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Dear female artists: stop apologising for winning awards

The Grammys once against proves that women have a humbleness problem.

Does anyone remember when – and this is a long shot because it was a while ago – in 2007 Eddie Murphy stormed out of the Academy Awards after losing best supporting actor to Alan Arkin? Okay how about something more recent: when acclaimed director Spike Lee also stormed out of the Academy awards after his movie BlacKkKlansman lost best picture to Green Book?

If those are too niche then you’ll surely recall, or at least be aware of, Kanye West’s long and embattled history of hijacking awards shows to declare Beyoncé’s pre-eminence in category’s she didn’t win. Poor 19-year-old Taylor Swift’s crestfallen face at the MTV music awards 2009, then Beck at the 2015 Grammy’s, will be etched in pop culture history forever. Kanye man, Beyoncé is doing fine, she doesn’t need your help.

It’s remarkable to compare these displays of arrested development to the typical female acceptance speech. After Billie Eilish won album of the year at the recent Grammys, she began her speech with the self-effacing words: ‘Can I just say that I think Ariana [Grande] deserves this?’ Similarly, during the dramatic pause before the best pop solo performance was revealed, eventual winner Lizzo was filmed crossing her fingers and chanting Beyoncé’s name (see below).

These are poignant displays of sisterhood in an industry bereft with hurdles for womankind, but it’s also illustrative of a deep-seated sense of undeservedness common among young women. The expectation of female humbleness comes from the same prejudicial roots that encourage us to be bashful, shy, and quiet. Repeatedly we’re taught by representations of women in the media, both real and fictional, that desirable women are ignorant of their beauty, and women who own their success are barren, course, and mean.

Men, particularly of the white and straight variety, are unfamiliar to this type of institutionalised discrimination, and often expect their opinions to be automatically platformed. They expect there to be enough space on stage for all of them, and usually they’re right.

Not so with women. When we receive the spotlight, and particularly when we have a mandate to speak, we’re intimately aware of the rarity of our opportunity, and the scrutiny that inevitably comes with it. We interrogate whether we’re worthy of screen time so rarely given, and whether it should have gone to someone else. We tend to downplay our accomplishments and avoid accepting accolades for fear of being labelled conceited.

It’s exactly these tendencies that causes buck passing at awards shows. ‘I can’t possibly accept this award’ Adele said during her 2017 Grammys acceptance speech for album of the year. ‘I’m very humbled and grateful but my life is Beyoncé [author’s note: for fucks sake]… the Lemonade album was just so monumental.’ She then broke the freaking Grammy in half to share it with queen B.

The fact that Adele felt compelled to do this is directly illustrative of the issue with award shows – and I’m not just talking about the shoddy workmanship on their trophies. Because so many creative fields are dominated by men, women feel guilty for taking up what is ostensibly limited space from other women.

Adele’s act was obviously a reference to the moment in cult classic Mean Girls – a movie that’s a fitting analogy for the fallout that occurs from multiple women demanding space and recognition – when home-schooled outsider cum queen bee Cady Heron breaks her prom queen crown into pieces and shares it with her fellow nominees. ‘When I think about how many people wanted this and how many people cried over it and stuff…’ she says whilst gazing at the cheap bit of plastic jewellery. ‘I mean, I think everybody looks like royalty tonight’. Another touching moment of female solidarity. But this moment only comes to the women of North Shore High School after months, probably years, of internal toxicity.

Much of Cady’s time at high school is an existential nightmare due to narrow expectations of what women are supposed to be. In one early scene each member of the plastics systematically tears apart their appearance in front of a mirror – women are not allowed to be happy with how they look, and must constantly humble themselves before the ideal of aesthetic perfection. Moreover, women aren’t allowed to be too clever – Cady is repeatedly told that joining the mathletes is ‘social suicide’, and she literally pretends to fail a test so that her crush will be interested in her.

Female relationships in Mean Girls are defined by adherence to a strict hierarchy that not only rings true to the high school experience, but also reinforces the idea that there is only room for one woman at the top. After former head plastic Regina George’s fall from grace, her minions immediately attach themselves to another ruler – Cady. These women can’t imagine a world where more than a few of them, generally those perfect moulded to the male gaze, can feel the comfort of social power (and even the plastics aren’t allowed the luxury of genuine personal expression, with all of them choosing completely different paths at the end of the movie when their social clout evaporates).

Cady’s moment with the crown at prom, just like Adele at the Grammys, is an attempt to create room in the limelight for different types of female power that objectively should have existed in the first place.

There is a demonstrable difference between how men and women accept praise, as well as how their reactions are judged (I’m still baffled how people managed to demonise Taylor after Kanye’s outburst). The obvious solution seems to be to create more room for women in spotlight – or at least give them a greater share. An unwillingness to reward women more frequently is going to maintain the entrenched skittishness that centuries of inequality has engendered. Just once it would be nice to see an awards show where women acknowledge their successes comfortably, without a hint of guilt.

Also, according to everyone in the universe it would also be nice to give Beyoncé more awards.


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