Cutting girls down to Victoria Beckham's size

October 14, 2005

'Girl power' and the rise of the female celebrity enfeeble women and erode their confidence, says Angela McRobbie

For the thousands of young women who have just arrived on campus, women's groups and societies, as well as student unions, provide a golden opportunity to develop political skills and to take part in activities supportive of women's rights on a worldwide basis.

University political groups have long offered opportunities to gain the confidence required to play an important role in public life. With more women in higher education, set against continuing underrepresentation of women in politics, it might be hoped that freshers would jump at this opportunity. But such participation has become a thing of the past, attracting only a handful of already politicised students.

There is a dangerous illusion that because feminine consumer culture now endorses the rhetoric of "girl power", endlessly celebrating high-profile women, and because many women's magazines take up equal-opportunities issues, feminine popular culture is no longer harmful to women. Because women are understood to be able to make their own choices about what they buy or how they want to look, it is thought that the powers of persuasion or manipulation have been eroded. The censorious feminist who still speaks about gender inequalities and about the damage caused by the bodily obsessions of the magazine sector will find few supporters among young women today. And the stark facts of the underrepresentation of women, and in particular black and Asian women, in key political positions gets obliterated in the buzz of celebratory prose about the dazzling lives of female celebrities.

So successful is consumer culture in promoting a certain strain of female success that only rarely are its values called into question. The occasional primary school headteacher voices his or her concern at little girls wearing crop tops and low-cut trousers barely skimming the pubic bone. Doctors regularly express anxieties about the long-term effect of binge drinking on young women's health. Feminists such as myself deplore the sight of drunken girls baring their breasts surrounded by gaggles of lads on the street after closing time. And one might presume that many Muslim women, young and old, find themselves reflecting, as Ido, on the virtue of modesty and on the belief that women ought to have higher standards, and indeed to take the lead on questions of sexuality and personal conduct.

But hey, do these moral guardians not realise that young women are now able to make their own choices? And when the head of the social exclusion unit admits that she too likes to binge drink, then who is to deny girls this essential freedom? The power of the "choice" vocabulary is, ironically, that it discourages young women from even airing uncertainties about such issues in public, for fear of being branded an old-fashioned feminist. And young Muslim women no doubt find themselves ignored, on the basis of their religious beliefs being thought to dictate their views on sexuality.

There was no discussion, as I recall, of the display of pole-dancing equipment on sale in Miss Selfridge on Oxford Street last year, a place beloved by 13-year-olds. And there has been little said about pornography on sale in supermarkets.

So enthralled are young women by the seductive power of the media that critical faculties have been blunted. Female students, the very group who should be challenging these assumptions, are silent. Celebrity-led magazines such as Heat and Closer are as eagerly consumed by girls from ABC backgrounds - the student body - as by their low-income peers. Such publications trap their readers into cycles of anxiety, self-loathing and misery that have become a standard mark of modern womanhood. "Normative discontent" about body image, about never being beautiful enough, about success and fear of failure, about not finding a husband at just the right moment in the life cycle, about keeping to the rules of dating, about the dire costs of breaking the rules: such values become all encompassing, invading the space of other interests and other activities. The girl becomes a harshly self-judging person.

If she is middle class and ambitious - the classic student profile - her capacity for self-beratement now encompasses every aspect of her being. If she is without wider opportunities in the world of work, her universe is now shrunken to the miserable ambition of wishing she were Victoria Beckham. But so, too, are all women's hopes and expectations shrunken.

There is only "illegible rage" and the interiorisation of female complaint.

Angela McRobbie is professor of communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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