The right kind of exceptional

There is something rather interesting about the last word of the title to this post. Have you ever noticed? On the one hand, we use it to refer to someone who is superlatively good at what they do, someone in a league of their own, you might say. Someone who distinguishes themselves from the masses by being better, more brilliant, unique and original. Clara Schumann, for example, was an exceptional musician.

However, ‘exceptional’ can also mean a less value-laden ‘unusual’, or ‘other’, being different or standing out in some other way. In this sense, Clara Schumann is an exceptional musician, because she was not a man, and we still remember her.

In the wake of International Women’s Day last week, and all manner of fantastic performances, talks, radio shows, flashmobs and many other things besides, we are fortunate that so many exceptional people (in the second sense) are being thrust firmly into the limelight, celebrated and supported, so that they are being acknowledged as well and truly exceptional (in the first sense) in their fields. As ever, the trick over the longer term is to find a way to eradicate the need for the second sense to be applicable in the category of female success stories, whether they be astronauts, composers, Nobel Prize winners, firefighters or members of government. It is also worth remembering that whilst the fight can seem long and slow, the speed of the progress that has been made in this and similar issues is truly amazing. Don’t believe me? Go back and watch a beloved film or TV show from the 1980s. Or indeed the 1990s (like Friends). If you’re feeling really daring, check back on any records of your own opinions on women, gay people, anyone not white, etc. at those dates. Don’t be surprised if you find that you wrote or said things that you’d find fairly shocking now. Attitudes have moved on, for all of us, and whilst of course there’s a lot still to do, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the distance already travelled.

A collection of signs and placards from a women's march

There is another kind of exception, by the way, that often gets brought into the conversation around topics like #MeToo. It is the exception (second sense) used to imply a norm. This might involve reporting on a story which seems like the label ‘sexual harassment’ has been applied to something as a blatant over-reaction, as a means of undermining all allegations of sexual harassment. (I’m not going to point to specific examples here, but I’m sure we’ve seen such stories go past in papers and on social media). Whether or not the specific incident was indeed an over-reaction or not, to use it as such is of course to undermine it, and in turn to attempt to tar all similar claims with the same brush of hysteria. (Now there’s another problematic word…). One term used to describe the downplaying of an outraged or otherwise intensely emotional reaction to something, as you may know, is ‘gaslighting’, named from the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play (and later film), Gaslight, in which a husband seeks to drive his wife mad by playing tricks on her and denying the evidence of her own senses by saying she’s imagining things. It’s a nasty, brilliant story, and well worth a watch, not least because the husband carries out such tactics virtuosically well. Which makes them much easier to spot when you observe them in others, even if they seem completely reasonable at the time.

However, whilst we’re wandering around this little clutch of interesting words, another that must be pulled into the mix is ‘proving’. Exceptions, of course, prove rules. But this means that they test the rules, not that they enforce them. Since women have to get on with advancing attitudes to behaviour at work, equal pay, and a raft of other things – as do a range of other minorities – let’s remember that IWD is a great thing, but it doesn’t stop here. Exceptional women have already proven and broken many previously accepted rules. Here’s to more of them doing just that: here’s to the first kind of exceptional being the only reason that we notice a woman in a given role, rather than the second.

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