2019 In Retrospect: Phoebe, Greta and Redefining Activism


It’s nearly impossible to condense an entire year into one article. You can’t reduce twelve months to a singular theme or descriptor, especially not in 2019 when on any given week we were given a year’s worth of culture-defining moments.

The beginning of the year signalled the beginning of the United State’s hunt for a democratic candidate to challenge Trump in the 2020 Presidential Election, and by the end of January there were 21 candidates arguing their case – a number that grew to 30 only two months later (the largest pool in American history). The enthusiasm on the Left only further highlighted just how divided the country had become under the Trump administration, and with conflicts raging on over gun control, abortion rights and immigration policies, the Left and Right have never felt more alienated from each other.

By March, New Zealand was a nation in mourning; fifty people were killed at two mosques in Christchurch, shot dead by a terrorist as they prayed and worshipped. Jacinda Ardern made global headlines for her leadership in the wake of the attacks, handling them with a humanity and cultural sensitivity that left international news outlets stunned. Wearing a black head scarf, she met Muslim leaders within 24 hours and asked them what they would like her to do: “Our time is for you to determine.”

2019 won’t be remembered as the year of cinematic excellence, but that was fine by us. Instead, we left our couches (and dove into Netflix) for Hustlers, Birdbox and Rocketman. Someone Great, Booksmart and To All The Boys I’ve Loved made us nostalgic for first love, young love and unrequited love, respectively, and the Fyre Festival documentary made us wonder who’s idea it was to put Ja Rule in charge of *literally anything*. Television also gave us some of our favourite viewing experiences of the year, with season two of every female’s favourite show, Fleabag, gifting us the hottest priest we never knew we needed, HBO’s Succession continued to be one of the most addictive and insidious shows of the year (and somehow made us care about a narcissistic family of billionaires) and new seasons of Stranger Things, Peaky Blinders and The Crown all indulged our inner geeks.

Facebook’s drama reached boiling point in 2019 when Mark Zuckerberg’s company was found to have a platform policy that allowed politicians to lie in their campaign ads. We also found out that he had been hosting intimate dinners and “off the record” meetings with propaganda-spewing conservatives like Ben Shapiro (who once said that “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage”). Coolcoolcool. And then we had to endure the train wreck that was Zuckerberg’s speech at Georgetown’s Gaston Hall about “the importance of protecting free expression”. Because you know your business is on the wrong side of history when you need to spend forty minutes reminding people that you think freedom of speech is a good thing – something that literally everyone apart from Kim Jong Un agrees on.

Do you know what else reached boiling point in 2019? Our planet. This year marked a significant moment in history for climate activists as they managed to persuade the rest of the world to wake up and smell the dead roses. Devastating flash floods hit Algeria, India and Venice (with Venice experiencing their highest tides in fifty years). Australia experienced their worst bush fires in decades, destroying almost 700 homes and leaving their native koala bears functionally extinct. And plastic pollution continued to threaten our most precious sea life. Thankfully, activists found a new leader in the inimitable – and Time magazine’s Person Of The Year – Greta Thunberg; a Swedish teenager who told audiences at the World Economic Forum, “I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. And then I want you to act.” Big mood.

The All Black’s lost their world cup semi-final against England; a loss our players handled with both class and grace. The October defeat came at a time when our country was, again, forced to face the severity of our mental health crisis, spurred on by new research published by the Canterbury District Health Board which found that one in six New Zealand adults had been diagnosed with a mental disorder at some point in their lives, 9% of adults had experienced psychological distress in the past four weeks, and Māori and Pacific communities continue to have higher rates of mental disorders than the rest of the population. All of this served as a gentle reminder that no matter the outcome: it was just a game of rugby.

Modern love and relationships continued to evolve in 2019. Justin and Hailey got hitched, Pete Davidson had more girlfriends than Leonardo DiCaprio, millennials shifted from ghosting to crumbing, from being single to self-partnered, and those in relationships stopped having sex all together. Okay, that last one’s not completely true, but the research was a little depressing. And speaking of relationships, one of my favourite books from 2019 was this year’s recipient of the Women’s Prize For FictionAn American Marriage by Tayari Jones: a fictional story about a young African American couple who’s lives are torn apart when the husband is wrongly convicted of a crime.

Kanye West released his gospel rap album, “Jesus Is King”, in which he chronicles his holy awakening but ironically fails to deliver any of the revelations that made his earlier work so brilliant. And while we’re Keeping Up, Kanye’s sister-in-law, Kylie Jenner, further staked her claim as a serious (and incredibly smart) business mogul by selling a majority stake in Kylie Cosmetics, now valued at $1.6 billion, to Coty Inc. for $600 million. This year marked the end of an era for Victoria’s Secret, with the lingerie company formerly announcing the world’s worst kept secret: that they were cancelling their annual fashion show indefinitely, following declining viewership, plummeting sales, and the rise of progressive lingerie brands like Rihanna’s Fenty and Kim Kardashian’s Skims (but not before a quick re-brand after Kim had it pointed out to her that “Kimono” was cultural appropriation). Fenty and Skims both offered their customers garments that had no interest in cinching or pinching, but rather enhancing and embracing the female body. About damn time. 

Theresa May was forced to resign as Prime Minster after failing to reach a consensus among lawmakers on Brexit (which ironically has only become worse since she left), and Meghan Markle continued to be savaged by the British tabloids, culminating in a heartbreaking interview with London’s ITV News during a trip to south Africa with Prince Harry. In 2019 we saw the take-down of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was arrested in June on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking (his famous associates included Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Prince Andrew), and things got even messier when Epstein was found dead in his jail cell in circumstances that initially suggested suicide but which a pathologist later determined to be a potential homicide. And an honourable mention must go to Prince Andrew who gave the worst PR interview in the history of the British monarchy (and *the world*), where he somehow tried to exonerate himself from various rape allegations and his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein on account of his “inability to sweat” and visit to a Pizza Express in Woking. Yes, you read that sentence correctly.

The saying, “If you’re not angry, then you’re not paying attention”, was arguably no more pertinent than in 2019. A year in which the fundamental rights of multiple cultures, sub-cultures, races, religions, and even our planet were under attack. And yet, on reflection, it wasn’t anger that served as the centrepiece for 2019. It was activism. On a macro level, activism is the action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about social or political change. But on a micro level, activism in 2019 was – I believe – the small choices we made every single day that said something about the kind of world we want to live in.

In 2019, activism was the 60,000 climate strikers who shut down lower Manhattan and the Hong Kong protestors fighting for independence and democracy, but it was also the books we read, the clothes we bought, and the food we ate. Activism was the championing of women like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Greta Thunberg and Christine Blasey Ford. It was the selflessness shown by first responders and pilots who made the decision to re-enter White Island at the time of the eruption in an attempt to save the lives of those who were trapped. It was Jameela Jamil calling out the selling and promotion of weight loss products and cosmetic procedures on Instagram, and former Away employees coming forward with personal accounts of bullying and a toxic work environment. It was Bernie Sanders launching a presidential campaign based on the power of a grass-roots movement he began building three years ago. It was fashion designer Maggie Hewitt saying enough is enough to the fashion industry turning a blind eye on sustainability. It was Nike Master Trainer Joe Holder encouraging us to redefine wellness and Jia Tolentino calling bullshit on self-care. It was Brené Brown inspiring us to embrace vulnerability, to be brave with our life. It was Billy Porter and Jonathan Van Ness redefining gender norms. It was Lizzo reminding us that We!! Deserve!!! to feel good as hell.

I hope we carry our micro-activism with us into 2020. I hope we let it steer us in the direction of progress, and I hope we continue to advocate for strangers just as strongly as we advocate for those closest to us.

Happy new year, be safe, and I’ll see you in 2020.

Header image by Holly Burgess for The Twenties Club