An article about role models on the Guardian website set me thinking this week. I’ve written at length about my feelings on feminism and choice, on the Disney Princess vibe, and generally on the topic of women in society. I’ve complained about the celebrity obsession (by definition, a celebrity should be someone celebrated for their achievements – which should not included marrying a footballer, brain-addling via cocaine or drunk driving…) at length, although largely, with a focus on unhealthy body image rather than other areas of feminine empowerment. I’ve come at the role model question almost exclusively from a beauty-related self-esteem angle.
I’ve never really considered that young girls today might see the Amy Winehouse and Kerry Katonas of this world as role models. I’ve never thought about the inhabitants of the Big Brother house as anything but wannabes that the world either watches and shudders at, or switches channels to avoid. And I’ve never thought of Cheryl Cole fans as anything other than impressed by her role as a successful and hard-working musician (let’s not pick that to pieces just now, eh?) and presenter – it had not occured to me that her role-model status related in anyway to her imbecile of a philandering footballer ex!
But then, when I think about my own role models, I realise that very few of them are modern women. Yes, I admire Christina Henrdicks for her relationship with her body, and yes, I think Kate Winslet is a rather marvellous example of how to do Hollywood without over-exposing every element of your private life to the paparazzi… but it really ends there, for “celebrities” at least. While I think both of these women are excellent role models in their own rights, I’m not sure they’re MY role models, as beyond their physical entities, I can’t relate to their lifestyles.
In fact, my personal role models have always been fictional characters whose personalities and strength of character I have admired. As a girl, it was Sara Crew (A Little Princess), whose acceptance and understanding in the face of adversity were inspiring to me. Similarly, Lucy Pevensie (The Chronices of Narnia) and Maria Merryweather (The Little White Horse) demonstrated courage and sacrifice beyond my imagination. Later – and to this day – the wit and vivacity of Lizzy Bennett combined with the serenity and gentle nature of her sister Jane, and the gracious dignity of Elinor Dashwood have all provided characters on which I have modelled my own behaviour in difficult circumstances. I do not pretend to reach anything like their levels of propriety, but I’ll admit to having addressed a situation with “What would Lizzy do?” on more than one occasion…
I suppose it comes down to different role models for different roles. I will confess to admiring Cath Kidston for making a successful business out of her love for kitsch. I admire various bloggers – Amber, Gemma, Sian, Cate – who have made their interests into their career and forged the path for we mere wannabes online. And all those craftspeople on Etsy who’ve followed their hearts to mint pennies out of passion (I’m looking at YOU Amy!)… Really I’m beyond impressed by anyone who has slogged hard and long in order to make their creative talents pay the bills!
I think we all need role models, something to aspire to, someone to help mould our behaviour and choices. And perhaps, if the celebrity pool is so shallow, we should be casting a wider net? Should we be looking back, as we would have in the past, to our teachers and female relatives, for inspiration? And what of our friends? There are few women in my own inner circle who haven’t faced adversity and come out the stronger for it, and the more I talk to those around me, the more I realise that the every day struggles every woman faces require strength of character and courage equal to any heroine I have ever read about. Look around you next time you’re in the office, at the supermarket, on the bus, and consider: the likelihood is that the polite smiles and poker faces are hiding pain, loss, heartache and fear.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that we set too much score by celebrities as role models when the real heroines of the piece are the ones we see down the pub on a Friday night.