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‘WAG’ging a finger – why feminism must challenge celebrity as a career choice


By Suzie Grogan
WVON co-editor

Recently, I had a disturbing conversation with my sixteen year old daughter and her peers.

It wasn’t an argument and did not relate to any specific parental concern; it was not a discussion prompted by a burning topic in the news.

It was, however,  a surprise and feeling somewhat ‘told off’, it encouraged me to consider some key questions.

On what basis does a feminist criticise a celebrity culture that seems to encourage a burning ambition in young women to become the wife of a footballer, an X Factor contestant or a glamour model?

Is it no longer an argument in relation to free will, choice and self-determination? Is it even about equality? Is the image of the celebrity WAG (footballers’ wives and girlfriends) now driving girls harder than the image of a successful female entrepreneur? Or perhaps that is even what girls perceive a WAG to be?

My daughter is an ambitious girl with many friends  and her relationship with boys is much more natural than mine was thirty years ago. She assumes an equality between them, dresses for herself first and if she laughs at their jokes it is because she thinks them funny, not because she wants to impress.

So on the surface all seems well. Yet when we discuss the issue of men ‘hitting’ on her at the restaurant where she works as a waitress and the undesirability of them making a bee line for her bottom she shrugs off my concerns.

The girls dismiss them as ‘sad old men’ and laugh at them. I ask her how she and her friends deal with the idea of themselves as mere ‘sex objects’ to be ogled and groped at will. It becomes clear this is not what they consider themselves to be.

I extend the discussion. What are their views on the girls who pose topless in national newspapers and ‘lads mags’? They don’t like it, wouldn’t do it themselves but defend the right of the girl to make a living in that way.

There is a hint of sarcasm as they talk of footballers’ wives and girlfriends, with an assumption that they are probably not that intelligent if they marry someone who looks and talks like Wayne Rooney.

However there is little real criticism of the culture of the WAG and its impact on the ambitions of their contemporaries.

How about the instant fame of reality TV shows? An anorexic America’s Next Top Model?  Where was the anger at the exploitation? Did they not see that the images they are surrounded by reinforce what society considers the norm?

How much harder it is to feel accepted if one differs from that standard? I was beginning to get passionate on the subject.

Oh yes they reply, calmly – but no-one makes these girls and women behave in this way. It is their free choice to enter the contests, appear on dating shows in competition for a man, sell pictures to the newspaper. Isn’t it giving them opportunities and that financial independence from men we all think is important?

And Mum – haven’t you always said it is a woman’s right to choose? To live her life as she wishes?  Earn her money in any way she sees fit without restrictions placed on her by men? Isn’t this exactly what these women are doing?

The conversation has to end before we can talk about the worldwide experience of women subjected to violence, or the sex trade. Perhaps that is where it should have begun.

I struggled not to feel I have failed in some way but I believe the cult of celebrity is so insidious that teenage girls now see the opportunities it offers as a real career choice, freely taken up, rather than the institutionalised sexism I believe it to be.

Feminists have to take a position that connects these so-called choices with the harsher truths of the global exploitation of women in a way that brings young women in Britain up short and offers them a way back to a feminist perspective, otherwise valuable ground will be lost.

So how do we do it?

  1. What worries me about our current celebrity culture is how it makes young boys think about girls. Chaps need a feminist education too, otherwise it makes things so much more difficult.

  2. vicki wharton says:

    I have a four year old daughter and the only way I see of alerting girls to the fact that how they are valued and treated isn’t a free choice for them is to do what I can to challenge the society I live in in whatever way I can whilst educating her about the society pressures and dangers that she will increasingly face. I encourage my friends with sons to do the same, although I must admit, with limited success – they simply do not see it as their responsibility to make sure their sons behave, mix and read socially responsible material. I’m not advocating a monk like existence, but one that is respectful of other people’s rights and feelings. All I can do is tell her that if a boy reads lad’s mags or she sees any evidence of him using gonzo porn, to stay as far away from him as possible and likewise all the women’s and gossip mags plus tabloid newspapers as well – until we have a socially responsible media we can’t begin to have a socially responsible society as it appears this, rather than the church, is what forms young people’s values nowadays.

  3. Fantastic article Suzie. I’ve had many debates with people that focus on the same thing: ‘It’s a woman’s right to choose whether she appears half naked on the front cover of a lads mag’ etc. The way I deal with it is by saying that we need to stop focusing on the fact that the woman has chosen, but start to ask why? Why does a woman feel that this is empowering? And for me, I think it goes back to the way society pressures women to achieve unattainable levels of so called beauty, and that our value as women is based around that.

  4. Interesting article. I tend to look at this situation from a wide perspective since I’ve lived outside the UK for a long time. I’ve noticed travelling in Europe that the more unequal a society is (economically speaking) the more gender inequality there is.There is a tendency for women’s status to be better in more equal countries. Unfortunately, the UK rates rather low down on the equality scale nearer Portugal and USA rather than Sweden, Finland or Belgium. I would suggest that in the more unequal societies, young women feel their best chance of higher status is to conform to the male dominated society’s perception of what is appealing i.e. sexiness rather than being valued for their intelligence or what they can do. Why is celebrity culture so prevalent in the UK & USA but not so in other European countries? I can’t say but have a gut feeling that young people feel they can only make their mark within society and their peer group if they achieve fame and fast fortune. Perhaps if they thought there were more equal choices out there, they would be able to think differently.

    I wholeheartedly agree, our sons do need a feminist education too.

    • I think that is the case for some young people but not all. I think I’m in the ‘young people’ group but I don’t feel pressured to seek fame and fortune but I think that is up to personal circumstance and sometimes down to the group of friends you have in school and the media you surround yourself with.

      I certainly think that young people are not given very good role models – there are so many inspirational women but still the pressure is on to look like Jordan etc. The focus on fame and fortune makes it seem like that is the only way to gain status in society – we are all made to feel that we must be beautiful/dating a footballer to achieve respect.

      And 100% agree with the idea that boys should be given a feminist education. It just seems to go with the British ‘lad culture’ that boys are pressured into thinking that women are dispensable and for their viewing pleasure

  5. leeeastwood says:

    maybe you should spend more time fighting those things that are actually bad for girls and women. spend less time clutching pearls and pulling cats bum faces at young women who just want to party at the weekend. feminists consistantly sound as if they are attacking any young woman who makes a choice the radfem collective disagrees with. why not start a national conversation about say, a ten year sentence for a first conviction of rape. then maybe organize protest marches and meetings outside the embassy’s of those nations where forced genital mutilations happen. get young girls to talk about the stuff they will connect with.
    going on about wags or page three will just have them looking at you as boring old farts, trying to stop young women from having a bit of fun.
    of course i’m a bloke so i know nothing about the stuff my daughters talks about. but i never hear her condemning glamour models or wags.

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