No aspiration without inspiration: women, boardrooms & fiction

Over the course of a few days in January there was something of a Nordic-themed media flurry. David Cameron invited some of his Nordic counterparts to a summit in London, before flying out to participate himself in the Nordic Futures Forum. Top of the bill in those discussions (apart from ‘how to steer an economy safely through a recession’, and ‘how to run an efficient and trusted welfare state’) was the question of how to get more women into the workplace and boardrooms.

Norway seems to be taking the hardest line on this, having already introduced enforceable quotas. But this is a treating-symptoms-rather-than-cause measure, and the causes are, at present, poorly understood. Given how keen he seems to learn, Cameron might heed the significance of the appearance of a certain freckle-faced red-haired girl in the debate. Pippi Longstocking – a staple character in Swedish childhood – cropped up in a paper presented at Davos, entitled ‘Pippi Longstocking: The Autonomous Child and the Moral Logic of the Swedish Welfare State’.

The ‘Pippi’ analogy in that case was about a particular conceptual balance between individual, family, and state. Quoting from the paper:

Though the path hasn’t always been straight, one can discern over the course of the twentieth century an overarching ambition in the Nordic countries not to socialize the economy but to liberate the individual citizen from all forms of subordination and dependency within the family and in civil society.

Underpinning these politics is a particular notion of social relations:

Authentic relationships of love and friendship are only possible between individuals who do not depend on each other or stand in unequal power relations. Thus autonomy, equality and (statist) individualism are inextricably linked to each other.

Whilst there is a clear role for the state (enabling as many people as possible to be economic producers), there is also a heavy emphasis on personal capacities and behaviour (taking the initiative). For those familiar with Astrid Lindgren’s books, it should be clear that Pippi is a trope of such independence and individualism. She is also – and this is the key – a hugely engaging and inspiring fictional character.

For those not well acquainted, a quick resume: she lived in a tree-house and held decadent tea parties; she had an assorted band of animals as companions – including a monkey in a little red jacket, and an old horse; her absentee father was a pirate who occasionally dropped off a few bags of gold; she had a wonderfully eclectic wardrobe, including the impractically long socks for which she is named; she was freakishly strong, could walk up walls (with the aid of some special glue), turned washing the floor into a domestic alternative to rollerskating, and was forever saving the day. She is every child’s dream of parent-free, unsupervised adventure and fun. As many children have, I loved her.

I can see now that she is something of a feminist icon. But at the age of 7, I wanted to be like Pippi not because I was self-consciously a feminist, rather because she did heroic things, had a good time, and was unquestioningly the author of her own destiny. I wanted to be like her, and emulated her accordingly, pigtails and all. I’ve lost the pigtails now, but a certain strong-willed-ness has remained with me into adulthood.

Fiction can be (is) incredibly powerful in suggesting possible lives. Fiction draws the reader in, invites their imagination to pick up where the words on the page end. It troubles me, therefore, that I can’t think of many grown-up (female) characters who are exciting in the same way as young Pippi. I am no longer so enamoured of the tea-parties-in-trees lifestyle, and I am missing a replacement.

In fact, I am burgeoning on despair at the utter lack of equivalent heroines in adult fiction. What happens to Pippi and her peers when they hit puberty? Too often, as soon as girls are old enough to fall in love, the pursuit of said state invariably becomes the story. Other things might happen along the way, but bagging a man is the ultimate goal. (The reverse is rarely true for male characters in fiction. James Bond normally bags a woman – or rather several – as a sideshow to a much grander story.)

The sad thing is I’m not sure James Bond and Carrie Bradshaw are accurate reflections of how much men and women care about love and relationships as opposed to the other things in their lives. I’m not sure it’s naturally the case that women are more prone to fixating on men than the other way around. But it does feel as though there are legions of chick lit heroines – and their romcom film equivalents – who can seem to find nothing else to talk about. ‘Sex and the City’, for all it apparently achieved in terms of un-demonising female promiscuity, did nothing to reassure women that their primary focus needn’t be men. (It also seems to condone some pretty flighty behaviour.)

A little more often I would like to read a story, or see a film, where the protagonist was an interesting woman, doing exciting things, and where her lovelife wasn’t foregrounded as the premiere plot feature. I’m looking for a grown-up Pippi. Yes, there are a few. But there will have to be a lot more in order to combat the avalanche of low-grade cultural output – books, films, TV, adverts, music videos, fashion – which tells British women that their sexuality is their personality, and their identity is contingent on men.

To return to the starting point, to the question of why there aren’t more women in UK boardrooms: it is about inclination – and inspiration – as much as possibility. The door may be open, but women have to aspire to walk through it. And what will prompt them to ‘aspire’ is more complex than, for example, a more generous stance on paternity leave. The answer must, at least partly, be in presenting women with some more varied and inspiring options in the popular forms we daily consume.

Happy International Women’s Day.

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