Female role-model

Why is it so hard to find a decent female role-model in the Australian media?

Last year Bindi Irwin turned nine before a public audience at her family’s Crocoseum. If in ten years time the child star is still in the public eye, chances are it will be for drug addiction, excessive drinking and falling pregnant to a string of different men. Apparently that’s just what ‘young ladies’ do these days. Going by the recent arrests and rehab stints of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Nicole Richie, it seems that young women are simply out of control.

Never mind that teenage girls are considered more mature than their male counterparts. Never mind that girls continue to out-perform boys in the HSC. Never mind that girls aged 16 to 24 are safer drivers and have higher tertiary enrolment rates than boys in the same age group. And don’t even consider the drastically lower incarceration rates of young women compared to young men.

The problem is not that young women are irresponsible, but that the media is only interested in the few that are. The moral panic around young celebrity females is so intense that many people forget that young men are actually more ‘at risk’ than young women, yet curiously there is no moral panic surrounding young boys.

As a 23-year-old woman, I have very few female role models my age to look up to. It’s not that they’re not out there. Young women are doing great things. The problem is one of visibility. The media very rarely reports on young women in an affirmative, empowering way. In between the prepubescent Bindi Irwin and the equally saccharine Nicole Kidman, there is surprisingly little on offer.

It’s not exactly empowering to have a precocious nine year old as my most accessible role model. As a young woman, unless you fit the category of innocent virgin, vulnerable victim, self-sacrificing mother or polite seasoned actress, chances are the media will vilify you. In the past, being a female celebrity in your twenties attracted epithets such as slut, vamp, whore, addict and ‘heir head’. You can now add ‘criminal’ to the list.

But why is there such a witch-hunt for young female celebrities? Just as many young male celebrities take drugs and do stupid things. Not only has Prince Harry been busted with weed but he also made the social gaff of wearing a Nazi costume to a party in 2005. Call me crazy, but I find that a lot more offensive than Britney getting about minus a pair of knickers. So why the double standard? And how does the double standard fuel the moral panic around young girls as vulnerable and highly susceptible to negative influences? More to the point, are paternalistic offers of protection really just veiled offers to control young women?

Associate Professor Catharine Lumby suggests that the sexuality of teenage girls produces a cultural anxiety which results in the social scrutiny of young women’s bodies and behaviours. When teenage girls develop curvy bodies and active libidos they can no longer be neatly categorized as innocent asexual beings.

This unsettles others, especially older men, who find themselves disturbingly attracted to girls young enough to be their daughters. These men then deal with their anxiety by projecting it back onto the bodies and actions of young women through extreme regulation and control, Lumby says. Old men police young women as a way of policing their own uncomfortable desire for them.

Similarly, some older women, who are threatened by younger women’s sexualities, deal with this anxiety through scrutiny and insult. That’s not to say that the Hollywood ‘rat pack’ should be let off the hook simply because they have been subjected to such intense scrutiny. If they have done the crime, they should do the time.

Driving under the influence or driving on a suspended license, as Paris Hilton has done, is a criminal offence. These women have acted with an error of judgment. But this error of judgment is comparable to that demonstrated by Australia’s legal elite, namely former NSW Supreme Court judge Jeff Shaw who admitted he’d been drinking before he crashed his car in 2004.

As a young woman, the only sympathetic media attention you are likely to enjoy is if you suffer some terrible, unjust ordeal at the hand of a violent criminal. Last year Nicole Miller rose to unfortunate fame following a tragic incident where she suffered severe head injury after a rock was thrown through a car window. A year and a half prior Lauren Huxley suffered a similar head trauma after being viciously attacked in her Northmead family home. These women are incredibly inspiring and I applaud them in their efforts to overcome such adversity. Nonetheless, the range of role models my age on offer should not be restricted to comatose victims of crime.

Surely there are young women making a name for themselves as something other than victims turned survivor. Princess Mary may be a case in point. But Princess Mary, in all her polished glory, is not necessarily a woman I can relate to. A mother in her thirties, she never has a hair out of place, never has a ladder in her stocking and never speaks out of turn. She doesn’t inspire me, she makes me feel defective, and worse, she makes me feel like I should flirt shamelessly with rich men in the hope that they might whisk me off to their Eastern suburbs mansion via their daddy’s yacht.

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