By Alice Thomson in THE TIMES, 24 April 2019
Greta Thunberg has been derided as a “millenarian weirdo”. The campaigning Swedish schoolgirl is being called out by middle-aged men on social media for her “monotone voice” and hounded for the “look of apocalyptic dread in her eyes” as if she were some bizarre cult leader. All because she skips school on Fridays, has stopped eating meat and travels round the world by train warning of the dangers of climate change.
Her critics imply she is being manipulated by her elders, or suggest that she should be picking up litter rather than “wagging her finger”. Her commitment is dismissed as childish enthusiasm and the fact that she has Asperger’s is used against her, with suggestions that someone so “vulnerable” should not be the figurehead of an international movement. It is amazing how threatened some adults feel by this 16-year-old, while the nonagenarian Sir David Attenborough is lauded for spreading the same message.
But Greta is a modern role model and an advocate for her generation, not just for climate change. Here is a girl who had selective mutism diagnosed as a child, who felt suicidal when she was 12 and has had eating disorders but who has now channelled all her energy into a cause. Less than nine months after she started protesting outside the Swedish parliament she has gained serious credibility and shown astonishing resilience.
I met her on social media when she addressed world leaders at Davos in January and she is calm, articulate and self-effacing. She talks about the need to listen to scientific experts and wants to use facts rather than shrill arguments. She hasn’t melted like an iceberg under the criticism either. Yesterday on the BBC’s Todayprogramme she explained that she views her Asperger’s as a gift, because it allows her to “see things from outside the box”.
At Marble Arch on Sunday, in front of a vast crowd of Extinction Rebellion supporters and curious Londoners, she wasn’t trying to make enemies, cast anyone out or point a finger at any individual. She just wanted to make people stop and think. Her looks — plaits, make-up free face, Pippi Longstocking clothes — are irrelevant, as increasingly is her sex. And she practises what she preaches, unlike older campaigners such as the jet-setting Emma Thompson. Teenagers see her as one of them, a normal person who shares their anxieties and worries.
She made me think of the female role models of my age that I had in my teens. There were barely any: Nadia Comaneci, the diminutive Olympic gymnast, and Ruth Lawrence, who went to Oxford at 12 with her father. I didn’t want to be either of them; both seemed dominated by grown-ups. I later interviewed Comaneci and her whole career had been dictated by coaches.
In the 1980s our role models were given to us by adults: there were the unattainable supermodels, the occasional child genius or sporting heroine, music legends and Hollywood actresses, or the offspring of the famous. All of them seemed pitch perfect. There were no ordinary mortals with acne or bitten nails, let alone any with mental health issues. Otherwise we were supposed to emulate grown-ups. If politics was your thing, it was Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams or Margaret Thatcher or the women at Greenham Common, none of whom meant much to a teenager.
Now there are the young protesters Malala Yousafzai and Alaa Salah, who peacefully stood up against oppression in Pakistan and Sudan. And there is the shaven-headed Emma González, who survived the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida a year ago and has taken on the gun lobby. Young women are everywhere.
The journalist Lyra McKee, who was killed last week at the age of 29, became another role model when her letter to her 14-year-old self went viral in 2014. After a pastor called lesbians “sexual perverts” she movingly explained how terrifying it had been to be a gay teenager in Northern Ireland. Overcoming childhood hearing and speech impediments, she stood up for the generation born after the Troubles.
Social media, viewed with suspicion by adults, has allowed teenagers to embrace their own role models rather than have them handed down. They may be entertained by Kim Kardashian, Zoella and Gigi and Bella Hadid but they also have serious spokespeople as well as feminist activists such as Jameela Jamil and Scarlett Curtis, who manage to be both practical and idealistic.
They aren’t arguing online over petty European parliament elections next month. They see a bigger picture that’s rarely about the minutiae of Brexit and more about how they view their future and the kind of lives they want to lead, being open and challenging cultural stereotypes imposed on them.
This new generation of campaigning young women are making their sex seem irrelevant. Some nod to their femininity, others choose to ignore it. But it isn’t defining them. What’s notable about them is that they are famed not for their skills or their looks or their anarchism but for their leadership.
They want to organise for their causes rather than fight among themselves. They are trying to create modern movements and shift opinions through dialogue and debate rather than just music or rebellion. This is what makes them frightening to the older, increasingly rudderless generations above them, who resort to denigrating them because they have lost their way.