Twice-told tale: Oft-repeated stories of women breaking glass ceiling

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Published: December 8, 2019 12:30:30 AM

If you have been following cinema, it would be apparent that this is the age of strong female casts.

Twice-told tale, Captain Marvel, superhero movies, Wonder Woman, Julian Guthrie, Alpha Girls, The Devil Wears Prada, Magdalena Yesil,In her book Alpha Girls, Guthrie details the life of Magdalena Yesil, Maty Jane Elmore, Theresia Gouw and Sonja Hoel.

If you have been following cinema, it would be apparent that this is the age of strong female casts. More female-centric movies are being made now, then they were in the last two decades. One of the better indicators of this trend is superhero movies. Over the last few years, the big cinematic universes have focused on female-centric roles, be it Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman. It is no surprise that biographies and accounts have followed—Hidden Figures—comes to mind. While the tales are certainly refreshing, there is also a repetitiveness that is creeping in. I am sure that must have been the case with male-centric options as well, and that blend of cinema. But this is more so with writing. With many start-ups going on to make millions and billions, most of the co-founders have acquired a god-like/superhero status. Some, no doubt, are reviled, but many are worshipped. And, on top of the food chain are woman in the start-up field. Given the male-centric focus of technology, the women who have achieved success are not only seen as icons, but something more. While it’s true they have been successful in breaking the glass ceiling—American politics is still waiting—and are indeed an inspiration for many, the repetitive nature of story-telling is encompassing everything that is wrong with this brand of feminism. Instead of setting new rules and level the playing field, the narrative, sadly, still centres around the male culture.

Julian Guthrie’s biographical account is another one of the inspiring tales of four women who broke the glass ceiling and achieved everything. In her book Alpha Girls, Guthrie details the life of Magdalena Yesil, Maty Jane Elmore, Theresia Gouw and Sonja Hoel. The middle class or rags-to-riches tale is the common thread that runs across the four themes. There are many firsts too. Guthrie, in a true journalistic fashion, does point to statistics, but the story is focused on the four women. On how they were able to juggle work, family and their careers to emerge victorious. The book is divided into nine chapters, and Guthrie makes sure she doesn’t keep the focus on a single achiever for long. But as she juggles between the stories of each of her protagonists, the storytelling does get blurred. The writing is clean and clear, but Guthrie has a repetitive pattern about things. I wonder whether that is because the stories are more similar to each other, or whether the author has presented them in such a manner. More important, this style of writing and going back and forth reminds one more of a documentary than a book. While Guthrie does present some interesting accounts—Elmore following recruiters to the bathroom is one—the overall theme is girl power. Unknowingly though Guthrie also falls prey to the ‘notions’ of male culture that she is trying to showcase these women have overcome. Terms like fresh-faced girl next door do put off the reader, and is something that one would not wish to read, especially in tales of inspiration.

More important, Guthrie’s account falls into the same trap that many before have. In defining women breaking through a male-dominant culture, there is often an account of them being able to juggle family with work and emerge quite heroically successful in both. A woman, who is only career oriented just doesn’t meet the mark. A few years ago, I remember watching The Devil Wears Prada. While there were a hundred things wrong with the film, the unapologetic attitude of Miranda Preistly for advancing in her career was refreshing. While she too was breaking the glass ceiling, it was on her own terms. Probably, the next stories would not be so much about fresh-faced women who had family yet managed to make it big, but about people who just did well no matter where they fit. That would be more equitable, I guess.

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