I was very pleased on Thursday night of this week to take part in an ITV Tonight programme about role models for girls and young women, hosted by Penny Marshall: Who does your daughter look up to? This programme looked at the lack of role models for women, and the evidence that suggests that this absence is damaging aspirations for girls. It was an excellent and thought-provoking programme, and I recommend that you find it on ITV Player if you can, for this issue is one of the most important challenges facing girls and young women today if they are to break free of stereotypes and really – genuinely – become in life who they can be.
The situation is not, of course, looking particularly great at the moment. A Girlguiding UK survey earlier this year concluded as follows: ” … girls and young women are increasingly looking to those outside their immediate circles, strangers who they will never meet, to offer a blueprint for their lives. This in itself is not new: celebrities from the world of film or music have always appeared as aspirational figures with glossy, picture-perfect lifestyles that act as a counterpoint to the humdrum world of school and adolescence. The difference now appears to be that girls are looking to these stars to provide ever more detailed direction on a widening list of topics and themes. These include how to conduct themselves in their most intimate relationships, what to aspire to in their future careers and how to define themselves physically. And the girls most likely to seek this detailed direction are those at the most vulnerable stage of their adolescence, the early years of secondary school. This becomes more of a concern in the light of our research finding that girls are drawing their role models from an ever-narrowing pool of celebrities. Chiefly, these are women who have found fame within the fields of film, television and music.”
This was borne out convincingly in the ITV Tonight programme when 3 girls were interviewed before and after spending time with inspirational women who did not fit the model to which these girls had become used – women who trade on their appearance and (rather vacuous) celebrity status, reinforcing the notion of ‘fame for fame’s sake’. Before they spent three days with these alternative role models, the three girls all stressed how they wanted to be famous, appear on television or find someone rich to marry. In a sense, they were objectifying themselves, valuing appearance over substance; hardly surprising, of course, given the culture in which they live. After the three days working in very different contexts, the girls were visibly different – energised, less focused on their own appearance, and lit up from inside with a vision of a different future. It was incredibly motivating and inspiring to experience – we could see, in far better definition, the real people behind the masks of make-up and hair extensions, and we sensed that this glimpse into the world of work and success had made a huge impact on them.
If this can happen in three days, then think what would happen if we could expose our girls and young women to opportunities for a week, or a month, or more of their lives? We owe it to them to try – and we owe it to them too to make sure that the world which surrounds them does not seek to swallow them back up into becoming a shadow of the person they are. One of the more shocking segments of the ITV programme was an interview with a representative of a media monitoring agency, which described the media coverage of the Olympic heptathlete, Jessica Ennis. In the weeks since the Olympics, this coverage has not only tailed off, but has changed in nature; conclusion: for her to maintain her media profile, she needs to focus on her appearance and relationships, not her achievements. This is wrong, and it is our fault. We need to stop demanding trivia of our female role models, and start celebrating real achievement and success.
Our daughters deserve nothing less.