The Year of the ‘Year of the Woman’

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Photo: Clockwise from top left:Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images, Anna Volkova/Demotix/Corbis, Desiree Navarro/Getty Images, Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures, Paul Zimmerman/Getty ImagesScott Olson/Getty Images, Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

In culture and in politics, 2012 was lauded as a banner year for the so-called fairer sex. During the Olympic games, NPR and Time and CNN hailed “the year of the woman” athlete; after the election, the Observer to Salon to NBC to Mother Jones proclaimed “the year of the woman” politician. Marissa Mayer’s appointment as CEO of Yahoo was taken as a sign that, even in the Silicon Valley boys’ club, the winds of change were blowing. When The Hollywood Reporter asked entertainment industry types to complete the sentence “If women ran Hollywood ... ” the consensus, at least from the men who were polled, is that women already do. “If women ran Hollywood,” said actor Joel McHale, “there would be hit romantic comedies about hunky male strippers, hugely successful film franchises about sparkly vampires, and music and dancing competition shows would dominate the airwaves — wait, are we sure women don't already run Hollywood?”

By the time Hanna Rosin declared the end of men, America had spent so much time cheering about women’s varied successes that the inverse didn’t seem like a stretch. Yet every declaration that girl power was ascendant came with a set of pretty heavy caveats. True, women made strides this year, but the real defining feature of 2012’s gender politics is how desperately everyone wanted this year to belong to women. Even when it didn’t.

It all began with the summer Olympics, where, for the first time ever, all 204 participating delegations had female athletes. Women dominated the Games’ narrative as never before. Saudi Arabian women competed in judo and track and field, and Brunei and Qatar each made one of their first female Olympians a flag bearer in the opening ceremony. A Malaysian markswoman noted to be the “most heavily pregnant athlete in the history of the Olympics” competed in an air rifle event. It was the first year women’s boxing was featured. Team U.S.A. had more women than men, and perhaps accordingly, U.S. women earned more medals in the games than their male counterparts.

But even as sportscasters cheered about the groundbreaking gender tally, the narrative about individual athletes was exasperatingly familiar. The focus on women, wrote Jennifer Vanasco in the Columbia Journalism Review, can “slide into something almost prurient, focusing on women’s bodies instead of their achievements.” Countless “sexy female Olympians” slideshows littered the web, while scores of people used social media to ruthlessly mock female weightlifters’ appearances. Meanwhile, some sexism was subtle: “When you watched them calling the beach volleyball matches they refer to the male athletes in every sport by their last names, just as almost everybody does when referring to athletes,” sports columnist Megan Greenwell said on the Kojo Nnamdi show this summer. “And Misty May-Treanor and Kerry Walsh Jennings, who are by far the best beach volleyball players in the world, and as of last night, the three-time gold medalists, they consistently refer to them as Misty and Kerry, which is a very small thing but I think these minor — it's death by a thousand paper cuts, right?”

The female narrative had a resurgence in November, when America’s election results prompted descriptions of 2012 as another “year of the woman” — a reference to the 1992 election in which four women were elected to the Senate and 24 to the House. Following a campaign season in which female voters were alternately courted and alienated (R.I.P. Republican “rape caucus”), America’s 113th Congress will theoretically be the most representative of American women in history, with twenty serving in the Senate and 81 in the House. While this progress is exciting, it’s worth noting that women are still 30 Senators and more than 130 Representatives away from parity. Moreover, just because more women are serving doesn’t mean they have political clout: Not a single House committee will be chaired by a woman in 2013. (Down from a single female chair in 2012.)

After a campaign in which women and their rights were routinely at issue, it felt good to declare the entire gender victorious. In an election that lacked the historic milestones of previous years (How can you top “first black President”?) women’s gains emerged as a convenient positive data point. At best, declaring it a “year of the woman” serves up modern successes as historical anomalies (which is rarely the case). At worst, it gives us a pass when it comes to dealing with persistent sexism, giving us the impression that the hard work is already done. Sure, Todd Akin lost his bid for Congress to a strong female candidate, Claire McCaskill, but Akin’s views on reproductive rights are still very much a part of the mainstream political dialogue. It’s much easier to cheer the defeat of the “rape caucus” than it is to push the incoming Congress — women like McCaskill included — to pass legislation that actually advances women’s rights. Collectively, we’re much better at shaming and shouting down sexists and racists than we are at supporting women and minorities in a positive, ongoing way — a fact that the political “year of the woman” celebration tends to obscure.

By the time end-of-year best lists started rolling out, it became clear that the narrative would be applied to TV and movies, too, largely thanks to a few prominent “strong woman” roles and notable directors. On the big screen, so many blockbusters featured female leads — The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, Brave — that The New York Times Magazine dubbed 2012 the year of “Hollywood heroine worship.” And on the small screen, leading ladies drew excitement, too. On new shows like Girls, Whitney, and The Mindy Project, women embraced their quirks, their flaws, their thighs. The female writer-director-creator hyphenate seemed to dominate.

However, “the rush to celebrate movies about women has a way of feeling both belated and disproportionate,” wrote A.O. Scott in the Times. “Pieces of entertainment become public causes and punditical talking points, burdened with absurdly heavy expectations and outsize significance. It should not, after all, be a big deal that movies like Bridesmaids or The Hunger Games exist, perhaps because it should have been a bigger deal when such movies didn’t.” Just look at all the preemptive Oscar talk about Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and its female protagonist. The most prominent female Hollywood success stories — like most shining examples of women’s progress in 2012 — are, by definition, outliers. That’s why we append the word “female,” and why any year we declare “Year of the Woman” probably isn’t.

That response applies to the realms of politics and sports, too. There’s some truth to the argument that holding up trailblazers like the Saudi women athletes or girl geniuses like Lena Dunham normalizes the idea that women can be formidable forces in traditionally male-dominated spheres like politics, sports, and entertainment. Yet the very act of doing so highlights how far we have to go. As New Girl creator Liz Meriwether put it, “If women ran Hollywood, The Hollywood Reporter would have a ‘Men in Entertainment’ issue every year, and those jerks would have to write something.”

I like that more of us seem to be paying attention to and marking the progress toward gender parity in some of the most important arenas of our society. But forgive me if I don’t swoon at every declaration we’ve arrived. Calling it a “year of the woman” both serves up modern successes as historical anomalies (which is rarely the case) and gives us a pass when it comes to dealing with persistent sexism. It’s no wonder we’re quick to celebrate when we think we’ve had a breakthrough. A record number of action-flick heroines? A few more women in the Senate? Dozens of female medalists on the podium? That’s great! Let’s mark it as progress. But let’s call it what it is: incremental and hard-won.