I came across this video posted to Facebook by a woman whose journalism and thinking I respect.
In the comments under the post, another woman had written of Amal Clooney, “She’s a great role model.”
So I clicked on the link. I’d seen a lot of pictures of The Movie-Star’s Wife but I had never heard her speak. And I found out a few things about Amal Clooney, and (again) about the problems of growing up as a girl in this society.
I found out that I respect the work Amal Clooney does. Realistically, though, would TIME have run a video clip of her in high-court action if George had decided to marry someone less spectacular to look at?
Within the first minute of this clip, two things crossed my mind:
1) She’s smart!—listen to her marshal the evidence.
2) She’s fucking gorgeous!—it’s easy to continue to watch her.
Subheads under No. 2:
- Look at her bone-structure, her black hair, the way the light falls across her cheekbones! She’s hot… Does this make me hear more or less of what she’s saying?
- Her high-court robes make her look like a nun.
And in those two sets of conflicting examples lies the tension upon which the publishers rely to get us to watch, as if she were un grand spectacle. An entertainment.
Even the headline is telling: “WATCH Amal Clooney.” Not, “LISTEN to Amal Clooney.” Watch.
I suppose, having chosen to marry a guy with worldwide celebrity, that Amal Clooney has bought into this whole deal. She may be negotiating her new status on something of her own terms, while also giving the press something of what they want. So as for her being held up as a “role model,” I have to think about that one.
I know a 17-year-old, the daughter of someone I care about, who is at this moment in inpatient hospital treatment for anorexia and bulimia—fatal illnesses on the addiction “spectrum.” This girl is every bit as lovely, intelligent, and articulate as Ms. Clooney. She has from earliest childhood been led, by the same culture that manufactured and published this video clip, to watch images of beautiful women being held up in some way as models—fashion models, role models—people after whom she has been led to “form” or “model” herself. She has not been allowed the cultural space to look inside herself and find her own beauty, intelligence, strength. And she’s not yet old enough to claim that space by force.
Aside from this girl I’m also thinking of an extremely intelligent 18-year-old high-school valedictorian/homecoming queen/babe currently in one of my freshman writing classes who couldn’t stop reading her teachers’ minds in order to “succeed.” I asked the class to read Cheryl Strayed’s essay “Heroin/e,” one of the cornerstones upon which Strayed built her blockbuster book Wild, which became a film last year, etc. In the essay, Strayed loses her mother to cancer and herself to heroin use. I asked the students to write about a time when they’d lost themselves. Shortly after I posted the assignment, this student emailed me saying she’d never lost herself. She was panicking: What if everyone else in the class has had a moment of traumatic loss and I haven’t?—I won’t be able to compete. “I cannot stop thinking about how I have never had a moment when I felt truly lost,” she wrote.
I am suddenly wishing that I had been lost.
I told her, Awesome: so you’ve never been lost. I said, Write about the fact that, while all around you, people are losing their way, you have managed to retain possession of yourself. … In fact, two weeks before, she had written about her compulsive perfectionism—classic addictive behavior encouraged in our society. And for the Strayed assignment she was so consumed with reading my mind and Giving Teacher What She Wants that she had abandoned her own experience.
I took a little risk and wrote her,
Perfectionism is a delusion that, in my experience, has taken me away from myself for years. You may not have lost quite so much time, or gone quite so deeply into it as I (and others) have. But even now you confess, “I am suddenly wishing that I had been lost.” That’s the wish of a perfectionistic woman.
The words “intimacy” and “vulnerability” are bandied about a lot these days, so I’ll use them advisedly. But this is the kind of “intimate” dialogue I enjoy having with writing students. I extend myself a little bit by telling the truth, and I see if they reach back. She wrote an essay that broke a little shard out of my heart. It ended,
My idea of success is currently defined by other people’s expectations. Until I can look past what others think of me, I may never find who I am, but the fear of failing while finding myself is too great of a risk. For now, I am content with being lost.
I sat there trying to stick the shard back into my heart (always an impossible task, but I’m human—I try anyway), and I reminded myself that the longest-lasting change happens in small steps. And always with radical truth-telling.
To the extent that Amal Clooney acts according to her own mind and conscience, I think I can accept her as a “role model” for young women. But I’m afraid most young women won’t see that far. After all, Amal Clooney is a high-court attorney with a thigh-gap.
Most—not all, but many—young women’s eyes have been trained to see only as deeply as the thinness between the surface of the glass on the mirror and the silver-gilt on the back.
Or even thinner.