The snobbery of the female role model debate

Credit: Jonny Mowat

Credit: Jonny Mowat

Fiona Paterson
Writer

Just over a month ago, private school Headmistress, Jane Lunnon of Wimbledon High School, said that young women should be looking up to the more “appropriate” role models of Shakespeare’s heroines rather than the likes of Kim Kardashian. Mere weeks later, the UN overlooked the many women standing up for their rights across the world – or, you know, the billions of women actually existing at all – and selected comic book hero Wonder Woman as their Honorary Ambassador for Female Empowerment. Writing this now, in the wake of a presidential election where a woman with 50 years political experience still didn’t inspire 42% of women who instead voted for a misogynist with 12 sexual assault claims against his name, I wonder: where are our female role models, and why are they not enough?
Lunnon recently launched an educational project to promote the works of Shakespeare in her all-girls school, part of which encourages students to imagine heroines from his plays in contemporary settings. It was largely a response to a poll at the school about role models, the “concerning” results of which showed Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift as popular choices. (How exactly this is “concerning” isn’t made explicit, though perhaps the head of a school charging up to £5,776 per term has a slightly different concept of acceptable behaviour to me). Instead, Lunnon advocates Shakespeare’s Cleopatra as a more suitable inspiration for young girls. Why? Because she “remains this incredible, strong icon, beyond her love for a man.” This is interesting, because what girl, woman or level headed human has ever admired Kim Kardashian because of the man in her life? The woman personally raked in $52.5 million last year thanks to stakes in her app, TV show, fashion brand and more – odds are she’d be fine even without a certain rapper by her side.

What is problematic to me is this concept of “appropriate” role models, which is essentially code for promoting highbrow aspirations for “educated” women. I’d also be inclined to question the validity of Shakespeare’s “heroines” as role models; fictional women driven mad by love or scheming, often to the point of suicide, just don’t do it for me. Of course there are admiral attributes to be found amongst them: Beatrice’s intelligence; Viola’s independence; Cordelia’s strength; perhaps even Juliet’s (questionably motivated) determination. But teaching young girls to hold such characters as their role models, over and above real women succeeding in real professions promotes a snobbish hierarchy of female attainment.

The same issue arises in Wonder Woman being chosen as the UN’s latest female ambassador. I discussed the news with my younger brother, who was confused as to why not only a fictional character was chosen for the role, over the hordes of real-life possibilities, but also one who “doesn’t exactly wear very much.” I wouldn’t fault him – he’s 14 and still figuring things out, but I would fault the society that has embedded so deeply the message that a woman should be valued on the extent to which she “covers up.” If Kim Kardashian’s image isn’t “appropriate” enough for a teacher to acknowledge, Wonder Woman’s surely isn’t either.

Ultimately though, the question is raised of why we are being told to look up to fictional characters created by men, rather than the very women slogging away every day to make a living, doing what they love, improving prospects for future generations? I bring up Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump largely because it epitomises how important it is to have real life female role models for young girls. When nearly half of a female electorate can choose an openly, proudly sexist man over her, there’s obviously something missing.

Perhaps we should stop worrying about having the “right” kind of model for young girls, on the basis of snobbery, and instead celebrate the real women fighting the everyday fight – on the streets of our cities, in offices and parliaments, juggling children and careers and being criticized in the tabloids for wearing the wrong pair of shoes – and leave the fiction where it belongs, between the pages of a book or played out on the stage or big screen. When the leader of the free world is using “locker room talk” to objectify women’s bodies, and the most successful women of our generation continue to be looked down on for their style or sexual histories, our younger friends, sisters and daughters are going to need all the female role models they can get.