Wednesday, 3 August 2011

It's a man's world

No-one really knows what they want to be when they grow up. I'm sure at some point I wanted to be a pterodactyl. And besides, some of us never really grow up anyway, so where's the harm in having a dream? Unless you happen to live on Elm Street.

So I don't put too much stock in the fact that many of today's teenaged girls aspire to be like Cheryl Cole or Colleen Rooney. At least it's a step up from wanting to be Kerry Katona or Rebecca Loos. But apparently, this aspiration to be a WAG or a reality TV star is a symptom of a much bigger problem in society - a whole generation of young women is growing up without any worthwhile role models.

It's an issue that weighs heavily on the mind of Dr Linda Papadopoulos PhD, who's spent the last few years working with young girls and encouraging them to broaden their horizons. She laments the fact that Cheryl, Colleen and Katie Price are all cited by the teenagers she meets as 'inspirational'. In particular, she's troubled by the fact that, when asked about men that they admire, the same girls listed Barack Obama, David Beckham and Nelson Mandela.

Rather predictably, Papadopoulos is quick to blame celebrity culture for the fact that today's young women are willing to aim so low when asked to dream high. Writing on Huffington Post, she cites a six-year-old survey of a 1000 girls between 15 and 19, which found that "63 per cent considered 'glamour model' and 25 per cent 'lap dancer' their ideal profession from a list of choices including teacher and doctor." At first glance those seem like shocking statistics, but maybe the girls who were polled had an idea of how much they could earn as a lap-dancer, compare with an NQT's salary. We might thumb our noses at the idea of someone wanting to make their fortune in a strip club, but at least the only glass ceilings they're likely to encounter will be the mirrored kind.

In Linda's opinion, the media's obsession with appearance means that a woman's attractiveness (or lack thereof) supersedes any mention of their skills or accomplishments. As a consequence, we're telling young people that "if you want to succeed, bank on your looks and not your brain- be a WAG not a PhD'". But it's a little rich coming from a woman who's already earned her PhD, and has now pursued a second career on TV thanks to her photogenic appearance.

Equally, there's a bitter irony in the fact that she's willing to take pot shots at the same reality TV machine that put her on the box in the first place. Remember, young Linda was a regular feature on the weekly 'psychological insights' edition of Big Brother, back when people still thought it was a viable social experiment and not just a 24/7 screensaver full of attention-seeking misfits. I guess this is a case of having your cake, eating it, and then blaming the media for the fact that you're still counting the WeightWatchers points.

If today's schoolgirls are looking to emulate Cheryl and Colleen, maybe it's not such a bad thing. After all, the advent of university fees has made further education even less likely than the prospect of landing a drunk footballer for the majority of 16 year-olds. And Faces is a lot easier to get into than Oxbridge. It's also worth bearing in mind that not everyone has the desire, or the intellect, to pursue academic advancement - some people simply want a better lot in life. 

Of course, the media could still be doing more to publicise the great achievements that women are making in science, business and sport. Although I'd maybe exercise a little caution when it comes to the "young female activists" that Linda wants to see celebrated. Last time the press found such a cause célèbre, the 'activist' in question turned out to be a male, middle-aged post-graduate with a thing for Syrian lesbians.

I've always thought that feminism was a principle founded on the concept of freedom and equality for women. And that means affording them the opportunity to make their own choices about their future. Lecturing them from an ivory tower that they're too ignorant to even dream properly does no-one any favours. And it comes across as more than a little sexist. 

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