"It wasn't like this in my day": on fame and female role models

Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel Bryony Kimmings (Armour) _sml

Bryony Kimmings and niece Taylor, fighting, for women

Last week, team SPAM had an outing. A cultural event to see performance artist Bryony Kimmings‘ new show ‘Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model‘, which she performs with her 9 year old niece (thanks Gemma Cairney for the tip!). The piece is inspired and created with her 9 year old niece after Kimmings started spending more time with her and her influences, and started becoming worried about positive female role models on “tweens” (a marketing term coined for the 9-12s).

Fueled by the knowledge that in recent studies, conducted each decade on this age group, FAME and IMAGE had overtaken KINDNESS and COMMUNITY FEELING for the first time as values that 9-12s aspire to have when they grow up, Kimmings and her niece set about creating a role model of their own – called Catherine Bennett – a paleontologist (she is clever!) and popstar that sings about animals and friendship instead of “getting the guy”. They are now touring schools talking about their project and have been on Breakfast TV and to parliament for their cause.

It was incredibly moving, and there were certainly some well timed coughs and eye wiping towards the end of the show.

It’s something I’ve been thinking and worrying about for a while, from many times working with this age group of children in schools in focus groups throughout my career, remembering the time a 7 year old told me she couldn’t be a pop star because “she wasn’t thin enough”.

Bryony Kimmings said this is the one time that we can truly say ‘It wasn’t like this in my day’ and have a point. Now, our children are growing up with the internet at their finger tips, with a barrage of images of girls and women they look up to, doing things that might not be so positive. What kind of effect does seeing Hannah Montana’s epic deflowering (so to speak) and “becoming” Miley by being naked on screen say to her younger fans. I like to think maybe some get that its not good, and turn away, but what about the ones that think that is cool? (I am sounding old and prudish now I know, but it does make me sad.)

I have this argument with people around me many times, but I do think its easy for us, working in offices surrounded by women, publishing many remarkable books by women, attending events for women, to think that there isn’t a problem in popular culture with female role models right now. By now, I’ve grown out of being influenced by the media and Hollywood, but even though I can turn away, I still wish there were better mainstream characters played by women on screen in particular. Regularly, when forced to see a blockbuster or ‘chick-flick’ or the like, I leave the cinema ranting about how one-dimensional the female characters are – how man-obsessed, heartbroken, unfunny many of them are potrayed to be.

Where are roles about smart, funny women being interesting and desirable. I know those women exist because I certainly know a lot of them. Being smart AND sexy can happen, and they shouldn’t be mutually exclusive (look also at the backlash 21 year Ruby from GBBO got. Good baker, pretty and she got a first at Uni, wow – see why you hate her! And, need I point out that this is sadly women bashing other women also). Why do we teach girls that being smart, is uncool, and being sexy involves being half naked, or changing your appearance or even worse, being famous. Teaching young girls that desirable equals being silly and fluffy and not vocal, and most importantly not BEING YOURSELF, is a very dangerous thing.


A very cool lady, and a soppy Cary Grant

If you watch Katherine Hepburn in Bringing up Baby, which was made in 1938 – yes, 1938 – you’ll find a much funnier, well-rounded, just damn smart and sexy woman than I have seen in recent times. And the guy (Cary Grant) is chasing HER! Not the other way around. How is it, with all that’s gone before us, that a 1938 female character still seems streets ahead of some on our screens today? (Listen I’m not saying there aren’t any great women on screen…but, just watch that film and see how awesome Kathryn Hepburn is…)

I asked my friends, which women they idolized growing up in the 80s and 90s and there were certainly no shortage of answers. For me, it was Matilda, Lois Lane (I REALLY wanted to be a journalist because of her, and had a Teri Hatcher bob myself when I was a teen…) and Anastasia Krupnik, from a Lois Lowry series of books (the strapline was ‘The girl who knows her own mind’ or something similar). From my friends: Buffy, The Pink Ranger, Willow, Sabrina, Ace from Dr Who, Nancy Drew, Kate Adie, Kylie (in her girl-next-door turned popstar phase), Madonna, Grace Jones… AND several people also mentioned that we grew up during the time that a woman RAN the country and regardless of your politics it made you know that women could DO STUFF.

In the spirit of Byrony Kimmings project I also asked my 6 year old niece and a colleague’s 7 year old daughter who they look up to, which girls or women to they want to be. 6 and 7 is an age where you aren’t quite so influenced by the media, but more by your family and teachers etc I guess.  My niece said: Matilda and Princess Tiana from the Princess and the Frog. Matilda, well, some great influences never change, and I am led to believe that Princess Tiana isn’t your average princess. She works two jobs to be able to open her own restaurant. I’m okay with that! My colleague’s daughter chose Hermione/Emma Watson, because she is “clever, adventurous and dramatic”. A conversation on twitter made a good point that we aren’t actually short on great GIRL role models, but it’s what happens when we all grow up that seems to be the problem. Once you hit “tweenage” and teenage years, it is generally young women you want to look up to – so who are they?

For me, now, my role models are all around me – everyday interesting women that I work with and am inspired by, the authors we publish, the women I read in books, interesting, different characters I see in plays and at events. As far as I can tell most of these women are not represented on TV or film or in pop music. I know I will do my utmost to make sure my nieces have as much access to these type of women, the ones in the real world or in the written world, than to the ones we see on screen and online.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has tween/teen girls, or who is in that age bracket themselves to tell me I’m wrong and show me the positive role models I’ve obviously been missing out there at the moment. For now, I’ll leave you with Catherine Bennett (aka Bryony Kimmings) and one of her smart and funny pop videos.