pressures and problems that being a woman involves. But it isn’t.
The most insidious thing about Thomas Neuwirth’s inclusion on the “100 Women” list is its reinforcement of the dangerous notion that men get to define what it is to be a woman. It promotes the myth that the female identity is whatever men decide it should be.
Conchita Wurst dresses in stilettos, sparkly dresses and heavy make-up and thus is considered ‘female enough’ for a place on the BBC’s “100 Women” list. Because, of course, that’s all we require to make us female, right? What defines us as women is having pretty faces and wiggly bottoms and wearing pretty clothes, conforming to all the stereotypes which make us (conventionally) attractive to men, right? WRONG. But that’s exactly the message sent by the inclusion of a man in drag on a list specifically purporting to celebrate the achievements of women.
In her 2006 paper ‘Imitating Others as Control’, Kirsten Anderberg writes, “All the things I have shunned as part of the ancient ‘cult of womanhood,’ all the superficial, commercialised and fake aspects of ‘femininity’ that I have fought to be freed from, these men were embracing as their ‘womanhood!’ Tons of make up, huge dyed bouffant hair-dos, binding lingerie, heels, nylons, the removal of body hair… it is odd to me that this could be seen as anything but blatant sexism”. [‘Imitating Others as Control’, 2006, Kirsten Anderberg]
Obviously, it takes far more than heels and make-up to be a woman, to share in and fully identify with the ‘female experience’. Imagining that a man who does drag can properly understand what it is to be female in our society is ridiculous. A man, even one who wears a dress, cannot possibly comprehend what it is to have grown up in, live in, work in and relate to the world as a woman. And yet, by being included in the “100 Women” season, Thomas Neuwirth is being asked to contribute to discussions and debates on those very subjects. That is an absolute outrage and further proof, were it required, of the sense of male entitlement pervasive in our society.
When he finishes performing as Conchita Wurst and gets back to his dressing room, Thomas Neuwirth takes off his false breasts and false eyelashes and his dress and his wig… He is a man. And with all the privilege, power and dominion that entails. How can anything he may have to say about the ‘female experience’ carry any credibility or validity? It can’t. Because, and I’m sorry to keep harping on this point but I do feel it’s absolutely crucial, he is not a woman – he is a MAN.
I think it is a total slap in the face to all the amazing female scientists, educators, activists, artists, musicians, politicians, health care workers, writers, entrepreneurs, sports professionals, military personnel, journalists, architects, lawyers etc in the world who did not make the “100 Women” list. Apparently, a man who sings in a cute dress and a pair of slingbacks is somehow better qualified to talk about being woman than they are. Are we really to believe that there were only 99 women in the entire world who were worthy of a place on the BBC’s list and, after their inclusion, the beeb then had to give up and go looking for drag queens??
I’m sure that the BBC thought it was being oh-so terribly cutting edge, right-on and progressive in putting Thomas Neuwirth on its “100 Women” list. But it wasn’t. It was incredibly sexist, insulting, regressive and demeaning. Perhaps next year we can expect to see Grayson Perry, Dame Edna and the cast of “Priscilla” on the list?? Am I being facetious now? Yes. But then I am one of those humourless and outspoken feminist types who just don’t know their place and won’t shut up. I can’t be trusted to play nice and be a good girl. Thank goodness there are men in the world who can pop on a skirt and some kitten heels and teach me how I should behave…