Where are the role models for British girls?

Young girls receive all the wrong messages from a society obsessed with fame and celebrities.

Tabloids sold in the UK show to what extent Britain is obsessed with celebrity and scandal [EPA]

London, United Kingdom – Lucy Vixen, a 22-year-old from Warwick, is ecstatic. “I just can’t believe it, I can’t believe everyone voted for me.” She then tells me excitedly: “I went out the other night and I got attacked (not in a bad way, she hastens to explain) by all these gorgeous girls. They were saying we love you, we really support you, you’re our idol and we’d love to be like you”.

Lucy is the 2012 winner of The Sun‘s “Page 3 Idol” contest, beating thousands of other girls in Britain vying to appear topless in the British tabloid. Throughout our interview, we don’t talk about men until I ask her what her parents think of her posing in nothing but just the smallest of underwear.

“They’re fine with it – Dad’s my biggest fan, after my mum of course,” she replied. “In fact, just this week I showed him my latest magazine cover”.

“And were you topless in that?” I ask. “Yeah,” she laughs. “Dad says to me: ‘You go girl.’ If I’m happy, he’s happy.”

As I talk to Lucy, I get an overwhelming sense of how much she cares about women. She tells me about the sisterly bond she shares with the other Page 3 models, where “we all look out for each other” and how flattered she is that other girls want to be just like her. She says she feels a responsibility not to diet, to show her girl fans that she’s “normal” just like them.

“I’m not skinny,” she emphasises. “In fact, I’m big for a Page 3 girl – I’m a size 12. But I’m in love with my body now. I wasn’t – I used to think I was fat, but then I just sort of began to accept what and who I am. I always say to the photographer: ‘Make sure you don’t airbrush me, if there’s a crease or an imperfection, let it stay in.’ I want girls to know I’m real, not fake and Photoshopped.”
She tells me she has twice as many women fans as men, and that is what she is most proud of. I ask her about her views on feminism. I explain that if I had a daughter I wouldn’t want her to take her clothes off for men to letch at her, and that stripping does women no favours, because it portrays us as “objects” that are judged and valued only on what we look like.

“I can see your point and if I had a daughter I probably wouldn’t encourage her, but if she wanted to do it, I wouldn’t stop her,” Lucy responds. “But also it’s my choice to do this and that’s very empowering as a woman. I can earn between £500-£1,000 for one day of work. I wasn’t very good at school and I would have to work weeks in a supermarket to earn that type of money.”

She speaks with real conviction as she states emphatically: “I just see it as a job. I wouldn’t aspire to be someone like Katie Price who has sold and revealed everything about her life to make money. I’m simply making the best of what I’ve got. Women have to look after themselves, we live in a different society now – it’s not the 1950s anymore. I’m an independent girl, making her own money. Page 3 will be there whether I do it or not. Anyone can look at porn online for free – celebrities are photographed in their underwear for big fashion houses and that’s accepted – times are changing.”

And times certainly are changing. The Girls Attitude Survey 2011 from the Guide Association makes for startling reading. Ninety per cent of teenage girls interviewed said that TV and magazines focus too much on what women look like instead of what they achieve.

“You can’t walk down the street without seeing celebrities plastered on the front of magazines, spread across billboards, endorsing everything from knickers to teeth whitening to fake tan to fake eyelashes to fake hair.”

Seventy two per cent agreed we need more women in parliament and business, and when asked “which of the women is the best role model for your age”, Cheryl Cole came out on top with 44 per cent. It seems the drive and determination of empire builder and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey (12 per cent) and the achievements of JK Rowling (one per cent), author of the best selling book series in history, didn’t really impress Britain’s teenage girls that much.

When I asked my younger sister and her friends what they think of the achievements of Florence Nightingale, Emmeline Pankhurst, or Mary Wollstonecraft, their eyes glaze over. OK, so maybe that’s going a bit too far back in history. “Germaine Greer or Carol Ann Duffy?” I put to the girls. “Carol Ann Duffy is a poet and a playwright and Britain’s first ever female poet laureate. How’s that for someone to look up to?”
And then one of them says something that seems to sum it up for the rest of them. “Yeah, they’re amazing women, but we don’t really know much about them. We never hear about them, so they’re not really going to be our role models, are they?”

Obsessed with celebrity

Britain is obsessed with celebrity, and Britain’s media obsessed with sex and scandal. Depressingly, the (now-defunct, Murdoch-owned) News of the World was Britain’s bestselling Sunday “newspaper” (I use the term “newspaper” very loosely here) with over 2.5m copies sold each week in its final year (and more than 4m copies each week in 2000-2002). The tabloid, which had the audacity to bill itself as “The World’s Greatest Newspaper“, closed over allegations of hacking into the mobile phones of crime victims, politicians and celebrities.

Girls in Britain are bombarded with celebrities dishing out advice on anything and everything. Here’s a couple from this week’s press: How you can snare your dream man, how to act like you’re not really into him when in fact you want to marry him and have his babies and live happily ever after, how to lose a stone in a month, and how to conquer your boss at work and your man in the bedroom.

You can’t walk down the street without seeing celebrities plastered on the front of magazines, spread across billboards, endorsing everything from underwear to teeth whitening to fake tan to fake eyelashes to fake hair. And let’s not forget the force-feeding of “reality shows” from television producers convinced it’s responsible to portray teenagers shopping, driving expensive cars, going for lunch, clubbing and arguing – all in a day’s “work” of course.

It is not reality – really, it’s not. Follow and pay attention to real teenagers struggling to get a job, studying and working to fund their dreams while dealing with all the hardships that life throws at you – that’s representative of real Britain.

“There is this wrongful, easy celebrity culture perpetuated in our society. It is totally exploitative and presents a twisted reality of what life is like for our future generation.”

– Dr Helen Wright, President of the Girls School Association

How depressing it must be for our future generations to watch this fabricated, banal drivel that makes them feel inadequate over the most superficial and irrelevant values? To be made to feel that it’s a necessity to drive the latest sports car, drape yourself in expensive bling and have nothing to worry about apart from what you’re going to wear out that evening.

I do wonder how much of a moral and ethical responsibility the television producers have when choosing who and what to portray to their young and impressionable audience. Take Celebrity Big Brother, for example. This year’s line-up consisted of a transfer market between other reality shows and featured a woman billed as a “celebrity” for having an eight-year affair with her brother-in-law. The show’s format consists of people (who have never met) living in a house with tasks to complete (for our apparent entertainment), but the “fun” really begins when they’re plied with booze and it all kicks off. Am I the only one that thinks watching intoxicated people shouting and screaming at each other while stripping themselves (and each other off) makes for uncomfortable, voyeuristic viewing?

I asked the producers of Celebrity Big Brother for an interview but was told “it was difficult to track someone down to talk about this”. No one was put forward to comment.

Dr Helen Wright, who is president of the Girls Schools Association, has voiced her concerns over a society in Britain that is “obsessed with appearance over substance”. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Dr Wright, who is also headmistress of girls’ school, St Mary’s Calne in Wiltshire, said: “There is this wrongful, easy celebrity culture perpetuated in our society. It is totally exploitative and presents a twisted reality of what life is like for our future generation”.
Dr Wright, who has three young children, believes there should be accountability over the way British society is holding up and rewarding these distorted aspirations and lifestyles.

“We are, in fact, betraying our young girls by glamourising and accepting this easy celebrity achievement, which can be so attractive to teenagers and children seeking a direction in life,” she said. She urged girls to have the courage to “be themselves” and not conform to “exploitative and amoral” aspirations that would not result in an enriched or meaningful future.

Where are the women?

So what do the men running Britain think? Iain Duncan Smith, blames a “get rich quick” celebrity culture on a British society that is “out of balance”. The work and pensions secretary says: “We seem to be a society that celebrates all the wrong people. We do not celebrate people who have made success out of serious hard work.”

“Society now thinks it’s empowering for women to go to pole dancing classes on a Saturday morning, encouraging them to make the most of their femininity –  what type of irresponsible message is this sending to our young girls?”

– Emma Moore, Founder of Pinkstinks

That’s all very well Mr Duncan Smith, but where are the female role models in your government? There is, without a doubt, a lack of women at Westminster. Research by the LSE found the British cabinet “lags behind” many European countries, with just four women (20 per cent) in cabinet (now five with the appointment of Chloe Smith to Economic Secretary to the Treasury), headed by Home Secretary Theresa May. Compare the British cabinet with France (33 per cent), Germany (37 per cent) and Spain (53 per cent), and is it little wonder there’s a puny presence of strong women in politics for girls to aspire to?

The Centre for Women and Democracy is campaigning for the British prime minister to stick to his word and appoint a cabinet wherein women comprise at least a third of ministers by 2015. You can sign the petition to make David Cameron honour his promise here.
Speaking of another male-saturated environment, where were all the women in the shortlist for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year? Do the names Beth Twaddle, Jessica Ennis or Rebecca Adlington ring any bells for the male dominated panel?

This is yet another example of poor female representation in society and mainstream media – an issue that makes Emma Moore, founder of Pinkstinks, very angry. Pinkstinks was set up in 2008 to campaign against heavily stereotyped and limiting role models for young girls. It focuses on promoting “real” female role models who achieve “real” things.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Moore said that a lack of substantive female role models inspired her and her sister to stop talking about it and actually do something about it. “British culture has been totally pornified. Men think it’s normal and expect young women to not have any body hair and, god, if she does, she must be a hairy lesbian. Society now thinks it’s empowering for women to go to pole dancing classes on a Saturday morning, encouraging them to make the most of their femininity – what type of irresponsible message is this sending to our young girls? That you have to conform to what the sex industry wants, in order for you to be accepted as a real female?”

Moore, who has daughters aged five and nine, says we have a disturbing situation in Britain, where people are celebrated just for being famous, making young girls believe these are the type of women they should be looking up to and aspiring to be.

“We call it pinkification,” she says. “Girls are taught literally from when they’re born that what you look like is the most important thing in life. You must look perfect and girly to be a WAG, model or reality TV star.”

She uses the question: “How many amazing women scientists could our young girls realistically name?” as an example. Are their achievements celebrated and noted in modern day society?

Sadly, they’re not. She states: “Look at Disney, for example. They should be made accountable for force-feeding a sickly diet of pink, sparkly princesses as the norm. Parents need to take a stand and realise that it’s not acceptable to be selling two-year-olds makeup kits to make themselves beautiful. Until we boycott this, the ideal female role model will still be everything which is wrong with our society in Britain.”
I ask Moore who her daughter’s role models are. She tells me that her five-year-old would be a bit too young to appreciate a good female role model, but asks her nine-year-old. The nine-year-old gives it a lot of thought and chooses “Mum”, but after being told that’s lovely, but not allowed, eventually chooses Rebecca Adlington “because she’s into swimming and wants to be in the Olympics”.

She really struggles to think of anyone else as her modern day female role model to aspire and look up to – which is a real shame, but without a doubt, really says it all.

Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer. She is a former BBC World News presenter and BBC News journalist who has reported and written for BBC Newsnight.

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