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Greta Thunberg faces the vitriol of men because she's a 16-year-old girl who isn't being sexualised

For decades, pop stars, actresses and models have been groomed from pubescence to perform a certain accessible sexuality for an adult audience. The young activist fails to conform to this expectation, and pays the price

Sophie Wilkinson
Monday 30 September 2019 18:14 BST
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Michael Knowles calls Greta Thunberg a 'mentally ill Swedish child'

For the millions who have joined her strike for climate justice, Greta Thunberg is an inspirational 16-year-old who is rightly furious about the global disaster her generation is due to inherit. Yet to some prominent men, she’s "an annoying little brat", "the maypole around which all the eco loonies now dance", and a "weird…lass…bless her".

Leave.EU donor Arron Banks even hinted he'd like her to become the victim of a "freak yachting accident", while Donald Trump sarcastically deemed her "a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future".

You might wonder what she has done to provoke such aggressive condemnation, primarily from men. After all, David Attenborough, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo have all delivered similar messages, decrying our ecological apocalypse, and yet they receive so little of the hatred Greta receives. Perhaps the problem isn’t so much the message but the messenger.

Our society has an endless appetite for 16-year-old girls – but only if they come with the right sugar-coating.

For decades, pop stars, actresses and models have been groomed from pubescence to perform a certain accessible sexuality for an adult audience. Either they play the doe-eyed innocent, ready to be lured into wickedness (think Britney Spears in that schoolgirl outfit), or they’re a brazen women from the off (Rihanna was a child star, remember). Either way, the sexualisation is inescapable.

Take pop star Billie Eilish, now 17, who wears baggy street wear to avoid commentary on her body. She has said: "There’s people out there saying, ‘Dress like a girl for once. Wear tight clothes you’d be much prettier and your career would be so much better’. No it wouldn’t. It literally would not." Her wishes were ignored; a magazine recently put a mocked-up topless image of her on its cover.

Why does this happen? Because young women are only granted a public platform if they are sufficiently sexualised

As for young women in the public eye that Joe Public decides it doesn't want to sexualise? Those present without a grinning, pouting gloss? They're ridiculed as well – just like young Greta has been. Emma Gonzalez, the survivor of the Parkland school shooting, was called a "skinhead lesbian" – in an insulting way, mind – by pro-gun lobbyists after calling for gun control.

The same has happened to others working with Thunberg to reverse climate change. Isra Hersi, the co-founder of the US climate strike and the daughter of Minnesota senator Ilhan Omar, is sidelined because, as a young black Muslim, she's deemed too "unattractive" to take any notice of.

As I was told when I pointed out this duplicity on Twitter this week, Malala Yousafzai seems like an exception to this rule, because Western society accepted her childhood and did not attempt to sexualise her when she spoke out. Her cause – educating girls and women – was relatively uncontroversial in the West. But remember why she ended up as a public figurehead in the first place. The Taliban’s soldiers were so angry that the then-14-year-old wanted girls of menstruating age (there's the sexualisation and objectification) to attend school, they literally shot her in the head. Assassination attempts are a pretty low bar to set for comparison and it doesn't mean we're doing much better. Young women who dare to speak against the status quo deserve a hell of a lot more than the sexism they get.

Climate will rightly remain Thunberg's focal point, but the way she and other young women are treated simply for reaching their public platform should be another priority issue for the rest of us. Our girls aren’t going to stop having interesting things to say or fighting vital campaigns.

So it's up to us – and, in particular, adult men who are old enough to know better – to stop measuring their worth based on outdated and sordid expectations designed to smother our young women.

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