15 Mar

Did we lose a hero today?

I had been meaning to reflect on the topic of “heroes” for a while now, then Pi Day came and Stephen Hawking left. As they say: “for a theoretical physicist you can hardly pick a better exit date than Pi Day and the birthday of Albert Einstein” (John Moffitt).

For those of you who don’t know about Pi Day (I just found out last year): It’s when 14th of March, written the American way (so: 3/14), resembles π … And then there’s this coincidence:

The news of Hawking’s passing was a surprise. I somehow expected him to survive us all. Surely his consciousness was uploaded previously up into a cloud somewhere.

Then again, this is the man who outlived his life expectancy, and every other expectation after that. His death is immediately a celebration of the life he had that no one said he would have.

But I don’t want to focus on Hawking today. If you want a nice article on goodbyes to Hawking (where I got the opening image from), go here: https://www.bbc.com/news/amp/blogs-trending-43397847

As I began, I had been meaning to reflect on heroes for a while. International Woman’s Day brought it up, followed by Mattel’s release of real-life inspiring women as Barbie dolls, and why some people got very angry about that. (Link alert! In case you missed this, I’ve linked articles that will catch you up.)

I realized recently that growing up, I didn’t have female heroes I could relate to. My Barbies were white-skinned and blonde, and I didn’t really like Barbie anyway (I played with Ninja Turtles). I grew up in Nigeria so TV programmes were limited. I read a lot of books by Enid Blyton, telling stories of British girls in British boarding schools savouring scones. All this was entertaining, but it wasn’t a world I could relate to – and I really tried.

Growing up, this was my hero:

An intelligent, kind and culturally savvy European man, with his lovable, smart, and slightly alcoholic dog. I loved Tintin because he had no prejudice, made friends with “commoners”, learnt languages and wanted to understand cultures. He was always on the go, always on an adventure. He preferred not to solve with violence, but if he had to throw a punch, he hit mighty hard.

I still collect the comics and when I visited Belgium a few years ago, my main goal was to visit the Herge museum.

Summer 2014

But when Disney produced Pocahontas, I finally understood what identifying with a role model could be. She looked like me, spoke about values I could relate to, she was strong, she was kind, and she could speak to trees. In the Disney film, she didn’t fight (she only stopped a war) but I was sure if she had had to fight, she would have sent them all running.

Do our young girls growing up today have enough role models? Do we agree that they are good? How do girls today aspire to be? Until Pocahontas came along, my goal was to be an intelligent and kind European man, and I’m aware it sounds ridiculous, but deep down I know I still aspire to be him.

The #MeToo movement is changing the world. I see it in the media and hear it in conversations on campus. The most used phrases are “gender binary” and the criticism thereof. For the first time in history, female characters in film are beginning to resemble us women, our conversations, and our agenda.

I study anthropology: a field largely dominated by men, but the few female voices in our hall are loud. Just to name few: Nancy Scheper-Hughes, the one who demands the discipline go hand in hand with activism. Donna Haraway, the one who demands we think through the eyes of our companion species. Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing, the one who explores the anthropocene through mushrooms.

There is no lack of women available for the job of role model. So it is an exciting time to be human in this re-imagining of genders. For women like myself, who grew up wanting to be just like Tintin and are in our mid-30s, we get to start over.

What kind of women do we want to be?

In my profession as an aerial instructor, we teach our students to “have clean lines”. We tell them there is no ideal body, no ideal age, but there are ideal lines. Pointed feet, extended legs, externally rotated shoulders. I justify this by saying, this is to help them develop proprioception: an awareness of their body in space. If you can remember to point your toes while you’re lifting yourself in the air, you got it.

I don’t like lines because they are rigid, block my creativity, and aren’t symbolic of movement but of rigidity. In a line, I have arrived. I am not going anywhere from here. In a line, I present.

Photoshoot with Kara Isabella Shepherd (Aberdeen, 2017)

They can be very satisfying to observe, and it is uncanny how quickly we will mould our bodies into lines. (Watch an aerialist do a sit up: his/her toes will be pointed.) Once we’ve moulded ourselves, lines prove herculean to exorcise.

Today I prepared for an aerial photoshoot for this weekend with a friend. As a trained dancer and aerialist, she has an eye for lines and a wicked knack for breaking them. I wanted to pose in moves I had created / found. Here are a few of the ones we found:

How have we changed since we last spoke? I was still learning the language of lines and desperately wanted to learn to embody them. After my radio silence, I can tell you I am now working to break free of them.

The female anthropologists I mentioned briefly don’t sound linear. They are not even circular; crisscrossing disciplines, borrowing metaphors and theories in order to sharpen and weaponise their points.

What kind of heroes do we want? In the end, Hawking wasn’t a hero for being a theoretical physicist. He crisscrossed the media, from The Simpsons to The Big Bang Theory. He wove his web all around us, binding unlikely friendships.

I’ve said a lot tonight, so I leave you here. I want to thank everyone who wrote me after my last post. Your replies of encouragement lifted me greatly!!

For my next post, I plan to share a paper that I wrote during my undergraduate years in Aberdeen that was accepted for publication, so you can get a feel for what I was writing when I was not writing here!

I leave you with this. If you watch any documentary, watch this. It’s on netflix.


2 Responses to “Heroes”

  1. Gerhard March 15, 2018 at 6:49 am #

    Welcome back Ritti!
    The topic „Heroes“ that you‘ve chosen in your post is so very important and timeless for all teenagers no matter what gender or religion they grew up with. You couldn‘t have chosen a better one for your restart. I‘m sure you make this experience everyday when you give artistic classes.
    Also adults need heroes for their goals and dreams. Unfortunately these days it’s often misleaded and influenced when we look around the world.
    Hawking was a heroe for millions and inspired them in a good way. When you‘re a scientist and research the universe to understand more what‘s going on outside our planet and how this all came about you must be curious and humble at the same time. Those are basically good character traits to be seen as a heroe from others. On top of this he was a genius.

  2. Alessa April 8, 2018 at 10:05 am #

    Beautifully written. As a Tai Chi instructor myself, what you say about lines resonates. Finding the ‘ideal lines’ – and then, learning how to break them, or remould them effectively – fundamentally alters the expression and physicality of our poses and movements.

    In Tai Chi, we describe things in both lines and in circles… And also in spirals, being a combination of the two.

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