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David Gauntlett.

There’s a lot of talk about ‘role models’ at the moment. Even the British Government has announced that it wants to promote positive role models for young women. These include former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, actress Emma Thompson, heptathlete Denise Lewis, therapist Susie Orbach, and teen popster Billie.

On 9 November 1998, Baroness Jay, the Minister for Women, and Tessa Jowell, the Commons Minister for Women, announced this ‘new initiative for women’ intended to encourage teenagers to ‘reach their full potential’. Baroness Jay said: "Girls out-perform boys all the way to their mid-teens, but they then fall behind and too many fail to reach their potential. We will be looking at the challenges facing teenage girls: issues such as dieting, smoking, alcohol and drug dependency, role models and low self-esteem to discover why this is."

"Role models are important in the development of teenage girls", she asserted. "We are trying to create a group of people we can use to be that".

She defended using pop stars as role models as an essential move to get young girls to listen, which seems fair enough. However, in The Guardian (14.11.98), Angela Phillips pointed out that "no youngster would be seen dead with a Government-approved role model".

Writing in The Scotsman (10.11.98), Sara Nathan argued: "It's all very well to fantasise about being Billie, a Spice Girl, Louise or one of the other pop idols who might form the popular ideal teenage aspiration, but it's the women girls meet, be they mother, teacher or social worker, employer, nurse or shop assistant, who will prove critical in showing them both what they can aspire to and what they can achieve".

The idea of Geri being officially recognised and sanctioned as a role model caught the imagination of several newspapers. Of course, Geri herself has often emphasised the positive role model aspects of the ‘girl power’ ethos, and this was recognised by the compilers of the Channel Four/Observer ‘Power List’, who put Geri at number 144 within the ‘300 most powerful people in Britain’ in October 1998. Power was defined as the ability to influence lives, values and lifestyles in Britain today.


One of the reasons why the Government wants positive role models for young women is because of concern about Britain’s teenage pregnancy rate, the highest in western Europe. Of course this brings us back to the Spice Girls and the idea of ‘role models’ again: in September 1998, under headlines like ‘SPICE BABY BOOM’, there were claims that teen pregnancies would soar as young women sought to imitate their heroes (?!). The BBC reported: "A teachers’ union leader is warning that a wave of teenage pregnancies could sweep the country as girls attempt to emulate the Spice Girls. The new president of the Secondary Heads Association, Judith Mullen, says schoolgirls could be persuaded to become mothers by the publicity surrounding the pregnancies of two members of the pop group, Victoria Adams and Melanie Brown" (8.9.98). Melanie Blatt from All Saints was also implicated in the furore. Mrs Mullen blamed politicians for over-emphasising exam results, so that young women who do less well may feel like academic failures, and turn to having children instead.

As soon as Mel B announced her pregnancy in August 1998, critics said that these ‘role models’ were leading young women astray. For example, The Guardian reported: "Some fear the women, who are in their early 20s and unmarried, are unwittingly sending out messages to impressionable fans that it is fine to become pregnant. Cornelia Oddie, deputy director of the pressure group, Family and Youth Concern, said she was alarmed. ‘Many young girls will think it is okay to become pregnant, and for them it will lead to the misery of teenage pregnancy’." (24.8.98)


There's lots of interesting stuff on Madonna as a role model -- see the identity section for more of that. I particularly like Emily's Madonna Spotlight.

There is a project called Role Models On The Web which picks celebrities and others that it feels young people can look up to. These include ex-Superman actor Christopher Reeve, the African-American basketball player Michael Jordan, lawyer and First Lady Hillary Clinton, the golfer Tiger Woods, the designer Ralph Lauren, and Geoffrey Michel, who runs a juice bar company.

Of Tiger Woods, it says: "Like David meeting Goliath, Tiger brings to each person the important and powerful message that golf is a game of skill. And anyone who develops the skill and determination to play... can win! We salute him for the great Role Model he is to youth". If only wasn't golf.

Of Ralph Lauren, it says: "His passion for detail has taken him from a startup company in 1967 to 5 billion a year in sales in 1996. He has the ability to envision beauty, and has the persistence to carry it through in every detail… Ralph has been married for 32 years to his beautiful and devoted wife Ricky".

The juice bar guy is quoted as saying, "Working with quality evolves you to a higher level". He also says, "I hope to share with young people that the most important tool to succeed is hard work".

Elsewhere, The Role Model Project is a thing for young women where you pick a particular area of work, and then it randomly selects from its archive some comments from some other woman who is in that line of work and finds it satisfying. This is better, partly because it involves ‘real’ people, and more importantly because it does not have the obvious symptoms of insanity that would have put any sensible teenager off the previous one.

For men, my search for websites about role models threw up the site for The Men’s Show produced by The Knowledge Network in British Columbia, Canada, which is worth a look. At least it doesn’t want you to be a professional golfer.



Slantgirl on Mulan