My daughter and I are nearing the end of our autumn reality t.v. fest during which we have gorged ourselves on X Factor and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here for the past few happy weeks.
I love how by watching these programmes we get to naturally observe, comment and chat about all sorts of issues, and I’m a Celebrity this year has been especially rich.
For those of you who haven’t been watching, here’s a quick synopsis. One celebrity in the jungle was Amy, Miss Universe GB, and another was Rebecca Adlington, Olympic swimmer and gold medal winner.
It started when the gorgeous Amy made a comment along the lines of ‘They say that Miss GB is a sort of girl-next-door, and Miss Universe GB is the girl you wished lived next door’. This brought up for Rebecca all her insecurities about her looks, all the nasty comments she’s received because she doesn’t look like a glamour model, and she had to be reassured by others in the camp that she’s won TWO GOLD MEDALS for god’s sake.
It was fascinating, it felt like we were watching a sort of cultural morality play, the value our society places on women’s appearance played out for us by two individual women. The humble high achiever up against the self-centred beauty.
It was interesting to watch how Amy’s selfish ways gradually began to grate on everyone else in the group and yet she was never able to understand that it was her own behaviour which was causing her problems, not the fault of other people.
Rebecca on the other hand was mature, pulled her weight and was so human and warm and lovely it was easy to forget that she had won TWO GOLD MEDALS.
Watching Amy I felt sorry for her. She is only guilty of believing her culture; her looks give her permission to expect special treatment wherever she goes, it has been reinforced for her throughout her life wherever she looks that her appearance alone gives her a status above all others, and that’s enough. Thrown into the jungle to survive amongst people with different values she floundered and had no other resources to draw on. You could almost see her confusion as she posed in yet another bikini: ‘Isn’t this enough..?’
I read an article by a dad critisising Rebecca for her publicly expressed insecurities: ‘Be a better role model for my 11 year old daughter!’ he said, ‘I don’t want her to see a successful woman concerned with something as trivial as her appearance just because she received a few nasty tweets’. Which was a bit harsh I thought. Had she received those tweets in the context of a culture which overwhelmingly promotes women’s achievements over their appearance then Rebecca may be expected to be able to shrug them off. But our culture doesn’t do that, in fact those nasty comments were just a reinforcement of the message the media sends to girls in this country every day to shut up and look pretty, at the same time as marginalising women’s achievements – and largely ignoring women’s sport.
It was the very fact that even the most successful woman is not immune to this media message that brought it home how screwed up this value system is. My daughter watched wide-eyed with indignation and, as the drama played out day by day, it provided a life lesson in the dangers of trading exclusively on your appearance far more effectively than any words from me.
We as a society are going to produce many more women like Amy, women with arrested development at a very child-like stage, if we continue to encourage our daughters to be the spoilt princess above all else. Which our culture increasingly does through extreme gendered toys and passive female characters in books and films right through to the deification of glamour models in the press.
I was grateful to both women for publicly allowing us a glimpse into the reality of how that culture actually impacts on individual women’s lives, spelling out the lesson so clearly for my daughter in a way that the ‘Looks are not the most important thing’ conversation could never have done.