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BBC Icons finale: The greatest person of the 20th Century won't be a woman

PUBLISHED: 12:56 05 February 2019

Marilyn Monroe was pipped to the 'entertainers' crown by David Bowie Photo: Kudos/Bert Stern

Marilyn Monroe was pipped to the 'entertainers' crown by David Bowie Photo: Kudos/Bert Stern

Archant

Women haven’t made the cut as the BBC’s popular history series reaches its conclusion

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was longlisted in the 'activists' catagory, but failed to win the public vote Photo: ArchantSuffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was longlisted in the 'activists' catagory, but failed to win the public vote Photo: Archant

As the BBC concludes its search for the greatest person of the 20th Century, one thing is for certain: it won’t be a woman. Over the course of its popular history series, Icons, the broadcaster has asked the British public to choose its most inspiring legends from a variety of fields, spanning from explorers to activists and entertainers. The discerning public has now cast its vote – and has determined that no woman deserves the ‘ultimate icon’ accolade, or even a place on the shortlist.

Despite the BBC’s best efforts to ensure fair representation across its seven categories, none of its 12 female candidates made it through the first round of voting, resulting in an all-male line-up for the final. Nelson Mandela, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Shackleton, David Bowie, Alan Turing, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Muhammad Ali will all face the public vote again tonight, in a live final airing at 9pm on BBC Two.

This is certainly an impressive line-up, but it is hard to believe that not one woman deserves a chance of winning the ‘greatest icon’ crown. Emmeline Pankhurst, Marie Curie and Marilyn Monroe were among the inspirational women longlisted by the BBC’s panel of unnamed experts, and all would have made worthy winners. Why then, did none of them make it to the final?

Some of the blame may lie with the structure of the show itself. The categories that the BBC selected – artists, activists, sports stars, entertainers, scientists, explorers and leaders – were broad and wide-ranging in their scope, often grouping together ‘icons’ who had very little in common. The ‘artists’ category had visual artists Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol pitted off against legendary director Alfred Hitchcock and feminist writer Virginia Woolf. Comparing the works of these great creatives is a near impossible task – Warhol’s soup can and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway are like apples and oranges. Splitting this category into two separate groups – namely ‘artists’ and ‘writers’ - would have allowed greater inclusion of some of the most fantastic female creatives from the past century. Tracey Emin and Marina Abramović could have certainly given Warhol and Picasso a run for their money in a distinct ‘artists’ category, while a separate ‘writers’ category could have showcased a number of extraordinary female literary talents (Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and Enid Blyton, to name just a few…).

The show’s format may have been flawed, but the main reason why we have reached an all-male final is simply because the public voted for an all-male final. Voters decided that Bowie trumped Monroe and Turing trounced Curie. Each of the finalists is undoubtedly an icon in their own right, but the gender imbalance of the line-up is hard to ignore – after all, did women really contribute nothing of note to the 20th Century? The message that it sends is that women’s contributions are valued less than men’s.

Of course, this isn’t unique to the BBC’s Icons show. Female directors were snubbed once again in this year’s Oscars nominations, despite crafting some of the most exciting and talked about films of 2018 (Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? are among the most notable omissions). Over in the art world, meanwhile, the National Gallery made headlines last summer after splashing out $3.8m on a rare self-portrait by a 17th century female painter – bringing its number of works by women up to a grand total of 24, out of more than 2,300 paintings, drawings and sculptures in its archives.

From film to art to history, women’s contributions are routinely going unrecognised, and tonight’s Icons finale is no different. But the British public has spoken, and its greatest person of the 20th Century won’t be a woman. Oh well, there’s always next century.

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