On December 6, Time magazine created quite a sensation with their announcement of the Person of the Year 2017. As the cover revealed, it was a group of people — five women and the arm of an anonymous woman— those the magazine felt sparked a change this year. They were collectively referred to as The Silence Breakers.
“For giving voice to open secrets, for moving whisper networks onto social networks, for pushing us all to stop accepting the unacceptable, The Silence Breakers are the 2017 Person of the Year,” Edward Felsenthal, the editor-in-chief of the magazine, wrote, while introducing the persons of the year, more like movement of the year. It is a telling picture. Looking defiantly at the readers and the world at large, these women have inarguably started a movement. By featuring them on the cover, the magazine has set a powerful precedence. But has it been successful in finally bringing power outside of a predominantly male domain? Maybe not.
This year has been largely about women. Although sexual harassment against women has been a glaring reality since time immemorial, the conversation regarding this was initiated and continued with vigour this year. Harassers – mental, physical, emotional – were called out, privilege was questioned and power was challenged. The women on the cover — Ashley Judd, one of the first to accuse Hollywood magnate Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment; Adama Iwu and Susan Fowler, who started movements by speaking up on sexual harassment in their companies, Visa and Uber, respectively; singer Taylor Swift who testified in court against DJ David Mueller, who had groped her; Isabel Pascual, a strawberry picker from Mexico, who spoke up in spite of great odds; and an arm that belongs to an anonymous young hospital worker from Texas, victim of sexual harassment who fears disclosing her identity would adversely affect her family — are collectively representative of the way things unfolded for women this year.
Different women, from disparate background and social class shattered barriers to narrate disturbingly similar tales and forge solidarity. The cover is a precipitation of these. These women are, the magazine claims, the person(s) who made the most change this year. But it is only the eighth time in the title’s 89 years of existence that the magazine has said so.
The title, Person of the Year, proffered annually by the magazine to individuals and sometimes to collective groups, acknowledges those irrespective of gender who “wielded the most influence in the previous 12 months”. The title, started in 1928, was not this gender-neutral from its inception. Till 1999, it was neatly divided into Man and Woman of the Year and it was only five times, till then, that women made it to the cover.
American socialite Wallis Simpson was the first woman to be declared Woman of the Year in 1936, but she was primarily known for her marriage to King Edward VIII, that led him to abdicate his throne. Queen Elizabeth II, the monarch, featured on the cover in 1953. And similar to the 2017 cover, twelve women — Susan Brownmiller, Kathleen Byerly, Alison Cheek, Jill Conway, Betty Ford, Ella Grasso, Carla Hills, Barbara Jordan, Billie Jean King, Carol Sutton, Susie Sharp, and Addie Wyatt — ranging from different fields were collectively chosen as Women Of The Year in 1975. In 1986, Corazon Aquino, Filipina politician and the 11th President of Philippines, who emerged as the leader after her husband’s assassination, adorned the cover alone. In 1937, the magazine acknowledged both Soong Mei-link, the first lady of the Republic of China and her husband Chiang Kai-shek as Man and Woman of the Year. The title changed in 1999 to what it is known today, but things did not.
It took the magazine another 16 years to ‘recognise the contribution of women’ and in 2002, Sherron Watkins, Coleen Rowley, Cynthia Cooper appeared collectively as The Whistleblowers, and another 13 years, later Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor featured on the cover. The skewed statistics and the obvious power play in this case is glaring and hard to miss. Melinda Gates did feature with her husband Bill Gates and singer Bono in 2005 but her contribution was not singularly upheld and, in the cover, rather symbolically she is completely overshadowed by the men standing ahead of her. Ebola Fighters Salome Karwah and Ella Watson-Stryker too were chosen as the Person Of The Year in 2014, but they were one among other fighters, and in this case men.
The cover of this year, then, while attempting to project a triumph of social media movements and of survivors over people holding positions of power, also conversely reflects how long power has been concentrated in the hands of men. The title, irrespective of its decision to remain gender-neutral, has ended up time and again privileging and acknowledging men in positions of power. There have also been several instances when the title has been bestowed on the same man more than once. Former US president Franklin Roosevelt featured thrice (1932, 1934, 1941) and Bill Clinton featured twice (1992, 1998) as the Person of the Year, among other men. A similar instance in the case of women is conspicuously absent. Former United Kingdom prime minister Margaret Thatcher did feature on the cover in 1990 but not as the Person of the Year and not when she was in power. She had stepped down from her post and the cover that read ‘The Lady Bows Out’ captured her dethronement. Former prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi too featured thrice on the cover but not once was the title conferred on her.
The cover and the faces are undeniably a powerful demonstration of how far women have come and how the endless jostling of power is no longer a one-man show. But it must be viewed from the lens of scepticism. The magazine did refer to the #MeToo women as ‘Silence Breakers’ but will that also bring an end to their own palpable silence to the contribution of women? This, only time will tell.
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