In the run up to Christmas, it's easy to see why people like the idea of things fitting neatly into boxes so much. Nice, uniform boxes are far easier to wrap and look pretty and organised under the tree. But boxes also disguise the contours of whatever's inside, leaving it flat and featureless. Unfortunately, we're guilty of doing the same in the way we represent historically and culturally significant people.
People who don't fall into privileged identity categories - male, able-bodied, white, to name a few - already suffer from under-representation. UN figures show that only around 1 in 4 people heard or read about in the news are women. And, even when their stories are told, they are too often presented as one-dimensional. Helen Keller was a deaf-blind pioneer; Mabel Normand was a glamourous silent film star; Rosa May Billinghurst was a suffragette.
Of course, all of these things are important - but they are not the only important thing about each of those women. Described like that, each of these extraordinary, unique people fit nicely into a box. We have inspiring soundbites that can be paraded whenever we need an example of courage, or overcoming the odds, or - indeed - inspiring women. But we lose so much of the narrative.
May Billinghurst (as she preferred to be known) was not a suffragette I knew much about, I have to admit. But, after reading about her in this article, I wish she'd been part of the narrative we were taught at school. Partially paralysed by polio as a child, May was wheelchair-bound, and used this to her advantage in fighting for women's rights. Given the nickname "the cripple suffragette", she hid bricks in her wheelchair to smash windows with and rammed into policemen's shins when they surrounded protests. Her story is remarkable, inspiring, and complex.
This complexity is so important - but so frequently ignored. As a society, we're fond of co-opting historical figures into whatever narrative we happen to be telling - even if this means simplifying them almost beyond recognition. One example that sprung to mind when I read this article was to do with ancient history.
What's the first thing you think of when I mention Cleopatra? For many, it's her beauty, which is emphasised time and again in history and literature. However, Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch wrote that "her beauty… was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her”. Cleopatra was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, the only ruler to learn the Egyptian language, a chief religious authority, and an absolute monarch who successfully tackled famine in her territories. So why does a potentially inaccurate portrayal of her beauty and sexual allure dominate the way she is represented?
We need these incredible, unique stories of multi-faceted individuals at their most complicated. Neutral, sanitised stories are easy to package up, but at a huge cost to the richness of our history. We will never truly be able to understand the most important moments of our past without approaching them intersectionally, with all the messiness that entails. When we learn about Helen Keller as a deaf-blind activist and also as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, we give her life the complexity it deserves, rather than flattening her identity.
After all, isn't it more interesting to see a weirdly-shaped present under the tree? Choose messy and complicated over neat and organised - smash the box.
people disregard Helen Keller's history of being a radical - because it doesn't fit in the sanitised 'disability' box. That was one of the big motivations when I was writing this piece. Smash the box! No-one belongs in a box.