Monday 14 June 2021

What is the point of empowerment if you try to stifle divergent views?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

With so much happening both locally and abroad this week, it was Destiny’s infamous pink outfit which she wore during her Eurovision rehearsal, which captured the public’s attention more than any other topic. Although she has now opted for another dress, those hot pink thigh-high boots are still part of the ensemble at the time of writing, and the jury is still out about what everyone thinks of those.

This might seem like too frivolous a subject to waste time on, but I think it merits discussion because somewhere along the way, it stopped being about what she wore, but became more about whether we are actually free to say what we want or not.

If something is staring you in the face, has it now become so horrifyingly non-PC that we cannot even say so? This is not fat-shaming or body-shaming or any kind of shaming at all. If anyone wants to know what real fat shaming is like, it is what happened to Chiara 12 years ago, when (even without FB), so many nasty remarks were made about her figure. I had even written about the issue back then, in her defence. But it was not only the Maltese who were the culprits. Pierre Cachia who accompanied the delegation at the time, sent me a video of Chiara being interviewed while she was at the Eurovision, in which she described how some of the other singers were openly sniggering and making digs at how she looked. That, we can all agree, is completely unacceptable.

However, as usual, now we are in danger of going to the other extreme, to the extent that apparently, we cannot even say that an outfit is a cheap copy, or ugly or tacky or does not suit the person’s figure. By the way, saying it does not suit someone’s figure is not fat-shaming; heck, I have long accepted the fact that most of what is considered fashionable and trendy does not suit my figure, and most women reading this will admit that there are a whole range of styles and fashions which don’t suit theirs. So what? For the life of me, I fail to see what is so diabolically wrong with saying this. Being comfortable in your own skin also means you have come to terms with the fact that you can’t always wear what someone who is size 6 wears and being perfectly OK with that knowledge, because with that knowledge, comes true self-acceptance.

However, we have backed ourselves into such a tight corner when it comes to political correctness, that we cannot even speak the truth any more. And the truth is important, especially if the person is representing Malta and will be seen by millions. We are only fooling ourselves if we think these things don’t matter. Not to mention the not insignificant detail that the whole Eurovision experience is being paid for by taxpayers.

Remember that high-tech 7D coat which was meant to be worn by Ira Losco in 2016, but which was ditched at the last minute? The question of how much it cost ended up as a PQ when the Opposition demanded to know whether it was true that it cost in the region of €80k. This was denied by the Minister responsible at the time, and we never did find out how much it cost, but we should have, just like we should know how much Destiny’s Swedish stylist was paid for the horrendous pink outfit which will now not be used. His comments on the issue missed the point completely.

“First of I’d like to say, haters are always gonna hate,” Sebastian Lojdkvist wrote. “But remember that you are talking about an 18-year-old girl – and what gives you the right to talk about how she looks and what she wears?!”

One wonders if this man knows how Eurovision works. If the public gets a complete say in voting, if they are urged to support the Maltese singer through constant promotion and if they are repeatedly told that Destiny is there to “make Malta proud”, then you cannot turn around and say to them: “it’s none of your business what she wears, she doesn’t have to answer to you.” Actually, yes…she kind of does, and so does the whole production team, for that matter. And isn’t the whole point of a stylist to make a singer look her best by enhancing her best features, rather than have all the fans talking about what’s wrong with her outfit?

In the thousands of comments which were thrown around about this topic, one of the best came from Moira Stafrace (herself a former Eurovision representative) who pointed out that this was not Destiny’s personal concert or gig, in which case she could dress however she likes. “But this is Eurovision. She’s representing our country in a competition, she’s Malta’s ambassador. It’s different, she needs people’s votes and yes there are certain rules…and yes the public will keep commenting because this is their show too!”

The above remark by Löjdkvist about ‘haters’ brings me to my second point. What struck me the most in what felt like a collective national meltdown, was that many who consider themselves liberal turned out to be just as dogmatic as those they describe as troglodytes and trolls whom they sneer at when they defend a politician even when what he is doing is indefensible. Talk about irony. As they banged on about haters, and boomers, and old-fashioned has-beens (because, you know, if you don’t like an outfit you’re automatically an old fart), the tone became more and more strident.

It took me a while to put my finger on what this over-reaction was all about, until it finally dawned on me. It seems some people feel that a strong statement about female empowerment can only be made if a woman takes off as many clothes as possible. No matter her shape, no matter the occasion, no matter who or what she is representing. Ergo, anyone who dares object to this and says this is not empowerment is a hater or worse, a horrible bully. Agreeing with this diktat makes you cool and hip, open-minded and liberal. Anyone who does not agree with it needs to crawl under a rock and hide (but not before you call them all sorts of names). Of course, there was also the inevitable jumping on the bandwagon by many, in their haste not to appear square.

Correct me if I’m wrong but I thought liberal thinkers were supposed to be more tolerant of opposing views? Instead it felt like a concerted effort to loudly proclaim that only they knew what was best; they have the ultimate claim on deciding what is tacky or not, and everyone else had to simply shut up.

The ultimate absurdity was that, for all its supposed empowering statement and bravado, it turned out that the whole pink outfit image was ripped off from world famous singer Lizzo, who started all this ‘female empowerment’ body positivity trend several years ago. This completely jars with the following quote by Destiny herself in an interview she gave to a Eurovision website:

“Being original is very important, because being unique and being different will make you stand out,” she said. She has seen that originality is a major indicator for success in the Eurovision Song Contest too. “I think that when the artist is original and different, they do much better.” 

It seems that this belief of hers was left behind when she flew to the Netherlands for the contest, which is a shame because she doesn’t need to be a carbon copy of anyone. Destiny is already a unique, original talent with a powerhouse voice, a very confident personality, an incredible stage presence and several music achievements already under her belt.

If that by itself is not female empowerment at the age of 18, I don’t know what is.

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