Just before Christmas I wrote a blog post which began by linguistically attacking ‘WAGs’. The reason for this was to dissect and discredit their social position because they personify values, concerns and ideals that many, myself included, believe are damaging to the mental health of young women. (Actually, there have been numerous studies which have proven that these ideals actually are damaging to mental health and social cohesion, but more on that later.) In the post I then went on to explain that in UK society today, where WAGs are accepted role models for women and adolescents, these values and ideals are damaging and degrade the interests of feminism. I then asked the readers of the post to highlight experiences or topics that have been alarming to their own sense of equality (which I termed ‘bullshit’).
That post received an interesting and varied collection of comments. The vast majority of the commenters clearly related to the sentiments in the post and shared their own thoughts and concerns regarding feminism and equality. However, there were a few that expressed unhappiness at the tone, content or assumptions (or all three) of my post. And although it really doesn’t bother me if not everyone sees my point of view or agrees with what I write, I do think that it is worth while exploring these conflicts of opinion whilst expanding upon my feelings on this topic
As I mentioned in my previous post, WAGs are now household names and their glamourous lifestyles, time consuming appearances and expensive possessions are splashed on the pages of the tabloid press, fashion press, gossip press and entertainment press. Increasingly they are becoming icons and role models for young women (and blueprints for young men on what they should expect a wife/girlfriend to be). Why is this dangerous and why do I feel it is necessary to attack them?
First up, I’m not attacking them in the tabloid sense of highlighting their cellulite or a whether they’ve had a bad hair day. I am attacking them for the values that they help perpetuate. And let’s remind ourselves they are not hapless figure-heads, thrust into the lime-light against their will. Of course the attention they attract from the media must be unpleasant a lot of the time, but as individuals they courted the media and embraced fame. The Queen of the WAGs herself, Victoria Beckham, wrote in her 2001 autobiography, ‘Right from the beginning, I said I wanted to be more famous than Persil Automatic’.
So many young girls these days respond to the question of what do you want to do with ‘be a WAG’. That’s a pretty sad state of affairs as far as feminism goes. I thought we (women) had more or less reached a point in history where it is generally accepted that your marital status is a part of your life, and no longer as description of life or your career. Being notable mainly for whom your husband is seems like a 1950s rather than 2010s reality to me.
The WAG lifestyle is showing young women that marrying a footballer or becoming a reality TV star will fast-track you to fame, wealth and wealth: that needing to try hard at school is probably only for the unattractive because their famous footballer-prince will whisk them away to go and shop at Gucci.
But of course, as I mentioned in that original post, most of the WAGs have careers aside from the fame that their unions brought them. And a couple of the commenters wished to remind me that the main three WAGs (Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Cole and Coleen Rooney, the latter pictured above) are ‘successful in their own right’: the assumption being that fame and the acquisition of wealth equates success. I would argue that wealth and fame don’t necessarily translate to success, and they certainly don’t breed happiness or emotional security either. There is enough research out there that has proven that the pursuit of material wealth (above the level required to provide yourself and your family with essentials) and celebrity is detrimental for mental health. ‘Affluenza’ is a fascinating book on this subject, and ‘The Spirit Level’ proves how income inequality (i.e. there being really wealthy and really poor people within the same society) is damaging to the mental and physical health of everyone in that society. The high wage bracket and celebrity as typified by a WAG lifestyle are just not healthy aspirations. And more broadly I would argue that promoting any lifestyle that is not attainable for more than 0.1% of the world’s population is not going to provide satisfaction either (but it will keep us consuming, of course).
I would also argue that the culture in which they function restricts their ‘successes’ to permitted spheres. The WAGs and the other females who live in their culture have their endeavours pretty much limited to involvement in fashion/appearance and entertainment. Whether they have no interest in life outside these areas or societal pressure is such that they are discouraged from pursuing them, the images presented to adolescent girls is worryingly restrictive in range.
Anyways, in the aforementioned comments, I was reminded that Victoria Beckham has a successful fashion brand (see above). Indeed she does, a friend of mine is employed as a pattern cutter there in fact. But we need to think realistically about what a celebrity’s role in the fashion brand actually is. They do not go into the office 9am-6pm five days a week for months on end to sit and design every garment and work with alongside the technical team to actualise each style, silhouette and detail. With little or no training or experience in the industry, these celebrities are mostly figure heads/brands on which to focus the marketing. Their involvement in the design process is, at best, that of a creative consultant’s. Not to say that Victoria Beckham doesn’t have excellent taste to apply to choosing options presented to her, but let’s not forget that anyone with enough money can (and frequently does) set up a clothing label.
I was also reminded in the comments that Cheryl Cole similarly had a very successful singing career in Girls Aloud, and as a solo artist. I’ll be the first to say that she is a talented singer, beautiful and probably a very sweet. But I struggle with the term ‘artist’: she won her position in the manufactured pop group, Girls Aloud, by auditioning for a reality TV show. An army of stylists, make-up and hair experts, managers, song writers and publicists were deployed to create the formula that required them to dance, sing and smile when told to.
Speaking of Cheryl Cole, over the Christmas holiday I found myself reading a copy of Grazia magazine. There was a long-ish article about her and the range of footwear she has ‘designed’ recently. Obviously this was accompanied with a photo of Cheryl styled as if she was about to present an Oscar gazing at some swatches of leather as if making her final selection for the shoes that were clearly already available to buy in-store. But aside from the make-believe fashion designing, far more disturbed me about the article. Having provided a summary of Cheryl’s ‘terrible and humiliating year’ they then attest to the fact that she must be in a more positive place, because she’s put on a few pounds. This simply perpetuates the idea that a woman’s mental well-being is firmly indicated by her appearance. Also, they applauded her on what this article insinuated was one of her most notable achievements: her ability to wear really high heels! Not only are the WAGs and WAG-a-likes at the very centre of an appearance-fixated culture, but they are praised for repeatedly, professionally even, putting comfort aside and sacrifice the risk of bunions in the name of fashion. Any young and impressionable adolescent reading that article because she likes Cheryl Cole is going to come away from it with some worrying messages.
On New Year’s Day, I watched a few episodes of a horrendous TV show called ‘Pushy and Proud’. It’s an intentionally provocative but ultimately representational fly-on-the-wall style documentary which follows women who push their daughters into celebrity culture-approved modes of (alarming) conduct. The most disturbing protagonist of the many I had to choose from was a woman who worked as a beauty therapist, Jools Willis (pictured above). She existed firmly within the type of culture that iconises the WAGs and judges women on their appearance almost exclusively. In doing so, she had exposed her ten year old daughter to this culture. That very normal-looking little girl had become so concerned with her own pre-adolescent appearance that her self-esteem had corroded to the point that she experienced real anxiety. To assuage her daughter’s anxiety, the mother did not attempt to explain that she was lovely the way she was and then help her daughter enjoy a less appearance-obsessed childhood. No, she gave her daughter a spray tan, manicure and eyebrow tint, thus instilling in her that appearance modification is a short cut to emotional happiness. These actions and values also help to perpetuate the myth that young women’s greatest accomplishments will be achieved within the sphere of how you look and how many people are looking at you.
It is disturbing how increasingly young those being exposed to and affected by an appearance-obsessed society are. But the media is teaching us at all ages through the perpetuation of these ideals to value good looks as a reflection of our self-esteem. It helps to perpetuate the myth that women’s greatest accomplishments are achieved within the sphere of how you look and how many people are looking at you. And whilst WAGs continue to be held up as the icons at the centre of these damaging values that provide a blue-print for young women’s (and now children’s) ideals, I will continue to attack the WAG lifestyle.