Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a British writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Jameela Jamil is on a mission to combat airbrushing, diet teas and other forms of image-based oppression, but not everyone is on board. The outspoken actor and presenter is best known for her role as the aggravatingly perfect, name-dropping former activist Tahani on NBC’s “The Good Place.”
Her efforts have garnered a great deal of attention. One person tweeted, “Jameela Jamil posting a picture where she looks luminously beautiful with the (caption) ‘say no to airbrushing …. I want to look like a person’ is so extremely Tahani.”
The general complaint is that “it’s pretty easy” for Jamil to say that airbrushing should be dumped, because she will look fantastic either way. And sure, famous people – especially attractive ones – often enjoy far more credit for newly-acquired opinions than others who have been expressing those opinions far longer. But there is something uncomfortable about a critique of a famous woman which veers in the direction of “stay in your lane” or “she has several coveted things already, and that is enough.”
This response is resonant of a broader silencing of women’s voices – a silencing that often goes hand in hand with sexist objectification. In every area of life, young women who put their heads above their parapet become lightning rods for scrutiny and belittlement.
In the brief period since she was elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been ridiculed for admitting that she will struggle to pay her rent in Washington, had her appearance mocked on Twitter, and her perfectly acceptable rhetoric picked apart and derided as the bragging of a “fresh-faced” millennial.
When footballer Ada Hegerberg recently became the first female winner of the Ballon d’Or, presenter Martin Solveig asked her whether she could twerk. She had just given a speech about how she hopes to inspire girls to believe in themselves.
There is an often-ignored difference between trying to take credit for noticing a problem – an accusation often made of Jamil – and setting yourself up in opposition to a problem that many may have noted for years, but hasn’t yet been solved. Combative responses to women like Jamil reinforce a world view which states women must be note-perfect, grateful, up-to-the-minute and undemanding, and declares anything less embarrassing. The failure to take even women like Ocasio-Cortez and Hegerberg seriously shows that you can be all of those things, and still have to fight for respect.
Silencing Jameela Jamil on beauty standards because of the way she looks is as much a problem of patriarchy as the slimming teas she rightly denounces. Caring more about how Jamil looks while she makes her point than about the point itself is playing into the hands of the negative forces she is trying to combat.
Jamil didn’t choose her face, or create the system that made it more likely that she would get auditions for shows. Now that Jamil is on TV, she is using her platform for something besides self-promotion – a choice most in her position have sidestepped. She is evidently aware that she isn’t an entirely digestible poster child for her cause. She apologizes that she has “fairly clear skin these days”, and is forced to reiterate that her skin has been lightened and her nose narrowed in pictures, that the implications about her ethnicity made by airbrushing have been deeply hurtful to her. She has to stress again and again the fact that she might have some idea what she is talking about.
Perhaps the assumption that Jamil is under-informed is based partly on her profession and its associated clichés. The well-meaning star with little experience of the real world. But even eminently qualified women whose life experience is well-documented and discussed are doubted when they express confident diagnoses of situations they have direct knowledge of. It is more comfortable for some to say that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who accepted no corporate donations and spent $194,000 on her campaign (her opponent Joe Crowley spent $3.4 million), “beat a lazy incumbent,” than to admit that her message resonates because it is based on lived experience.
It is more convenient – as the Washington Examiner decided – to interpret Ocasio-Cortez’s reference to the moon landing as “full of herself” millennial bragging, rather than a rhetorical inference that another thing which once seemed impossible has been achieved. Ocasio-Cortez had, among other unlikely and impressive moments in history, compared her upset victory to the landing of men on the moon in 1969.
Much of the critique of Jamil for being superficial has been guilty of the same offense. Articles claim that she has “more in common with the Kardashians” than with her audience, but fail to mention that she worked as an English teacher, or that she was almost completely deaf until the age of 12.
Jamil also has celiac disease, and endured cruel media coverage in her 20s when her asthma medication made her gain significant weight. She has described being bullied about her race and weight, and suffering from severe anorexia during her teens. In her late teens she was hit by a car and confined to bed for two years before learning to walk again. In 2015 she set up a company to make live entertainment events more accessible to disabled people.
No one should have to present a showreel of their hardships to validate their opinions, but the knee-jerk assumption that Jamil has it easy isn’t helpful, either.
Jameela Jamil may not have watertight responses to patriarchal beauty standards, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might not solve political inequality overnight. But someone else might have something constructive to offer, and be paying close attention to the way these role models are received. That person’s willingness to make their case could be affected for better or worse by those observations.
Ada Hegerberg stepped back from the Norwegian national soccer team in 2017 because of reported frustrations with how the women’s sport is treated in her country. As Rebecca Smith, a former international player from New Zealand, told CNN, “She’s only 23 but she’s stepped back from the national team because she’s fighting for things that she believes are right.”
The young girls Hegerberg exhorted to “Please, believe in yourself” could be watching how all three women are received as well. In a world where even the most impressive women are not taken seriously, any attempt towards positive change should be celebrated. Or, at the very least, respected.