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Women beware women

Why Beyoncé and Christine Lagarde have not come a long way, baby.

india Updated: Jun 30, 2011 23:15 IST
Zoe Williams
Zoe Williams

How do you solve a problem like Beyoncé? She is the personification of the equality conundrum. On the one hand she was the first woman to headline Glastonbury, and this is a hugely big deal, since without that the overwhelming impression remains that only men truly know how to boogie.

But what does she do with her new supremacy, her crowning achievement for all womankind? She sings a song about how, if you wanted to go out with her, moron, you should have pursued that desire with a proposal of marriage. “Put a ring on it,” she sings, waving her hands about. “Put a ring on it”, mouth the girls in the audience, dead-eyed with the madness of crowds. As if the past 50 years had never happened, as if one’s own sexual destiny were a meaningless bauble. It’s distressing. And yet would you prefer it to have been Coldplay again?

The same dilemma plays itself out at the International Monetary Fund (IMF). New IMF managing director Christine Lagarde is very much the Beyoncé of international finance. She is problematic for these reasons: first, she is not above touting about all the ancient stereotypes of femininity, which egregious tropes are what keep women out of high office in the first place. She talks about her “feminine and understated” negotiating style, and how helpful it is, though frankly, her immediate stance on Greece — belt up and get on with it — won’t strike protesting Greeks as at all understated, I shouldn’t think.

Lagarde is often to be heard bemoaning, in a cheerful way, the excess of testosterone in the room. She lightheartedly told Jon Stewart on the Daily Show that men were responsible for the financial crash because of their manly behaviour. The delivery and extremity of these statements does cover quite a spectrum — sometimes she seems sincere, other times she’s clearly mainly joking — but still, I am not a big fan of the subtext, a worldview that holds one sex to be inherently more sensible than the other, whoever’s favour it comes down on.

Oh, and then there’s her politics: a favourite of Nicolas Sarkozy, she is avowedly neo-liberal, overseeing $15 billion in tax cuts and chipping away at the 35-hour working week (the French used to call her the ‘American minister’). Anything that damages social equality generally, whether increasing the wealth gap or cutting back on the welfare state or job security, will affect women disproportionately: this has been shown time and again. Lagarde may as well be doing Beyoncé’s naked finger dance for all the good she does for womankind.

Prominent women do not necessarily pursue the rights of women generally, and it is almost worse when they pretend to than when they don’t — compare her with Margaret Thatcher. Yet the evidence is that while the high-profile letdowns stick in our minds, much important work goes unremarked: women in high office, politically, often form cross-party alliances to tackle specific women’s issues that leftwing, male-dominated regimes have ignored. And centre-right or even right-wing parties will often adopt traditionally leftist policies which, in parliaments without many female representatives, people don’t even talk about, let alone recognise as political currency. Angela Merkel is not a bad example, having introduced publicly funded childcare and policies to reduce violence against women.

And as for Beyoncé, for God’s sake, woman. If you wanted to get married so much, why didn’t you ask him?

The Guardian

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jun 30, 2011 23:13 IST