“Be Cleopatra, not a Kardashian” was the advice given by the headmistress of a London high school not long ago, as she recommended that teens take their inspiration from Shakespeare’s heroines and, once again, the media’s favourite K-word dominated another headline.
Ultimately, this is just an odd comparison to make. I mean, I get it. Shakespeare is great. I’m an English student. I love Shakespeare as much as the next person who also loves Shakespeare, but why exactly do we want girls to model themselves after fictional characters whose lives usually tend to end in tragedy? Ophelia and Lady Macbeth are interesting characters, but they’re not real. Why would people rather see a fictional woman written by a man than a real woman in control of her own narrative?
Why can’t a girl be a fan of both Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing and a modern celebrity, if she wants?
(“But the Kardashians aren’t real!” I hear you exclaim, because of course the moment anyone wears a noticeable amount of makeup or gets plastic surgery they immediately cease to exist.)
Let’s be honest, society’s obsession with comparing women to one another started to get boring a long time ago. Is it really so difficult to talk about a woman as an individual in her own right? Moreover, why can’t a girl be a fan of both Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing and a modern celebrity, if she wants? Isn’t that the beauty of the 21st century? Shockingly, people are capable of watching and enjoying Renaissance dramas AND reality TV. Surely boxing everything into either/or categories is pointless and just serves to ignore the multifaceted personalities of young girls?
Also, why does a woman have to be a role model? Of course, on one hand, girls have traditionally lacked strong, female role models in popular culture and their presence is important and not be undervalued. But on the other hand, why does every woman have to be a role model to young girls? It appears we cannot let women be people without putting them on a pedestal; we seem unable to afford them the same gift we give famous men.
Because, sure, men are criticised for doing wrong. The press loves slating a shamed sportsman or disgraced film star if it means a scandalous front page story. But they’re not subjected to the same daily tirade of disapproval that women like the Kardashians are; their everyday life choices are not ripped apart by the media at every opportunity. They are allowed to be more than husbands and fathers.
I am not uncritically defending every female celebrity. There are many famous women who I dislike and disagree with and who have done things that are downright offensive and out-of-line. But that is not where the majority of mainstream criticism is directed. Maybe these issues are addressed in passing, but this is not what the daily onslaught of gossip magazine and tabloid newspaper fodder is concerned with.
Famous women are defined by their status as mothers and girlfriends and wives. Their actions, their bodies, and their choices become commodities that belong to the press and the public. One thing that Shakespeare’s heroines and female celebrities have in common is that they are both characters; they are the spectated. But one is fictional, the other is not. One of these groups of women doesn’t have the Bard to write their narrative for them; instead of Shakespeare, these women have tabloid newspapers and a million inane lukewarm takes on every website from Buzzfeed to MailOnline, questioning every facet of their lives.
[Women] don’t need sensationalist redtop newspapers to write their stories for them and they don’t need 17th century playwrights either.
You might argue that this comes with the job, that anyone in the limelight should just accept that this is what happens. You might say that they even exacerbate this problem through the use of social media and that the days of celebrity privacy died with the emergence of Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. On the surface, this looks to be true, but it’s often ignored that the aspects of a person’s life that they choose to put out into the world on their social media accounts is exactly that – chosen by them. Regardless of how much this may seem like “oversharing”, it is ultimately still an autonomous act, unlike press coverage. No matter what kind of image they may be creating of themselves, at least they are the ones doing the creating.
So, let women take control of their own narratives. They don’t need sensationalist redtop newspapers to write their stories for them and they don’t need 17th century playwrights either. And if they want to tell that story using the Snapchat flower crown filter, so be it.