ZOO, a men's magazine rippling with female flesh, is hardly the place you'd expect to find role models for aspirational young women.
Yet when boarding school headmistress Dr Helen Wright saw its front cover featuring Kim Kardashian and the headline, "The hottest woman in the world", she expressed despair at the example set by the reality TV star.
According to Wright, Kardashian represents "almost everything that is wrong with Western society today", and the descent of civilisation "can practically be read into every curve" of her body. "Officially the hottest woman in the world?" asked Wright. "Really? Is this what we want our young people to aim for? Is this what success should mean to them?"
Wright may have made some sound points about our culture, but she seems a little out of touch. This was a lads' mag featuring readers' "sexiest women" choices, not a Forbes list of the most powerful, or even a Grazia "best dressed". Did she perhaps imagine IMF boss Christine Lagarde should be found smirking knowingly from the cover? Or that the young male apes reading Zoo might have plumped for Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington as their top hotty? I'm not implying that either of these two ladies isn't sexy – indeed, Lagarde seems to turn political commentators to putty – but Zoo inhabits a different kind of enclosure, and Kardashian, a woman probably most famous for a "sex tape" and "a shelf-shaped" bottom, fits in perfectly well .
While attempting to deal with an issue of our times, Wright has come across as looking like she belongs to the old guard. Her comments had the whiff of a despairing feminist, shaking her head at a generation that is so post-feminist, the word itself might as well have got lost in the post.
She is not the only one who appears disconnected. When Cherie Blair gave a talk at Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women event, she incurred the wrath of young mothers by despairing at "yummy mummies" who give up work and "put all their effort into their children". Poor Mrs Blair. There is very little she can say without raising the nation's hackles. But, still, she could hardly have come across as more alienating to her wider audience. There was an unconcealed air of disappointment as she criticised females who say: "I look at the sacrifices that women have made and I think why do I need to bother, why can't I just marry a rich husband and retire?"
Both Blair and Wright should act as salutary lessons to anyone over 40, reminding us that no young woman is ever going to want to listen to a middle-aged feminist harping on about how the youth are getting it wrong.
Wright may be right in her analysis of the media's role in "premature sexualisation", but the problem is that she also comes across as critical of the choices of young women – what they tune into on television, what they read, who they talk about. Besides, the moment an older woman mentions the word "role model", she is just asking to be shot down. Young people don't want people telling them who they should be like. The actor Emma Thompson recognised that much, when she joked that her immediate response to being chosen for a 1998 government list of female role models was "an overwhelming desire to go out and score a load of cocaine".
Most people don't consume celebrity culture in order to find role models. They are looking for a laugh and a bit of voyeurism. Asked who their role models are, most young girls opt, not for Cheryl Cole or Jordan, but their own mothers.
Which brings us back to Cherie Blair, who seems not to recognise that the new generation of yummy mummies have been influenced by their own mothers. If they want to devote more of their energies to mothering and less to work, perhaps it is because they watched their mothers working hard but getting little joy out of it. Or perhaps they saw them give up work and be happy to do so. There is also a slight callousness in Blair's writing off of the energies invested by countless mothers, as if they were irrelevant. Her statements appear insensitive to the nuances of how most working or stay-at-home mothers feel about their children.
Far more perceptive on this issue, is the American academic Anne Marie-Slaughter. Writing in The Atlantic magazine, she points out that women still can't have it all. Describing why she quit a top job in Washington to spend more time with her teenage children, she outlines how restructuring of the workplace might benefit women. It is, she suggests, "time to revisit the assumption that women must rush to adapt to the 'man's world' that our mothers and mentors warned us about".
Meanwhile, one has to ask, where did Blair find all those ladies who want to "marry a rich man and retire"? Surely, that's the stuff of fairy tales, as pertinent to most as the idea that they might be able to follow the career route of Kim Kardashian?
Indeed, both Blair and Wright seem to mistake the idle chatter that might drive a woman to say she'd like to be a rich housewife or topless model, for the realities of what people think they can do with their lives. I've heard these comments uttered by friends before. Possibly I have even made them. Oh Lord, let me be a millionaire housewife with a shelf-shaped bottom.
The tragedy of our current culture is not that so many young women aspire to a career like Kardashian's. It is much more banal than that. It is that little has changed in recent years: when it comes to their own career choices, many girls still dismiss jobs such as engineering, which are stereotypically assumed to be male roles – for occupations such as hairdressing.
And the tragedy for most women is the same as it has been for decades – that it is impossible to "have it all".
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