Look and listen

Published by Karen Hands on

Which version should you listen to? Dressed up and ready to run an awards dinner or relaxing in the garden? As we all know, I can be both of these women and my opinion still counts. Or at least, I’d like to think so. Across my website, I’ve used a lot of professional images and I’m very grateful to the photographers who let me use their work, but I’ve also posted a few personal shots and I record video at home. I don’t see this as being controversial, I just want to show that I’m both professional and approachable.

Nevertheless, I might be being more radical than I intended. Over the weekend, I tuned into Last Word on BBC Radio 4 when Matthew Bannister was talking to Trevor Nelson about the death of Aretha Franklin. Nelson described her as “Just a voice… never a pop star”. He said “I don’t think she felt she was a truly attractive woman… men were there to take advantage of her. I never got the impression Aretha enjoyed her life as much as she should have.”

Of course Aretha Franklin was hugely successful and her legacy includes both her songs and her contribution to the civil rights movement in America, yet the barrier she seems to have been unable to cross was to be seen for who she was. The assumption that women should be good to look at, whether or not we listen to them, is pervasive. Aretha wasn’t in any way ugly and yet we never really heard her story: how she ended up with two children by the age of 14; or how it felt to be part of the inauguration ceremony for America’s first black president. We just got wrapped up in the emotion in her voice when she sang other people’s words. She didn’t think she looked good enough to be a real pop star like her contemporary, Diana Ross, and neither did her backers. It put limits on her career.

Now that the business community is far more used to seeing women in positions of authority, are our looks still a barrier to being heard? The older I get, the more I’m prepared to challenge the presumptions of the male gaze. I have something to say, whether or not I put my make-up on today.


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