Life is never easy for young female icons, such as Greta Thunberg, Emma Raducanu and Malala Yousafzai, writes Diana Thomas
Emma Raducanu is a very modern Cinderella. She doesn’t need a prince. But she did go to the ball. On the evening of Monday 13 September 2021, barely 24 hours after her miraculous win at the US Open tennis championships, and just four months after taking her A-Levels, this eighteen-year-old girl was walking the red carpet at the Met Gala in New York, dressed in head-to-toe Chanel. She was received like a superstar, with photographers and TV crews fighting to get the best images of her. And so they should, because every media outlet in the world wanted those shots. Emma Raducanu was suddenly one of the most famous women in the world.
Of course, this had something to do with the sexist objectification of women’s appearance. But then again, female columnists waxed even more lyrical about Emma Raducanu’s looks, her intelligence and her grace than their male peers, most of whom would not dare make any comment that even hinted at her attractiveness. In any case, this is about far more than physical appearance. Academically brilliant, fluent in Mandarin, multi-ethnic and adorably charming, Emma has been cast as a ray of light at a time of darkness and death. There is something totemic, symbolic about the eagerness, even hunger with which the world has grasped this young woman. And she is by no means alone.
When the debut edition of Scandinavian Vogue was published in August, one might have expected its cover to reflect what the outside world thinks of as the Nordic aesthetic. Words like “minimal”, “monochrome”, even “austere” come to mind. Instead, the first image with which Scandinavian Vogue greeted the world showed a young woman in a shady glade. She was sitting at the foot of an ancient oak tree, wearing a pink coat over a billowing, ankle-length dress. Her hand was stretched out to stroke the muzzle of a stocky, shaggy-haired Icelandic horse, whose head was bowed down in her honour. It is an image that has echoes of Renaissance nativity scenes: the animals in the stable paying homage to the baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary. One thinks too of Disney’s Snow White surrounded by adoring forest creatures. And this sense of an almost regal, even saintly figure is entirely intentional. For the headline across the cover reads, “The Wonders of Greta Thunberg”.
I found this cover riveting, even revelatory, for it crystallised an idea that had been hovering half-formed in my mind for a few years now, which I had come to think of as the “Magic Schoolgirl”. And, as happens when fashion people begin to express ideas that are bubbling away in the recesses of the zeitgeist, British Vogue had featured another such young woman just three months earlier. Its May cover carried an image that was unmistakably religious, albeit not the faith practised by the subject of the photograph. The veiled head, the flowing robes and the positioning of the hands – not quite in prayer, the fingertips of the right hand just resting against the jawline, were absolutely evocative of the Virgin. And this time the strapline was: “The extraordinary life of Malala. Survivor, activist, legend.”
Those words might seem like hyperbole in any other context. But Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of seventeen. How else could one describe her? Here we are, at a time when humankind has exponentially more scientific knowledge, and incomparably more sophisticated, powerful technology than ever before. And yet our debates are being led by young women who are, by any reckoning, among the most influential, revered – yet also reviled – figures of this young century.
Just consider the remarkable story of Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg. On 18 August 2018, at the age of fifteen, Greta made her first solitary protest outside the Swedish parliament, standing beside a sign that read, “Skolstrejt för klimatet” (School strike for climate). Her one-girl protest was accompanied by a manifesto that declared, “Every Friday, I miss classes to sit outside my country’s parliament. I will continue to do so until leaders come into line with the Paris agreement.”
She continued, “I have Asperger’s syndrome so, for me, most things are black or white. I look at the people in power and wonder how they have made things so complicated. I hear people saying that climate change is an existential threat, yet I watch as people carry on like nothing is happening. We can no longer save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to be changed.”
This was a call to revolution and it was heard around the world. It began with other Swedish activists joining Greta outside parliament. By the autumn, the Guardian had run her manifesto in full, accompanied by a photograph that encapsulated Greta’s image in the world’s mind’s eye. She was sitting beside her sign on a wet pavement, dressed in a hooded yellow rain jacket. Her hair was tied in pigtails. Her face bore a frowning, tightlipped look of righteous fury, directed at the adults who had trashed the world that her generation would inherit. In time that expression would become her hallmark, revered by those who supported her, mocked by those who did not.
In November 2018, Greta Thunberg gave her first TED talk. In December she addressed the United Nations climate change summit. By January 2019, she was telling the politicians and plutocrats at the World Economic Forum in Davos: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic”
In November 2018, Greta Thunberg gave her first TED talk. In December she addressed the United Nations climate change summit. By January 2019, she was telling the politicians and plutocrats at the World Economic Forum in Davos: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act… as if the house was on fire, because it is.” It was remarkable enough that a teenage girl with no scientific credentials whatsoever had the sheer guts to stand before an audience of people twice, three times or even four times her age and challenge them so blatantly. But what was even more astonishing was that they let her do it. All the knowledge, experience and wisdom of the most powerful men and women in the world bowed down before the furious intensity of a teenage girl.
It is not, I believe, an accident that the phenomenon of the Magic Schoolgirl should be happening now. The human race is healthier, better-fed and longerliving than at any time in history. Yet our very survival feels threatened by forces beyond our control. Across the world forests blaze, hurricanes blow and a constantly mutating disease seems to defy all our attempts to tame it. Just as all our science seems powerless before these natural catastrophes, so the political and military might of the West is cracking in the face of equally overwhelming forces in human affairs. Twenty years after 9/11, and just weeks after the crushing victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, those aircraft bringing down those towering symbols of American capitalism seem like portents of a far greater collapse to come.
To paraphrase Bob Dylan, something is happening, and we don’t know what it is. And so, in a bid to gain some insight, I acted like a true western, bourgeois woman, and went to speak to my shrink, in the hope he might give me a clue.
Bernd Leygraf is a consultant psychotherapist, university academic and Catholic priest. He placed the girls I was talking about within a broader, often female-led search for new solutions. “Our traditional answers don’t help. So there’s an attempt at re-enchanting the world,” he said.
“In academia, what is important now are ways of thinking that used to be on the scrapheap. Things like oral traditions, New Age ideas of spirituality and theology, feminine values – all qualities that don’t lend themselves to conventional ways of thinking, and all things that academics used to sneer at.”
Likewise, the therapist and teacher Amy Mindell talks about, “Exploring parts of ourselves and our world which we tend to throw away, [so that] life becomes a continually evolving, creative, unpredictable and numinous process.” In her 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech, the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk discussed the “butterfly effect”, extending it over “an infinite number of butterflies and their wings” and suggesting that, “the discovery of the butterfly effect marks the end of the era of unswerving faith in our own capacity to be effective, our ability to control, and by the same token our sense of supremacy in the world … Reality is more complicated than mankind might ever have supposed. And… we are nothing but a tiny part of these processes.”
Leygraf directed me to the mythology of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King. The latter is suffering from a septic, stinking wound in his groin: the source of his masculine power. In order to be cured, he has to be asked the question: What ails thee? [This] “is the magical question for all of us, and these young women are asking it of all of us,” Leygraf said. “In times of crisis figures appear from unexpected places. We wouldn’t expect a dyslexic girl to give us answers, or a girl from Pakistan, but odd things are allowed to come from the mouths of odd people.” He continued, “When I first came to Britain, as a German, I tried desperately to speak the Queen’s English and of course that didn’t work. So then I gave myself permission to be odd, and I found that I could say things and use words that English people can’t.”
Of course, none of this is new. In 1429 a seventeen-year-old girl called Jeanne d’Arc, from the village of Domrémy in northeast France arrived at the court of King Charles VII. She claimed she had seen visions in which Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret had instructed her to drive the English out of the country, since they had occupied great swathes of France for much of the past century. Joan of Arc, as we know her, was no soldier. But she was so powerful a symbol of liberty and destiny that she inspired the French to reverse the course of the Hundred Years War. To the victorious French army, Joan was the proof that God was on their side. To the defeated English, she was a sorceress, possessed by the devil.
Greta Thunberg is a modern-day Joan of Arc, but her mission also has echoes of another young, female prophet who warned her people of doom and destruction. Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy and sister of the great warrior Hector, also suffered from what we would now describe as mental health issues. But she was cursed by Apollo to be disbelieved by all who heard her. Greta Thunberg has no such misfortune. The world hangs on her every word.
Malala Yousafzai’s role is very different. She has a status reserved in the past century for mature, even elderly men such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. That is to say: the person who speaks up for oppressed people with such dignity and moral authority that any decent person cannot help but be persuaded by the righteousness of her words and the moral authority of her personality. In 2009, aged eleven, Malala wrote a pseudonymous blog for the Urdu station of the BBC’s World Service, describing her life under the Pakistani Taliban’s occupation of her native Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan. That prompted a New York Times documentary about her life, which in turn led to more interviews in which Malala campaigned for girls’ educational rights, which were being threatened by the Taliban.
There were two immediate results of Malala’s fight for equal education. The first was that she was nominated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the International Children’s Peace Prize. The second was that on 9 October 2012, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman
There were two immediate results of Malala’s fight for equal education. The first was that she was nominated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the International Children’s Peace Prize. The second was that on 9 October 2012, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. Malala was very seriously injured. Having initially been treated in Rawalpindi, she was then flown to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.
Malala survived. Her quasi-resurrection, too, has parallels in the religions and mythologies of cultures across the world. Long before the Christian story of Christ’s resurrection, Greek mythology told of the lovely Persephone, who was captured by Hades, lord of the underworld and taken down to his kingdom of the dead. Persephone’s disappearance plunged her mother Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, into such despair that the fields became barren and the harvests failed. After a series of negotiations and tricks between Zeus and Hades, Persephone was released back into the living world for six months of every year thereby returning warmth and plenty to humankind.
Of course, she still had to spend the other six months in Hell.
Life is never easy for young female icons. They are forced to conform to impossible ideals of purity, whether sexual, moral or ideological. And when they fall from grace, they face public condemnation. Just ask Eve.
Greta Thunberg has been the subject of so much online vitriol, led by Donald Trump, that the question of why she triggers such extreme reactions among so many people has become a staple subject of online pop psychology. Greta’s most vicious detractors tend to be white, male, micro-Trumps. Meanwhile Malala has found herself demonised by furious young Leftists for the crime of publicly supporting a Tory friend, and by outraged Muslims for suggesting that marriage need not be necessary for two people to be life partners.
And so we return to Emma Raducanu. At this year’s Wimbledon she attracted scorn as well as sympathy when she withdrew from the tournament, citing symptoms of shortness of breath and dizziness that seemed as much psychological as physical. For now, her doubters have been routed, but Emma should beware. On 13 November she will celebrate her nineteenth birthday, and nineteen was the age at which, in 1431, Saint Joan – the Maid of Orleans and mother of all Magic Schoolgirls – was captured by the Burgundians and handed over to the English.
Joan was imprisoned, tried and found guilty of heresy. And then she was burned at the stake.
Diana Thomas is a journalist, editor and author who has published sixteen novels (of which three have been No.1 UK bestsellers), in more than 20 languages, under a variety of names, none of which is “Diana Thomas”… yet!