The “Power of Youth”: Greta’s Iconic Girlhood

I am interested in the politics of iconic girlhood, and in the past months, as 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg has become the face of a movement I am struck by the way she is spoken about in public and political discourse. I often find myself considering the politics of representation of children and youth, usually ‘in crisis or conflict’; having written about Malala Yousafzai and #BringBackOurGirls, about Alan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh, or the children forcibly taken from their parents at the US-Mexico border. Here I have some quick thoughts about the politics of gender and age and Greta.

In the last 16 months, Greta Thunberg has come to occupy a visible and iconic position in an increasingly vocal and widespread discourse about the necessity for action on climate change. This week she was named the TIME Person of the Year; at 16 years old, she is the youngest person ever named the Person of the Year by TIME.

For sounding the alarm about humanity’s predatory relationship with the only home we have, for bringing to a fragmented world a voice that transcends backgrounds and borders, for showing us all what it might look like when a new generation leads, Greta Thunberg is TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year.

– TIME’s citation for the award

On the TIME cover Greta stands on the edge of the ocean, in Lisbon, where she is for COP25 this week. A wave breaks forcefully behind her, but she is looking forward, past the camera. Immediately, on twitter, Hannah McCann noted the similarities to the Romantic painter, Casper David Friedrich’s work Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.

Often when we see images of children, particularly girl children, alone, it inspires pity and compels us to act to ‘save’ the child. Greta presents a more complicated view of the politics of aloneness of a child: she is asking for action, but she’s also condemning the unwillingness of older generations to act to save not just her, but the planet. While her activism has inspired millions to action; there is a neat symmetry between the TIME’s choice of cover, and where this all began for Greta: alone, staring into an uncertain future in Stockholm, just over a year ago.

The idea of iconic girlhood is predicated on the understanding that this child is acting in ‘unchildlike’ ways. Malala Yousafzai was and is remarkable because of her experiences, yet her moral force comes from speaking as a child, and as invoking suffering as the place of authority from which she speaks. Similarly, Greta explicitly invokes how she and millions of other children are acting in unchildlike ways, highlighting the moral and leadership vacuum of adults’ inaction in addressing the climate crisis.

The TIME cover names Greta Thunberg the person of the year with the tag “The Power of Youth”.

I am struck by the phrasing, and how it is productive to consider its implications (whether TIME intended them or not). Here are four quick thoughts.

1: First it can be considered as a temporal marker: the power of youth to offer something new to the malaise of politics, to compel action, to take action in a way others—particularly adults and adult leaders—are unable or unwilling to do. “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children” she told the COP24 gathering in Poland in December 2018.

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

– Speech at Davos, January 2019

2: The second way of thinking about the power of youth is as a collective noun: youth as plural, youth as a uniting concept, youth as millions of feet on pavements and empty chairs in classrooms and voices raised. Reading youth in this second way, Greta’s iconic status is not hollow, but populated. Greta becomes shorthand for #FridaysForFutures, for School Strike4Climate, for marches and protests.

This shorthand is not unproblematic. There is a risk in elevating Greta, this imbuing with iconicity within the body of one girl, erases the work other young climate activists have been doing. This is a fair criticism. Why Greta and not 12-year-old Mari Copeny who raised awareness of Flint’s water crisis, or Artemisa Xakriabá an indigenous activist from the Xakriabá people in Brazil, or Pidhima Pandey who was nine when she sued the Indian government over inaction on climate change? In September when 16 young people filed a legal complaint with the UN against 5 major polluting countries most news articles led with “Greta and 15 others”. There is a need to unpack the politics of acceptability that are imbued with class and race and gender that allow Greta to be an ‘acceptable’ icon, and not others.

Despite the media’s focus on Greta, it is striking how often Greta invokes these other youth activists, directs reporters to them when they are in the room and names them when they are not. In Portugal this month, she told off journalists for not covering other activists’ work and achievements: “Thunberg said she felt a “moral duty” to use the media’s attention to promote others who have struggled to get the limelight. “It is people especially from the global south, especially from indigenous communities, who need to tell their stories,” she said before handing the microphone to young environmentalists from around the globe.”

3: There is a third way to read the idea of the power of youth; and that is as an accusation of the impotence of adults. Greta Thunberg is explicit in her activism about the disregard adults have had for the future of their children. If youth are powerful, they are taking up this power because of the failings of adults. In September she addressed delegates at the UN’s Climate Action Summit, berating them for their failures:

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words…”.

Such a framing is a challenge to adults, a direct accusation of failure, and an acknowledgement of the contested position of youth—who should be in school and who are instead on the streets or addressing the UN.

4: Finally, if we talk about power we must absolutely talk about how power is negotiated; power can be claimed but it can also be granted. If youth have power, if they’ve realised their power and are acting collectively, then adults demanding they return to school; dismissing their anxieties; calling them ‘brats‘; using the bully pulpits of nationally syndicated opinion columns to make ableist, ageist and gendered personal attacks are symptomatic of an adulthood that is felt to be under attack. Recognising the power of youth is to recognise existing power must be shared. It is to ask adults to acknowledge the contributions of youth and to share responsibility and power with them.

The four quick ways of thinking about the implications of the power of youth highlight some of the tensions that are more broadly visible in public discourse about collective youth activism for climate justice. They are underpinned by critiques of emotion and of age:

Greta is often accused of being ‘angry’, of being ‘not polite’, media writes stories of her apparent baleful glare for Trump, or her emotionally charged speeches. Girls shouldn’t be angry; such displays are seen as unexpected or out of character. Responding to the news of Greta being made TIME’s Person of the Year, US President Trump tweeted that she needed ‘anger management’; an effort to dismiss her as irrational, emotional and–as women have often been cast–hysterical. Greta’s powerful UN Climate Action Summit speech—her ‘How Dare You’ speech—contravened norms of appropriate girlhood. Yet Greta echoes the anger, frustration, and fear of young people around the world. When Australian Prime Minister Morrison spoke in response to Greta’s UN speech he blamed her for subjecting children to “needless anxiety”; the anger and frustration Greta expressed at the inaction of global leaders, including Morrison, was framed as originating with her protest rather than the abnegation of responsibility by political leaders. Anger is a threatening emotion when expressed by youth; and therein lies its power.

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg, of Sweden, addresses the Climate Action Summit in the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Greta is also young. The youngest person to win the TIME Person of the Year, as well as the youngest to be nominated for a Nobel Prize (Malala Yousafzai was the youngest winner, at 17). The TIME cover story emphasises her youth multiple times throughout the piece; most  strikingly when they note: “Thunberg is 16 but looks 12”. The politics of age is a powerful driver of authenticity in the context of Thunberg and climate strikes more generally. To act ‘beyond your age’ carries moral weight. Thunberg mobilises this by referring to herself and other activists often as children rather than youth. Youth has an ambiguity that child does not. But youth also has a power that can’t be dismissed as merely ‘childishness’; this too is the power of youth.

In October Greta declined an environmental award from the Nordic Council saying, “the climate movement does not need any more prizes” and “what we need is for our rulers and politicians to listen to the research”. In September she told off US lawmakers: “Please save your praise, we don’t want it. Don’t invite us here to just tell us how inspiring we are without actually doing anything about it because it doesn’t lead to anything.” Greta’s iconicity, her status as somehow essentially child-like and simultaneously unchildish, her blunt refusal to offer hope, and her direct accusations towards those in power, present a challenge to adults. Greta asked the UK House of Commons, mid-speech: “Is my microphone on? Can you hear me?”.

In making Greta visible, we must collectively confront the challenge she poses to us, we must move beyond awards and iconicity and ask if we are listening to her message, and the message of millions of young people around the world. That is the power of youth.

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