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