I don’t have children but I have friends with daughters and I dread to think what kind of role model I might present to them. I’m a disaster with money, constantly reeling from one financial crisis to another so I’m not much of a showcase for financial independence. I have no practical skills whatsoever. I can’t cook and the only time I ever used a power tool, I caused a seismic style crack in the wall that threatened to bring down the entire terrace block. It had to be repaired by; yes you guessed it, a handyman. My career has been on the back burner for so long, the pan has probably burned black by now. I’m ashamed to admit that, after fifty one years on this earth, I have achieved nothing that could be held up to young women as a beacon of hope or guidance.
So, what brought me to this glum realisation – where to start? First up, I went with a friend to see The Heat last weekend. It’s a film starring two women (Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy) as reluctant partners. It’s been touted as a female buddy movie and I suppose it is, of a sort. The two women are both outstanding investigators, far superior to their male counterparts, and together they are a force to be reckoned with. The friendship that develops between the two women is warm and genuine. So what’s the problem? They are both dysfunctional weirdoes in the way that two men would never be. Their personal lives are a disaster and the message of the film seems to be that only kooky, strange women can have successful friendships, independent of men.
It gets worse - the day after the film, I went out for drinks and I apologise in advance for the disturbing glimpse I am about to afford you into my somewhat tragic and tawdry life. After an evening on the lash, my habit is to watch music channels with a mug of tea and a mountain of toast and on this particular occasion I could not escape the inanity of the Robin Thicke video. You know the one I mean, the one where three jaunty, vivacious men are cavorting around three unsmiling, inanimate, mannequin style women. Through the fog of alcohol, I tried unsuccessfully to work out why the women seemed to be wrapped in cling film. The puzzle still haunted me the next day and so I googled it, only to learn that the original video had seen the women topless but it had been banned.
So, what’s the point in representing women in such a way? The only message it’s conveying is that women exist merely as playthings for men. This dated idea does nothing for the self-worth of women and allows men to think that women are nothing more than highly sexualised entertainment. Even the music videos featuring female artistes tend to be of the style where, the said female, frolics about in very little clothing. I can only assume that the success of the ever chipper Taylor Swift is down to the fact that, as a performer who favours wearing clothes; she’s like a breath of fresh air.
Once on this train of thought, it didn’t take me long to start reminiscing about my own younger years, wondering about my own role models. My earliest two are probably amongst the least inspiring you could get. Like most kids in the 70s, I loved comics and my pre-teen favourite was Bunty. How I adored the Four Marys, who were posh girls at a private girls’ school. One was even the daughter of an Earl, for God’s sake, what could they have possibly had to say to a working class girl on an estate? Who knows, but I loved them? At the same time I was obsessed with The High Chaparral and totally besotted by Victoria with her beautiful dresses and long black hair. One of my most disillusioning adult moments came when The High Chaparral was recently re-released. It was unbearable. Victoria, in reality is the property of her overbearing, bullying husband, who controls everybody on the ranch. I felt sick as I watched poor Victoria having to pander to this charmless, unappealing man. Depressingly, I was left to conclude that my love of Victoria was based on the same superficial things that draw young girls to Rihanna and the like: clothes and hair.
So did my taste become any more discerning as I made the transition to teen years? I progressed from Bunty to Jackie, a magazine filled to the brim with tips on how to get a boyfriend and fact files on David Cassidy and The Bay City Rollers. At that time Charlie’s Angels were who we all wanted to be. They were thin, gorgeous and most tellingly controlled by the puppet master Charlie. They were never all that convincing as tough, capable women and I think we all secretly preferred Starsky and Hutch. Being a teenager meant that role models began to come more from music and how I wish I could claim that I aspired to be Patti Smith or Poly Styrene but no, I hankered after Debbie Harry, a pretty, blonde ex-Playboy Bunny.
Given that in the end I didn’t turn out that badly, where did my real role models come from then? It’s hard to say, because in my late teens and early twenties, gender didn’t feel like much of an issue. I was lucky because my sister and I just assumed we would go to university. It never entered our heads that it hadn’t been possible for our mother and aunties. They were all bright enough but the expectation for them was to leave school at fifteen in order to earn a wage. None of that seemed relevant to me though in the summer between A levels and university, InterRailing around Europe with no notion whatsoever of getting a job. I think my biggest influences at that time were books and films, both of which opened up the world and made me want to travel and meet the kind of people I’d read about or seen on screen. In the early 80s, novels like On The Road and Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas were what inspired a whole host of young people, regardless of gender, to embrace the idea of self discovery and travel.
In our so called modern society, however, when there are so few opportunities for young people, gender has never been more relevant. Most of the statistics we are currently seeing regarding young women are not positive – less are going to university, more are engaging in unsafe sex, teenage pregnancies are once more on the rise and more young women than ever before are suffering liver damage due to excessive drinking. How much culpability then do complacent women like myself need to bear for the lack of identity that so many younger women seem to have? I listened to a discussion on the radio, only a couple of days ago, about the influence that both men’s and women’s magazines have within society. It was argued that whilst men’s magazines objectify and sexualise women, it is women’s magazines that actually criticise and attack woman. Anybody who has read magazines like Heat would have to agree.
My obsession with hair and clothes has not diminished since I first fell in love with Victoria Cannon. I buy Vogue magazine every month and feel an unseemly frisson of excitement whenever a new fashion season starts. I can barely admit, even to myself, how much I spend each month on hair appointments and beauty products. Any young woman getting a glimpse of my life could be forgiven for asking, what went wrong? I may be more educated than my mother and aunties but they are far more capable and shrewd than I’ll ever be.