Wonder women of popular culture
A crash course in all the kick-ass ladies of the moment you need to know about
Scrap the dreary dinner party conversations about Trump bumblings and Gigaba videos, here’s a list of women from across the world (and time and realms of possibility) you should be able to, and want to, discuss instead. They’re all very much of the zeitgeist.
The lawmaker: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
She’s an associate justice of the US Supreme Court (only the second woman in that position) and you don’t tangle with the "Notorious RBG". Ginsburg is famous for her dissenting opinions as a justice, but the thing that really set her on a path to career success, and fame, was her work as a lawyer. In the 1970s, this glass-ceiling shatterer was a fearless advocate of women’s rights and gender equality.
To get some insight on this feisty 85-year-old, watch the excellent documentary RBG, released this year. This should be your preparatory viewing for On the Basis of Sex. The big-budget biopic based on Ginsburg’s life will be released in SA in January and stars Felicity Jones.
The chef: Samin Nosrat
Between Chef’s Table and Ugly Delicious there really is no shortage of sophisticated food porn on our screens. But Netflix’s Salt Fat Acid Heat and its host, Nosrat, have taken the genre to a new level — glorifying the provenance of ingredients.
The Iranian-American chef and writer travels around the world to learn about what she deems the Holy Grail elements of great cooking. The four-part docu-series is named for each section of the hit book she produced first.
This is a sublime adventure of pesto making in Liguria, salt harvesting in Japan and eating red-cow parmesan so good that it brings tears to her eyes.
Salt Fat Acid Heat is a cooking-slash-travel show, but not in a stagey kind of way. And the key? Nosrat is, dare we say, normal. She slurps her pasta, eats too fast and winces her way through dicing onions. She’s the kind of accessible chef that makes people want to start cooking.
The scientist: Donna Strickland
The ultra-sharp, ultra-precise lasers used in surgery and hi-tech welding and big-scale industry are what Canadian scientist Strickland loves. In fact, she’s made them her life’s work.
She won the Nobel prize in physics this year with her colleague Gérard Mourou for inventing chirped pulse amplification. The duo made the breakthrough in the 1980s and the development has had a wide-ranging impact on science and industry for years. Strickland is only the third woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics, after Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.
The winemakers: Ntsiki Biyela, Carmen Stevens and Unathi Mantshongo
For a fascinating glimpse into the transformation of the local wine world from apartheid to the present, watch Akin Omotoso’s documentary The Colour of Wine. It’s a fun, poignant and important look at the industry through the eyes of three black women winemakers, Biyela, Mantshongo and Stevens, and their male counterpart Dumisani Mathonsi.
We raise a glass to women like this — they’re shaking things up and innovating. For dates of the Joburg screening of the film at the Bioscope in Maboneng, visit thebioscope.co.za
The president: Sahle-Work Zewde
Sure, it’s more of a figurehead position (there is a prime minister), but it’s still newsworthy that Ethiopia has just got a woman president. And whatever her new portfolio entails, she’s no slouch. A career diplomat, Zewde was an ambassador for her country and later worked for the UN as director-general in its Nairobi office. She also served as the UN’s special representative to the AU. Zewde is the only sitting woman president in Africa. We’ll just leave it at that.
The authors: Anna Burns, Sarah Perry and Louisa May Alcott
Looking for something new to read? Northern Irish author Burns just won the 2018 Man Booker prize for her novel Milkman. It’s set in Ireland during the Troubles and is experimental and unusual but mesmerising once you get into it. Markedly different but no less appealing is Perry’s new book, Melmoth. Perry won wild acclaim for The Essex Serpent, so her new work is causing lots of buzz. Her writing is beautiful, compelling and decidedly gothic — Melmoth promises similar dark and romantic stuff.
And yes, we know Alcott is anything but new, but the US author’s wonderful, much-loved classic Little Women has just turned 150. Now is the moment to reacquaint yourself with Jo, Beth, Amy, Meg and, of course, the boy next door, Laurie.
The gymnast: Simone Biles
You know how it feels when you have to get up and go to work but you’re not feeling so hot? US gymnast Biles does too. She’s just had a bad case of kidney stones. But this particularly painful ailment didn’t stop her from competing in the 48th Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Qatar recently. Oh, and here’s a little detail that makes this all the more impressive: she led the US team. And they won the entire event. The American gals scooped the largest points victory that they’ve ever had at a world championship, and dynamo Biles, the Olympic champion, also scored the highest points in beam, vault and floor exercises. Plus, she qualified for the Tokyo Olympics while she was at it.
The set designer: Es Devlin
You may not have heard of Devlin, but if you’ve watched any footage of Beyoncé’s Formation Tour, or any of crazy Kanye West’s live stuff or that by lovely Adele, chances are you’ve clocked her creativity. And if you watched the closing ceremony of the London Olympics or the opening ceremony of the Rio Games then you’ve enjoyed her work too — she designed both. The Londoner is arguably the most famous set designer around. She uses hi-tech tools and mixed media to conjure up spaces and tell stories. Last week, her latest piece, the Zoetrope, opened at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. The interactive artwork is a collaboration between Devlin, Mercedes-Benz and Design Indaba. Check it out.
The spooky gals
1960s comic book fans and 1990s TV-watching teenagers will remember Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The enchanting half-witch has just had a reboot on Netflix. The 2018 remake of the story, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, is sassy, "woke" and a lot creepier than we expected. Also on Netflix, you’ll find The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell. The vampish McConnell is something of a combo between ghoulish Morticia Addams and domestic goddess Martha Stewart. She crafts, she bakes, she has a "pet cat" she brought back to life. Macabre fun is clearly all the rage right now.