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Imagining Amber & Liz

There are two news stories that I’ve avoided but the headlines have followed me: the defamation case that Johnny Depp brought against Amber Heard and the Queen of England’s 75th Jubilee. Neither of these stories particularly interest me however the contrasting way these women have been treated and the fact that their stories, in true Hollywood style, crescendoed on the same day does. Why are women still fetishistically projected upon like this and what purpose do these projections serve?

If you're alive and living in England, you'll know these women - or think you do. Due to the way they are publicly reported, it’s easy to feel an intimacy with their private lives, inner thoughts, or perspectives. We gossip about women in a way we do not gossip about men. Compare how intimately Meghan Markle’s movements were discussed, debated and conjectured to the way Prince Andrew and his dark goings on were reported. There was little back-story pontificating about Andrew, no endless poring over his style of dress, or whether his penchant for avocado’s is a mark of evil.

We have a habit of trying to work women out. There’s a meme of a man leafing through a giant book with the hook-line: The Secrets of Women, or some such, suggesting that women are so weird and complicated that our instruction manual would have to be huge. The Mystery of Woman has fuelled our popular imagination. Possibly the sight of beautiful Amber Heard sitting pinched mouth in the witness box, triggered our collective memory of the Femme Fatale. The Femme Fatale is also beautiful, often blonde and lures men to their death. Because it’s hard to imagine women as inherently evil, her wickedness is often the result of a tragic past, so while we we hate her, we can pity her too. Which is probably why Heard emptying her bowels in the marital bed has become the enduring image of this case - classic Femme Fatale behaviour. Ultimately though a Femme Fatale’s power is always neutralised by a man. She will be tamed, placed back in her box and the world righted. We conveniently forgot that it was Depp, already convicted of domestic violence, that brought the multi-million pound defamation case against Heard, because popular narratives are hard to shake. It is the man who has to defend himself against the femme fatale. This deeply embedded story may well have influenced the outcome of the case.

At the opposite end of the scale sits our “dear” Queen. Unlike Heard, she has stoically and without complaint done her duty for 75 years. She has raised offspring, powerful ones at that, fulfilling another essential womanly duty. Even those who are unsure about the ethics of a Royal Family living on wealth accumulated during Britain’s colonial era and shored up by taxpayers at a time when poverty increases at an alarming rate, even those people can have a sympathetic word about the Queen. Hard-core political journalists confidently report “I’m sure the Queen wouldn’t be happy with..” as if any of us can be sure what makes the Queen happy or unhappy. The Queen is the one person on the planet many of us will never truly know due to the founding belief that the Royal Family is more God than human. I’m reminded of that smart sketch where Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders play Royal pundits debating what type of biscuit they image the Queen likes with her tea. As the sketch suggests, this type of imaginative pondering is bizarre.

So why do we project guileless innocence on The Queen, who, due to her position, deserves our scrutiny, and evilness on Heard? An innate fear of change perhaps? Questioning women threaten our cultural fabric much more than dutiful ones. Young, "beautiful" women hold power in a way that elderly women are not allowed so tearing one down offers a retributive thrill. A part of us is relieved that the power structure as we know it remains intact. Alternatively, positioning a sweet, frail woman as the ultimate symbol of structural inequality is a sure-fire way to have us glance away from what lies behind that symbol.

So how can we avoid fetishising people and take a more more clear-eyed path? Well, we might start by remembering that the only real way of getting to know someone is to spend time with them - even then most people will remain a mystery as we so often remain to ourselves. Next, it might be better to zoom out and study the particular cultural environment that the person exists in rather than waste time debating whether they deserve our empathy or not. It's their environments that can help us understand our own better. The rest is mere fabulation.


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