Laurie Clarke responds to Emily Clarkson’s controversial Sunday Times piece
Emily Clarkson recently made the rounds on Twitter, drawing praise and censure alike for her Sunday Times article on foregoing university. You probably don’t know who Emily Clarkson is, and reluctant as I am to identify a woman by her relationship to a man, there’s simply no avoiding it. Whoever you are, however you make a name for yourself, it matters if Jeremy Clarkson is your dad. It just does, okay?
Anyway, Clarkson – let’s call her Emily for clarity – was drawing attention for her eye-opening piece on how to succeed without a university degree – with nothing but a private school education, a rich family, and a famous name.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly true that people can and should be able to succeed without a university career. It’s also true that university simply isn’t financially feasible for many. What isn’t true is that choosing not to go to university somehow magically levels this playing field. And it’s a bold-faced lie to act as if Emily Clarkson’s story is representative of, or even useful to, anyone other than rich kids.
“Neither of my parents went to university — they didn’t get the grades. They’ve done just fine. Well enough, in fact, to put me through private school in the first place, which cost a small fortune. And since neither has a degree, in the conventional sense (Mum ended up at a polytechnic in Bristol), I didn’t grow up indoctrinated as to the absolute earth-shattering importance of going to university.”
It’s hard to buy into this whole idea of Emily as some kind of underdog defying the odds. Her lecture on the financial inaccessibility of university life is interspersed with candids from her time in Uganda, Botswana, China, Zakynthos and a European bike tour.
“I live in the capital and my best mate studied at University College London, so whenever I needed a break from what quickly became a mundane existence (working as an intern for a charity and living with my mum) -“
At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking that Emily was trying her hand at satire. And though this contender for The Onion was illuminating enough, I decided to do a little more digging.
Emily first made her name by “oversharing” about life as a young woman on her blog. She gained popularity as her anecdotes resonated with her – overwhelmingly young, female – audience. It’s ironic then that she seems so incapable of relating to her readers in turn.
According to Tom Jackson’s Times exclusive “Daddy’s Girl”: “She’s talking to and for a generation with new challenges: how do impressionable 13-year-olds cope with the scarring pressures of social media? Or 16-year-olds whose first-time boyfriend’s experience of sex is exposure to internet pornography? Or 18-year-old boys with their girlfriend’s body hair and periods?” Although, disclaimer, he also said: “She’s bright blonde and bosomy in a spaghetti-strap vest with no bra, and has a flawless complexion and Kate Middleton-strength kohl. She ushers me up the skinny staircase to her flat, hips seesawing in tight black jeans.” So let’s take Mr Jackson with a pinch of salt – this isn’t Penthouse magazine.
This is not, however, the first time an internet-elected celebrity has amassed and ultimately misled swathes of young people. Most notably, YouTube stars PewDiePie, famous for his tendency to “accidentally” use racial slurs, and Zoella, accused of ripping off her young audience with overpriced tat in Superdrug.
Young people latch on to these figures because they recognise something of themselves – who they are or who they want to be. I am no exception. At 24, Emily is the same age as me, and though both of us overshare about anything from menstrual flow to our first bikini wax, it’s only making one of us rich – well, richer.
Famous family aside, Emily Clarkson – “outrageous and boundary-pushing” though she is – is being marketed as some kind of figurehead for young women. And I guess that’s what The Times is so excited about – this role model who has the illusion of building herself up from nothing, without any of the necessary infrastructure in place to make it an actual reality.
And this is exactly the idea that Emily is trying to sell us – that we too can be rich, be famous, if only we try hard enough. But the thing is, this isn’t friendly advice – it’s an ad. It’s marketing a lifestyle.
I could forgive her for being rich. I can’t forgive her for being smug.