When Time magazine named Donald Trump Person of the Year, the American president-elect – ever the gracious gentleman – moaned how he would have preferred the original title of Man of the Year. The master misogynist was playing to the gallery once again, demonstrating that he had no patience for gender-neutral niceties, political correctness be damned.
In his own twisted fashion, Trump was on to something. Time may have dropped its Man of the Year title back in 1999, but 2016 could well go down as the Year of the Man.
On the world stage, old fashioned machismo made a comeback and Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged as a big winner. While it is still no superpower, Russia showed a frightening ability to get its way.
Those recycled images of a shirtless Putin riding horseback in Siberia were laughed at when they appeared in 2009, but now seem to capture the zeitgeist – more so than Barack Obama playing with his two fluffy dogs. Suddenly, the sensitive new age guy appeared passé, and Neanderthals were back in vogue.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was the living caricature of this new movement, proudly turning street justice into national policy. Just when you thought he had exhausted his repertoire of crass declarations, he topped them with the confession – or boast? – that he had killed people.
The scriptwriters for House of Cards will have to squeeze a lot more out of President Francis Underwood to make their fiction more shocking than fact.
The year was supposed to end quite differently, in the US at least. Hillary Clinton was expected to shatter the highest glass ceiling, such that for the first time in history, the most powerful person in the world, commander in chief of the globe’s sole military superpower, would be a woman. Instead, as Slate columnist Michelle Goldberg put it, 2016 might go down as the year the feminist bubble burst.
Trump won a sizeable constituency of women – 53 per cent of white females – suggesting that conservative notions of a women’s place are not as universally objectionable as feminists would like to believe. Not even the commonsensical demand for equal pay for equal work was enough of a vote winner.
Several commentators have trotted out prescient passages from a 1998 book by philosopher Richard Rorty, who said economic hardship would cause Americans to back a strongman against disadvantaged groups that had made social gains: “Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion,” he warned.
I confess to not sensing the tide that made 2016 the Year of the Man, lulled by my own circle of women friends who lead lives of opportunity, cheered on by real men who see them as equal partners.
Looking at the alarming backlash against women, what is one to do? Retreat quietly and wait patiently for the season to change? Thankfully, what is happening at the pinnacle of politics is not a uniform trend.
Even in Washington DC, where hope seems to have been snuffed out, several remarkable women did get elected to Congress. One of them is Pramila Jayapal. The former banker arrived in America as a teenage immigrant in 1981, worked hard, fought stereotypes and has focused on fighting for the rights of immigrants, people of colour and women.
And, of course, there is life beyond government and politics. The year 2016 gave us Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee now living in Germany who competed in last year’s Olympics as part of the Refugee Team. When the boat she was fleeing began sinking, the swimmer and three others pushed it for hours before it reached safety. Also from that war-torn region, where the likes of Donald Trump probably would not survive a day, came Nadia Murad, a Yazidi who survived captivity and sexual abuse by Islamic State.
She has gone on to become an activist for her people and a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations.
At first glance, the world of business does seem desolate. The global proportion of senior business roles held by women was 24 per cent, said one study in March last year and a third of firms had no women in senior management. But given how access to education for women is still uneven in parts of the world, it’s not all bad. One only has to look north to feel galvanised, as no other country has more self-made women billionaires than China. Mao Zedong’s ( 毛澤東 ) advocacy of gender equality placed women at an advantage in the economic opening up of the 1980s and 1990s.
One of the most successful self-made women is Zhou Qunfei, the founder of Lens Technology. A school dropout at 16, she started working life as a factory worker making watch lenses. Today, she is worth US$7.2 billion and still a grounded woman – a New York Times report said she was most at home while pacing the factory floor, tinkering. If you own a mobile device, tablet or laptop, chances are the glass cover screen is from her company.
And sometimes, hope can be under your own nose. Hong Kong woman Chan Yuen-ting, 27, made it to the Guinness Book of Records by becoming the first woman ever to lead a men’s football team to a national title.
“Beef Ball”, as she is nicknamed in Cantonese, led the Eastern Sports Club to win the Hong Kong Premier League. That it took 150 years of modern football history for this to happen is another story, but the symbolism is powerful.
2016, Year of the Man? I’m with Beef Ball.
Zuraidah Ibrahim is the editor of This Week in Asia