From Madonna to Britney, Spice Girls to Bardot, Macpherson to Moss, Xena to Buffy, Charlie’s Angels to Lara Croft, the Craft, the Charmed, Sabrina… our large and small screens, air waves and magazine racks are pulsed and pumped with these new myth makers. In Girl Heroes: the New Force in Popular Culture, Susan Hopkins refers to them as “the new force in popular culture” (Hopkins, front cover). They are indeed a new breed of the female icon: the brazen, strong, sexy and savvy go-getter, and perennial girl. (As distinct from the female icons heralded in their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations which were on the brittle side, covert seductresses, vulnerable innocents, blossoming women; I’m thinking of Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Eden in “I Dream of Jeannie”, and Bo Derek.) This new breed’s power is unquestionable in terms of their media saturation and omniscience but have they firmly entrenched themselves within the psyche of their audience? It is arguable that their popularity is premised on satisfying young female needs for more powerful role models, but it is also arguable that they are a highly exaggerated and entertaining product of an ingenious marketing exercise. Given my extensive interviews and work with girls and young women in the area of role models and heroes, I question their genuine, positive and enduring impact.
Over time and across the generations, celebrity worship by young females between 10 to 20 years of age has changed. As Hopkins points out, “Male teen idols are secondary – the primary fantasy object in contemporary girl culture is the celebrity female.” (Hopkins, 4) Large posters of the Beatles, Bay City Rollers, Skyhooks, Duran Duran… in the bedrooms of girls growing up in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, are now substituted for large posters of favourite girl heroes. Whether these girl heroes are their fantasy mentors or virtual older sisters, there is a yearning and desire fostered to become as famous and as powerful. On a mass scale, this is a tendency of the younger teenage girl. Perusing the audiences of Spice Girls and Bardot, for instance, will show that the median age is 13, if not younger; the age when fantasy and reality are merged and possibilities are infinite. But isn’t this a passing phase, like playing hopscotch, nurses and doctors, hide and seek? Will a 13-year-old continue to model her life on the amorphous illusion of her girl hero, or will she wake up one day, nearer to adulthood, searching for the every day conversation, the basic ordinariness of life and its subsequent fundamentals? Unlike her girl hero who, in celluloid, never ages, never stops and reflects, never grows with the advent of daily responsibility, the 13-year-old does and so, at 23 and 33 far outgrows the girl hero of eternal youth.
Hopkins refers to the opinions and thoughts of teenage fans as illustrations of their unswerving love for their girl heroes:
“They’re great role models, and they’re much prettier in person. Oh my god, Sophie’s beautiful”
…as stated by a 14-year-old fan during Bardot’s shopping mall publicity tours (Hopkins, 70-71). During this peak time of Bardot publicity frenzy and earlier still, during the Reality TV “Popstars” search, there were also a large number, and growing, of teenage girls uninspired, even angered, by the highly constructed rise to fame of these five girls. Body shape versus talent was highly debated by young women on radio stations and current affairs programs as a result of decisions made by the judges of “Popstars”. And during this period I was conducting my own research for a project entitled, Shimmer, which was seeking young women’s thoughts on female stardom.
The Shimmer project was orchestrated by the Community Cultural Arts Branch of the City of Darebin (Melbourne, Australia). The Manager there was inspired by a study, he had read, conducted on young women in 1998. This study found that 53% of young women surveyed wanted to be leading entertainers, actors and/or singers (1). They commissioned me to see whether this great percentage resonated in any way with young women in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne. I was asked to interview, conduct workshops, attend schools and talk to as many young women between the ages of 14 and 25 to identify their career aspirations and their attitude to fame and stardom, and to explore why the performing arts appeared to be placed on a pedestal, above other career choices. From this research, I was then asked to write a play that captured my findings. Shimmer, the play, was produced in June 2001 (Northcote, Victoria) with a cast of 30 females ranging from ages 10 to 35 (2).
The workshops were a series of weekly, drop-in attendances, spanning over six months with an average number of 17 girls. Across the North of Melbourne, I visited over six secondary schools and youth centres, speaking to classes of 15 to 17 year olds. The interviews were extensive, recorded sessions with 30 interviewees ranging from 14 to 29 years, from varying suburbs, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. About half of all these girls had fame aspirations or longings but none of these were the starry-eyed thoughts of the naïve. They knew fame required solid, hard work and their after school hours were swamped with dancing, singing, drama and other arts-based lessons or rehearsals. Many from this group had already written and recorded songs, albeit on a local level, or formed singing groups or starred in local theatre productions. The performing arts arena was seen as a place for freedom of expression, the bastion of creativity and imagination and the place where girls are given equal platform. But when asked to name their female role models in this arena, hardly any ‘girl heroes’ were mentioned. In fact, most of them opted for roles models they knew, such as their mums, teachers, older sisters, local or Australian-based/owned singers or actors who were beginning to make some mark (for example, Toni Collette, Diana Ah naid). Quite a few stated that they were their own person and therefore didn’t need to copy anybody but themselves. When queried further about their thoughts on the Spice Girls, Buffy, Kylie etc. they felt these ‘fame babes’ couldn’t be taken seriously. They felt a lot of them had gotten to where they were only because of their looks and their overt sexuality.
“If you’re a teenybopper you go for them but if you know what’s real talent, you know to ignore them”.
…a 14-year-old, aspiring singer told me, who personally valued the voice of Celine Dion but wasn’t fanatical about her.
“If you look at their video clips, it’s like they’re trying to have sex with you and that’s not talent”
… a 20-year-old, actress and writer.
The only two ‘fame babes’ that were paid some respect by these ‘fame wannabes’ were Madonna and Janet Jackson – both well past the girlhood stage of their lives but able to somehow inspire this younger generation. Several girls brought up the longevity of these women in the business; their perseverance to continue into their 30s and 40s was heartening given the early deaths of so many other ‘fame babes’. That this arena could be seen as a long-term career rather than an overnight sensation spurred forth a faith in the process. Added to this was that both Madonna and Janet Jackson came with a strong backstory, a narrative that these girls identified with or admired. Madonna’s subversive stance on her strong Catholic upbringing, her self-determination to make it in New York despite the odds, her continual need for approval from her father, her growth from girlhood to womanhood, from entertainer to serious songwriter, her need for babies and love… all these components made Madonna seem graspable, as well as iconic. While Janet Jackson, may have been born into an entertainment family, she needed to prove herself outside the shadows of her brothers’ fame, and her ability to do so, commanded the admiration of the girls. Being able to walk away from a physically abusive relationship, and gather the strength to continue in the arena, was another trait the girls respected.
Interestingly, the only other very strong hero worship came from an 18-year-old girl, who wanted to be a successful film director.
“Oprah is like the second messiah, she has changed my life.”
Oprah Winfrey – the global TV host, the celebrity sycophant, the New Age motivational self-healing advocate, the self-confessed weight obsessor, the billionairess but hardly the ‘girl hero’ – had sparked profound change in this girl’s life. This girl explained that before Oprah, she rarely picked up a book other than the odd magazine, which she mostly skimmed through, but with Oprah recommending certain books to her audiences, her reading levels, and therefore her knowledge, had risen dramatically. She professed to reading every book that Oprah recommended. Oprah’s immense popularity requires far more intensive discourse than given here, but it’s worth noting that the projected ordinariness of this woman, her ability to speak frankly about her own shortcomings and to envelop a vacuum of trust from her audiences, have held her in good stead rather than the ‘girl hero’ kick-butt, cute-sexy qualities.
Still ‘girl heroes’ or ‘fame babes’ may be reflective of, and banking on, the modern day girl’s overriding desire for grand success. As Hopkins states: “Fame is replacing romance as the dominant female fantasy (…) Love and marriage is no longer the final answer to youthful feminine desire” (Hopkins, 189-191).
However, in answer to my question – “If you could only choose fame or love, what would you choose?” – a little less than a quarter of close to 120 girls asked, chose fame. And many that did choose fame, tried to justify their decision by stating that once they had achieved fame, they would achieve self-love and that would be the highest reward. Quite a few were upset with the question, stating that they should be able to achieve both, that one shouldn’t be sacrificed for the other, that if fame required such a sacrifice then it wasn’t worth it.
Overall, it seemed that the ‘girl hero’ phenomena was not taken that seriously by the girls that ‘seriously’ wanted to make it big time. Buffy, the Charmed and Xena were watched but not worshipped. They were perceived as larger than life, over the top and good fun. Indeed the parody value and camp quality of these TV shows have a far wider following than the teen girls demographic, both male and female adults in their 30 plus years are avid watchers. And these shows are not that far removed from their predecessors: Wonder Woman, The Avengers, Charlie’s Angels. Hopkins points out that: “The Wonder Woman story has become an unforgettable part of the wider simulated history of television trash”. So too, Buffy, the Charmed and Xena. They are a contemporary sequence of girl powered shows that will gradually lose their day in the sun to be followed by the next group characterisation worthy of exploration and self-parody. In the meantime, there is a strong suggestion that popular film is beginning to tire of the ‘super slick power chick’ and sending her up has become undeniably funny. In the road trip mayhem comedy, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (Kevin Smith, 2001), four girls – Justice (Shannon Elizabeth), Sissy (Eliza Dushku), Missy (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith) and Chrissy (Ali Larter) – parade as animal rights activists but reveal themselves as leather clad, exaggerated Emma Peel/Charlie’s Angels clones, ready and equipped for some cat burglary action at the heavily sealed bank. Their superhuman calisthenics through mind boggling laser rays, their use of a pink, clam-shaped birth control case to hold high tech gadgetry, their unnerving bitchiness and total arrogance, and their firm belief that girl heroes such as themselves do not emit any noises from their behinds, pieces together a heavily laboured parody of their girl power predecessors.
Parody was furthest from the minds of the girls interviewed from the Northern suburbs of Victoria. They felt the weight of the titles ‘role model’ and ‘girl hero worship’, and needed to feel profound respect for, and sincere wisdom emanating from, the hosts of these titles. Supermodels heralding their slim fast diets, ‘celeb chicks’ pasting perfection over every interview and white girls parading undies more than strong harmonies, turning ‘You Go Girl!’ into a hollow reciting, did not meet the criteria for these titles.
Possibly a wider search is required within the realm of media and film culture. In her book, Hopkins covers a wide selection of renowned ‘fame babes’ and film references but her truly profound example of girl power representation rests with her discussion of the film Girlfight (Karyn Kusama, 2000) (Hopkins, 148-151). This film’s hero is Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez), an 18-year-old schoolgirl living in a poor housing estate in New York. Her mother is dead, leaving her to take care of her younger brother and an alcoholic father who pays her very little respect. Despite lack of support from her father, her peers and her boyfriend, she competes in gender-blind amateur boxing bouts and learns the sport along with a fare share of physical and psychological pain. Diana’s transformation into a professional boxer is all her doing; sheer discipline, endurance and self-belief, her only supports. This in turn, builds her self-esteem where she can face her father by giving him a simple punch to the floor, rather than suffer his bullying in silence. When she competes with her boxer boyfriend for the covetable professional status title, and she beats him, her heroic qualities shine through as she lovingly holds her boyfriend’s cheek afterwards, telling him that fighting her as an equal won her respect. This girl hero is not an irrational mean lean fighting machine, her anger, strength and punching power are all geared towards self-determination and self-reflection. She grows emotionally, as well as developing biceps and calve muscles.
Another girl hero of profound magnitude is Molly (Everlyn Sampi) in Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002). This 14-year-old (along with her younger cousin and sister) was forcibly removed from her mother and delivered to a harsh disciplinary white settlers training camp for ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal children. Molly’s incredible internal resolve and spiritual connection to the homeland, made her achieve the impossible: crossing over 2000 kilometres of dry bush and desert, managing to hide from the relentless crusade of the tracker and the police, carrying her ailing little sister in her arms and placing her in the embrace of her mother. But Molly’s strong sense of responsibility and compassion wouldn’t let her finally rest when she did reach home; she had lost her cousin Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) to ‘the whites’.
Searching beyond the glam and hype of girl hero culture, there are images and characters who fulfill the weightier expectations of girls that disassociate themselves from the teenybopper swooning phase. Still the glam and hype of girl hero culture cannot be ignored in that it stares all of us in the face on a daily basis. Hopkins strongly argues how the ‘fame babe’ has scaled to omnipotence. “No longer just an actress or a popstar, the female celebrity is fast acquiring the status of secular Goddess, inspiring an almost religious reverence in fans”. (Hopkins, 182) This point was poetically illustrated in the play Shimmer:
And so it was written from birth
that She would be the chosen One.
Admired and adored for Her deeds
by multitudes, of strangers
Raised so high up that to embrace Her
like a human, would be impossible. (Shimmer, 54)
If likened to Goddesses however, then immortality must be their trademark. Some will acquire this but most won’t. They may continue to multiply becoming bolder, sassier, sharper, but sooner or later they will die out as all mass-mediated identities do. The very few that will climb the heights of ‘legendary starlet’ will require more than the speed driven, propellor-head of marketing. To stay up twinkling and not shoot to Earth, requires something of authentic experience, after all teenyboppers are not a growing demographic in the Western world, nor do they remain starry-eyed forever.
Costi, Angela, Shimmer
Hopkins, Susan, Girl Heroes: the New Force in Popular Culture, Pluto Press, 2002
- The Manager had read this study in a newspaper, possibly the Age, but unfortunately couldn’t locate the article nor find the study after doing extensive research in various research centres in Victoria.
- Angela Costi: playwright, City of Darebin: producer, Lyn Ellis: director, Shimmer, season June 2001 at Uniting Church Hall, High Street, Northcote Victoria.