herald

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Who do girls look up to?

Where are the women we want our daughters to emulate? Who are our female role models and what do we expect of those who are in a position to inspire our children?

If aliens were to land on earth, they'd be forgiven for thinking that Cheryl Cole was the empress of the entire planet.

Cheryl's glossy image lurches from one magazine cover to the next; selling shampoo, bagging Stateside X Factor jobs courtesy of Simon Cowell, wearing dresses, keeping her weight down.

Now let's consider her achievements. Of course, there have been album sales, viewer ratings and a much- documented "heroic" battle with malaria . . . but also a court appearance for assault and a failed marriage to an unpopular footballer. If she managed to find the time to cure deadly illnesses or find world peace, she has kept it quiet.

Alas, she's as good a role model as teenagers these days are likely to get. Research by the UK-based Children's Society reveals that parents think that Cole and David Beckham are the best role models for their children.

Housewife

Admittedly, pickings are slim; Kate Middleton may be the name on everyone's lips thanks to her recent marriage to Prince William, but as role models go she leaves much to be desired. She has held down one part-time job in her 30 years and, according to lore, chose her university in a bid to bag Prince William. Now she fancies herself as an RAF housewife.

This is, of course, her prerogative as a modern woman . . . but still.

Yet Kate is a damn sight better than the WAGs, glamour models, kiss'n'tell strumpets and reality TV non-entities who are afforded column inches. This lot are written about as breathlessly as any hero you can name.

Their superpowers? Losing baby weight, hitching their wagon to a celeb, or maintaining a "noble" silence when their husbands have cheated on them. Or worse, begging doctors for a gastric band in a bid to reach size six, as happened last week with Big Brother nobody Chanelle Hayes. Who, incidentally, is "struggling" as a size eight.

We all gasp and tut when we read that young women would rather be WAGs than politicians or campaigners (according to a 2009 survey). But given how easy celebrities have had it, can you really blame them?

Of course, the question looms large; are we faring any better in Ireland on the role model front? Well, yes and no.

Much like the UK, we are fond of bolstering the status of our models and socialites, giving them more brevity and importance than they might be entitled to, but this has more to do with the size of Ireland's celebrity pool than anything else.

Then there are the likes of Cecelia Ahern, sitting pretty on the Rich List with earnings of €7m in the bank, or mum-of-eight Miriam O'Callaghan, who still finds time to shop in Dunnes and be an eminent, informed broadcaster. Imelda May runs her own race, sticking true to the music she has loved since she was a youngster. And, more recently, boxer Katie Taylor is prepared to sacrifice her Olympic dream if the governing authorities insist women boxers wear skirts to help "sex up" the competition. All told, we're not doing too badly on the female role model front.

Multitasking

On the other hand, you have the multitasking likes of Amy Huberman (actress-novelist), Rosie Davison (model, columnist, student), Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain (presenter, science teacher) and Vogue Williams (model, actress, DJ).

Certainly, their ambition and tenacity is to be admired . . . but are they role models, in the classic sense of the word?

There's a case to be made that the definition of "role model" has become malleable. We expect different things nowadays.

Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi is doubtlessly a hero, but most schoolgirls wouldn't know her if she came up and introduced herself outright. Faced with the decision of whether they'd like to be Robert Pattinson's girlfriend Kristen Stewart or Booker winner Ann Enright, there wouldn't be much competition.

Rewind to when I was a kid in the '90s. When I was growing up, role models were not in scant supply; there was someone for everyone, from ladettes to riot grrrls.

Madonna was hell-bent on keeping true to her "artistic integrity", as were PJ Harvey and Courtney Love. But with the benefit of hindsight I realise that despite paying lip service to feminism and all that, they were only making records for a living. And at the zenith of her popularity, Love was a heroin addict. Perhaps we were short-changed.

ROLE MODELS

Yet once we find our way in life a little, our role models become more crystallised. I admired the likes of Marian Keyes, Polly Devlin and Morag Prunty once I realised that I might quite like to write for a living. Later, Juno writer Diablo Cody and 30 Rock's Tina Fey became the women whose lives and standing I would covet. And that's the thing about role models; they help you visualise the future you might like for yourself.

Cast your eyes on any list of women who might qualify -- properly -- for role model status, and one thing becomes clear. They've all danced a curious, pained tango with the media. Tina Fey may be one of America's funniest women, but many can't get past the fact that she lost her virginity at the age of 24.

Likewise, comedian Sarah Silverman is similarly salty and uncompromisingly funny in a male-dominated industry. But she wrote openly about her bedwetting as a child, and in some quarters the story has stuck.

Oprah's weight battles have all but eclipsed her considerable business achievements. Never mind what Angelina Jolie does for the UN; she's covered in tattoos and stole someone's husband.

Jennifer Hudson has overcome the murder of her mother, brother and nephew but all anyone appears interested in, alas, is her significant weight loss. Jennifer Aniston is making a fine fist of going it alone, but the gossips have painted her as a sad old spinster.

What needs to be addressed is a role model's job spec for this new world order. First and foremost, they are there to inspire and engender self-belief. They must have, not just strength, but guts and guile. They speak out against the status quo, and not just in that shouty, what's-she-on-about-now, Lady Gaga way. They should inspire us to improve ourselves, whether that's to stand up for ourselves or forge ahead in our careers.

Fame and success are easily achieved these days, but people are staying so for a much shorter period of time. Call it the Cowellification of celebrity if you will. With that, anyone who can keep their head above water for any length of time and be recognised for something other than a sex tape or weight-loss regime probably should be commended.

And, if she got there on her own steam, radiating charm, so much the better.

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