Forget Wonder Woman - We need more real-life heroines

Still reeling from the decision to make Wonder Woman a UN ambassador for gender equality, Suzanne Harrington pays tribute to the real wonder women of our time.

Wonder Woman — fighting for her rights in her satin tights — is back. A new movie opens in June, the traditional bright red and blue costume muted, the silhouette sleeker, but essentially the same underdressed comic book heroine, this time played by Gal Gadot, an Israeli model/actress.

 As an action adventure movie, Wonder Woman will no doubt entertain. But inspire? Be an agent for change? The UN thought so.

When the character turned 75 last October, the UN made her an honorary ambassador for gender equality. In her satin tights. Cue uproar.

The fact that she was (a) a drawing and (b) partially nude, making her culturally inappropriate for a large chunk of the planet, didn’t dent the UN’s confidence in her suitability as a representative of womankind — only when 45,000 people signed a petition and there were demonstrations outside the UN building in New York (and inside – UN staff weren’t too happy either) did the well-meaning clunkheads get the message.

Maybe Wonder Woman — great in comics, fab on screen, but not actually a real woman — was, in retrospect, a poor choice of role model.

The UN subsequently did a U turn, and went back to celebrity ambassadors like Emma Watson and Angelina Jolie, who are genuinely admired beyond their ability to look nice on camera. 

Both have been vocal in their support of women’s rights, with Jolie in particular highlighting the issue of rape as war crime.

Wonder Woman wouldn’t be the first unsatisfactory role model to be thrust upon us, would she, ladies? When it comes to rubbish role models, womankind remains up to its perky nipples in them. 

While our blue and red super heroine admittedly kicks ass, prominent real life women who currently dominate the media tend to display ass rather than kick it — the Kardashian narcissocracy is built on that most specialist of genres; the arse-selfie. 

A decade ago it was the Paris Hilton / Lindsay Lohan / Nicole Richie axis of vacuity, focused on shopping, plastic surgery, emotional collapse and live-streamed addiction.

The general message from the ladies of (un) reality shows is to spend more, think less. Focus on the size of your bra, not your brain.

However, from Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, to Malala Yousafzi, who had her face shot off by the Taliban, our world is rich and varied in its awesome heroines. 

There are a hundred of them packed into a must-read book for children, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls – 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women, from Grace O’Malley to Coco Chanel, Cleopatra to Frida Kahlo. Each starts with ‘once upon a time’. Nobody gets rescued by a prince.

The role model needs of older teenage girls are more complex. While young women learn about heroines like Rosa Parks and Aung San Suu Kyi, Marie Curie and Amelia Earhart, there’s also Beyonce strutting about in a feminist T-shirt talking about empowerment.

She is frequently cited as a brilliant role model for girls. Is she?

Beyonce is great, except she’s still a semi-undressed performer, even if she does use her platform to raise awareness of racism, misogyny and what it is to be a 21st century woman; or is she just using current cultural buzzwords as a hook to further promote her brand? Sell more stuff? 

That her clothing line Ivy Park was dissed for being made in sweat-shops smacked a bit of hypocrisy, given how much of the faster end of the fashion industry employs poverty labour. Yet her brand is all about empowerment.

“Beyonce should have checked properly,” says Lolly, 16. “You can’t just talk the talk.”

So who are the role models of young women? Almost a decade ago, a teachers’ survey found that 32% of girls modelled themselves on Paris Hilton. Given the radical political upheavals since then, have perceptions changed much?

The Dublin City University’s Her Campus page (pink, by the way) offers four role models for 2017 — Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Emma Watson and Ashely Graham.

Three out of four are in the beauty/entertainment industry, the latter a plus-size model. So the magnificent Mrs Obama aside, is it still all about looks? What about action?

Are teenagers too young for Amal Clooney, Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg? I ask a bunch of 15-17 year olds who and what they most admire.

“Gurls Talk,” says Lolly. “Now there’s a role model.” Her friend Alice, 17, adds, “Free The Nipple!” while 15- year-old Jerry says her role models are environmentalists and animal rights activists.

The three of them, along with other friends, participated in the recent Women’s March to protest the election of Trump, and all are involved in social media-led activism around issues of homelessness and refugees.

They are all vegetarian. They do bake sales, and hold fundraisers, and their teachers tell them that they are very socially aware. Not a Kardashian in sight.

“The Kardashians are funny to watch,” says Alice. “Like cartoons are funny to watch. But they have nothing to do with real life.”

They all praise Gurls Talk, which is an online space for, well, girls to talk. Founded by British model Adwoa Aboah, it is refreshing in its inclusivity and frankness: “All gurls welcome here. Gurls talk — arts not parts.” 

Quite. Nor is Aboah just another Instagram avocado princess; what inspires the teens I speak to is the model’s recovery from depression, addiction and a serious suicide attempt in late 2015.

“She’s overcome all kinds of difficulties,” says Lolly. “And now she’s made this great site where girls can come along and just be themselves. She’s really cool.”

I ask them if they like Alek Wek, the Sudanese model who fled war, (“You are beautiful. It’s okay to be quirky, it’s fine to be shy. You don’t have to go with the crowd” ) but they are too young to have heard of her.

Nor have they read fourth wave feminist titles like The Vagenda or Everyday Sexism, and they only know Germaine Greer from I’m A Celebrity.

Even Lena Dunham is not on their radar. Our heroines are not theirs.

TEENAGE ROLE MODELS (as told to a middle-aged journalist by three teenage girls)

ADELE

“We like her because she’s real. She swears a lot and is a bit overweight. She has real talent so she doesn’t need to do all that paparazzi stuff because her music gets her attention. She’s a real person.”

JK ROWLING

 “It’s not just that the Harry Potter books made us happy when we were kids. We love her too, because she’s so smart and political and she takes down all the idiots who have a go at her. “And she gives loads of money to charity, because she didn’t forget what it was like to be poor.”

LIZZO

“Forget Beyonce – Lizzo is way more exciting. She’s a classically trained musician from Minneapolis who is a brilliant rapper, and she was in Vogue recently talking about how we don’t all have to look the same. She is super confident and really sexy.”

VENUS & SERENA WILLIAMS

“They are just superstars. End of. “And we love how Serena responded to that horrible old man [Ille Nastase] when he was rude about her baby.”

VIVIENNE WESTWOOD, IRIS APFEL

“They’re very old but I love how Vivienne Westwood campaigns for the environment - she’s inspired me to do textiles at college. “And I love how Iris Apfel dresses up every single day, instead of sitting around in her slippers. I love old ladies who are a bit eccentric.”

WOMEN FOOTBALLERS

“All of them. Just because everyone should be able to play it if they want to, not just guys. It’s always men’s football that everyone watches and talks about, but the women are catching up “Finally. I like woman’s rugby too.”

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