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June 18, 2018

Walking The Talk: Navigating The Battlefield Of Journalism Requires You To Power Up

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Devika Swarup

Find your voice and speak up, advises Madhu Jain, who remembers her days as a young, timid novice relegated to flower and dog shows at a daily newspaper….

‘When a man gives his opinion, he’s a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she’s a bitch,’ said Bette Davis. Sorry for starting this column with a five-letter word. But the American actor with a delightful sneer embedded in her voice says it as it is; neat and without any softening flourishes. Fortunately things are changing, although not fast enough. Take the battlefield of journalism: women warriors are on the front line today, here in India and elsewhere. Alas, it wasn’t always the case.

When I joined The Statesman in the early ’70s women reporters were rare hothouse creatures to be safely tended to. Their domain: flower shows, dog shows and innocuous interviews which were pleasant to read and didn’t set a cat amongst pigeons. They were pushed down, below the line of real visibility, and out of the hearing range of those who might be offended. The political arena was by and large for men only. I can’t just blame the bosses: we novices in primarily a man’s world (which this newspaper was then) were too timid to speak up and be counted. And, we were too fearful to insist on being sent to the front where the action was.

Finding your voice
Looking back I realise it has to do with finding your voice and speaking up: that’s where power resides and empowering begins. It also helps if you have a deep or resonant voice. Interestingly, my journalist friends who smoked had acquired whisky or cognac-soaked voices which rose well above the din. Those with timorous vocal chords might as well have been speaking into a blustery wind.

You don’t even need the cigarettes to sound like a powerhouse, or Tallulah Bankhead. Self-confidence will do, as will the temerity to stare bullies in the face — both male and female. You all know the cliche: behind every successful man is a woman. It needs drastic revision. What about behind every successful woman is the woman’s belief in herself? It’s time to tweak the French philosopher and mathematician René Descarte’s ever-quotable adage: ‘I believe in myself, therefore I am.’ Leave the thinking to another day.

Dynamics of youth
Perhaps empowerment is all about finding your voice and projecting it loud and clear, without the ‘ers’, mumbles and self-deprecating twaddle. It’s all about finding your mental muscles and flexing them. There is, however, a thin line between powering up and overpowering. The competition, really, is with oneself. Or to upend another cliche: shouting down somebody doesn’t help you win an argument. It merely shows a lack of self-confidence. How often have we been told by our teachers and parents that shouting doesn’t help or get you any closer to your goal? You only end up abusing your vocal chords.

I have often wondered about the dynamics of the relationship between an ‘overpowering’ figure (male or female) and those in a somewhat subservient position at the time. Pablo Picasso and his many young muses come to mind. The painter was a bit of a nasty when it came to women. You have only to see his portraits of the women he no longer loved: gross noses, distorted faces and awkward positions. But, once in a long while, innocence felled him. This June, Picasso’s rather tender portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, titled Buste de femme de profil. Femme écrivant, will be auctioned by Sotheby’s. Painted in 1932 (considered as the Spanish painter’s ‘year of wonders’) it depicts a young blonde woman writing.

Picasso’s tender portrayals of Marie-Thérèse, the 17-year-old blonde girl whom he happened to see outside the Galeries Lafayette in Paris in 1927, reveal the timid power she held over him — for decades. He was 45 when they met and she remained his muse until 1941. Ironically, she had gone to the iconic department store that day to buy a col Claudine, a Peter Pan collar. Perhaps that was, metaphorically speaking, what she gave him: her youth kept him under her spell.

Marie-Thérèse had the appeal and power of youth. Many men and women possess these before adulthood overtakes them; youth can be quite intoxicating. The real achievement is to hang on to the advantages of being young long after wrinkles crease the face, the hair thins out and the gait becomes less bouncy. One of these advantages is the belief in the future and, of course, in the self. Self-confidence comes easy when life’s battles haven’t yet worn you down. But the greater challenge is to continue in not letting go of the belief in yourself. Powering up involves listening more closely to the self — not to others. It took me a while to realise that friends, family and colleagues who appeared super confident and buoyant were just as vulnerable and apprehensive behind the carapace of supreme confidence they adorned themselves with.

So, throw away the shoulder pads, tottering heels and icing-cake make-up. Straighten your shoulders and walk tall.

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