The debate on feminism rages on, and everyone seems to have an opinion; so just to add to the clamour, I’d like to throw in my take on role models for young women today. An article recently condemned Beyoncé for an interview she gave with gentleman’s magazine GQ, in which she complains that men choose what is sexy for a woman, while posing near naked in the spread’s accompanying photos. What a nice, clear and consistent image of an empowered woman. My fear is that this champion of the Independent Woman may just be further confusing young girls’ ideas of what it means to be a feminist; because going to all lengths to be sexually alluring to men is not really part of the mandate.
Beyoncé doesn’t sing about world peace or getting an education (though Run the World is always a pick-me-up); she sings about parties and men and Why Don’t You Love Me? This is an artist whose iconic song title Single Ladies is accompanied by the parenthesis (Put a Ring On It). Where exactly is the value supposed to lie in this (admittedly catchy) pop song? In the glory of being a happily single, confident woman? Or in finally having a man propose and put a ring on it? What ideal is she imparting on women exactly, apart from finding empowerment in one’s appearance, ability to buy things, and get married?
I’m not picking on Beyoncé. I won’t deny that if you happened to walk unannounced into my room of a Sunday evening, the chances are high you’d find me rocking out in front of my mirror lip-synching to “Na na na diva is a female version of a hustla!” I digress. My point is I fully appreciate her value as an entertainer; she’s good at it. I’m a little confused, however, as to why a pop star and her gangsta rapping husband seem to be best buddies with the President of the United States and the First Lady. Why is Michelle Obama holding Beyoncé up as a role model for young women? Her songs are fun and her choreographer should be commended, but sexuality and love for consumerism are her highest selling points.
When I was a kid we had the fun loving, peace-sign flicking, and girl power-pushing Spice Girls to look up to. Looking back, they appear distinctly less polished and over-sexualised compared to today’s pop stars, and they were celebrated for their own unique traits, not because they fit into the sexy cookie-cutter mould from which most singers today seem to spring. We had none of the cyber bitching, backstabbing, and Prada-toting promiscuity championed by Gossip Girl. I watched Sabrina the Teenage Witch: a series packed with droll pop culture references and whose heroine was a witty, spunky champion for underdogs and occasional victim to the lead cheerleader’s bitchery. Nowadays, the mean girls are the idols; the Plastics form the model that young girls openly wish to emulate.
So who are my female role models? When I asked myself this, I drew a bit of a blank. No one in particular jumped to my mind. Then I realised, the women that inspire me are not gyrating in skimpy outfits on magazine covers or singing about giving oral sex on my radio. They are the women around me, whom I know, who are achieving little miracles every day.
I admire my best friend who, from sheer force of will, warmth of character and perspicacity, single-handedly fulfilled her ambition to travel the world, achieved two degrees, and landed her dream job all by 23, speaks five languages and continues to toil away at her goals. I admire my housemate who has a working knowledge of 10 (yes, 10) languages, sits on I don’t know how many university committees, and is currently um-ing and ah-ing between the offers of either a Masters at Cambridge or an enormous scholarship to study in Iceland (Oxford hasn’t got back just yet). I admire my Classics lecturer, whose supreme intelligence and keen insight are matched with an easy sense of humour, and a rigorous but conscientious teaching style; plus she recently became a baby momma but is back at work and brilliant as ever.
The above list is not exhaustive. These are the kinds of women that really amaze me and that make my own accomplishments seem rather pale, but rather than make me feel rubbish and want to go on a diet, they inspire me to become a better version of myself. Of course, this list is very personal to me and reflects my own individual value system; one can infer that I value intelligence, warmth, industriousness and, it would appear, language skills. It is irrelevant that all the above women happen to be beautiful too; that is not where their appeal lies for me. If you emptied their pretty heads of their powerful brains and eradicated their vibrant personalities, my admiration would evaporate quickly. When looking for role models, it would appear to me that you are much more likely to find them if you look to the real women who are doing good around you, not remote celebrity figures whose lives are hardly normal and would be difficult to emulate; whose successes rest upon that tenuous and usually randomly anointed attribute we call fame.
I also strongly believe in the enormous importance of education, something that does not seem to appear next to “get super skinny”, “get rich” and “party” on the list of priorities of your average celebrity it-girl. The above best friend once said to me that there is nothing in this world more dangerous than ignorance. Indeed, ignorance is what makes women think that the images they see in mainstream media are what they should aim for, and that they are justified in this attempt. It is the lack of both education in other values and the intellectual enrichment that comes with education that makes women think they only gain significance if they conform to the exaggerated and shallow values championed by celebrity and consumer culture. Ultimately, the two things that I think we should all look for in our role models are intelligence and kindness, and of the two, kindness is the more important. These are not two qualities that are very fashionable or much praised in mainstream media today, but you could probably find them a little closer to home.