Celebrities as role models?
The Independent recently reported on a survey carried out by Childwise, an independent market research company, for Girlguiding UK into role models and influences on girls of different ages. The newspaper tells us: ‘They look to Cheryl Cole, Katy Perry, Jessie J and Adele for their role models. But few girls can identify any successful businesswomen and most failed to name a single sportswoman,’ and, ‘The survey also found that girls and young women dismiss careers such as engineering or construction as ‘jobs for the boys’, and instead wanted to be actors, singers, writers, dancers or fashion designers, often inspired by celebrities whom they admire’.
I am not surprised that more girls expressed a preference for careers in the media or the arts than in engineering and construction; over the years I have taught and supported a number of girls, strong in maths and physics, who were interested in engineering, but they never came forward in large numbers, although I would contest the fact that it was just because they all assumed these were male-dominated professions. In the girls’ schools where I was a deputy and then a head, there was far less gender-bias than I had witnessed in the mixed schools in which I had taught. Girls generally studied the subjects they wanted to study, and applied for the courses in which they were interested. But fewer girls expressed an interest in engineering than in many other professional areas, particularly creative or caring professions. Medicine was one of the most popular professions to which they aspired.
I was surprised that most girls in the survey ‘failed to name a single sportswoman’, however, as, in my experience, many girls (especially those who were interested in sport, health and fitness, as many were) would talk about being inspired by figures such as Rebecca Adlington, and prior to that Kelly Holmes and Paula Radcliffe. The Olympic medal winning badminton player Gail Emms was a former pupil of the school and she held something like cult status among the girls! I can see this does depend on the age of the girl; younger girls wouldn’t have reeled off such names. In fact younger girls, presumably asked for ‘women they admire or want to be like’ (as you wouldn’t use the term ‘role-model’ with this age group) are far more likely to list music, television and film stars than sport stars or businesswomen. I doubt they could name many businessmen either. I’m not sure I see this as cause for alarm.
A few years ago I was in London on a mini-break with my husband. After the theatre and a late meal we were walking back along Piccadilly, when suddenly cars and a number of motorbikes screeched to a halt outside The Ritz Hotel and the night was lit up with camera flash bulbs as the ‘paparazzi’ took multiple photographs of the young man and woman whose car they had clearly been following. From the other side of the road we saw a pretty blonde woman and her handsome escort enter The Ritz, though we didn’t recognise either of them! At the weekend my husband showed me a photograph in the Sunday (broadsheet) paper. We learned the woman was Paris Hilton. It was amusing to see this respectable newspaper try to come up with a story to accompany the photograph; there wasn’t really any ‘news’ attached.
I decide to use this as the basis for an assembly, and in the next two weeks I gave assemblies on the subject of celebrity to groups of girls in our Junior School and in the Senior School. I told them what had happened. I projected the photograph on a large screen and asked the staff and the girls if they knew who it was (the staff generally didn’t; almost all the girls did) and then I talked about the cult of celebrity, and the issue of being ‘famous for being famous’ and what the appeal might be. I asked the girls to tell me honestly how many of them would like to be a celebrity (or be married to a celebrity) in the future. I did believe the girls would give me an honest response, and it was interesting to see the number of hands diminished with each age group, until in the Sixth Form only one brave girl raised her hand. (I will be fascinated to see if she realises this ambition!)
I think girls (and, indeed, many women) are interested in celebrities. They like the apparent glamour of their lives. They may admire their physical attractiveness and their (perhaps musical or acting) accomplishments, but I would suggest that, certainly as girls grow older, they can very clearly see the difference between celebrity existence and their own lives in the ‘real world’. I think older girls can also often see the drawbacks of the life of fame, too – though it never hurts to raise their awareness of this through considered discussion. And if when asking girls who they admire and want to be like in the future you encourage them to think about positive role models outside the media, many of them, in my experience, will say ‘my mum’.