Sarah Godfrey – co-founder of Day of the Girl Norwich – blogs for us about a UEA Outreach event she ran earlier this week with high school students about role models.
On Wednesday 3rd June I had the pleasure of running a day long event about the media, gender and role models for 40 year 9 pupils from 2 local high schools. Along with Tori Cann (from the Interdisciplinary Institute of the Humanities, UEA), we spent the day discussing a variety of role models, what makes good role models and how celebrity role models are presented in the media. The theme for the day was inspired by research conducted by GirlGuidingUK which found that 55% of girls aged 11 to 21 feel that there are not enough female role models and the fact that:
‘Overall, the research highlights the important contribution that role models beyond girls’ immediate circle can play, in broadening their ambitions and giving them the determination to fulfil their potential. But it also underlines the risks that arise when the focus is biased towards a relatively narrow group of celebrity women, affecting expectations, confidence and views of what is normal behaviour. It is those who are in greatest need of positive external examples who are often most susceptible to the negative aspects.’
This suggested to us that the issue of how celebrity images connect to the role models favoured by young people was an issue worth exploring in more depth. Indeed, the figure was mirrored by our own poll on the day which resulted in 60% of those in attendance also finding a lack of diversity in public female role models.
Out of the 63% who said that they did indeed have a role model, a huge 45% were celebrities and sports people. Friends and family were much less common with mums and friends coming joint second on 13%, interestingly, dads comprised just 6% of the figure. When it came to the question of the qualities that are looked for in a role model the results were equally fascinating with everyone voting for personal qualities such as selflessness, charity work, perseverance over riches, glamour and being physically attractive.
We then went through a series of public figures ranging from musicians and actors through to sports people, politicians and royalty and asked participants to vote on whether they felt that the person was, indeed, a good role model – and we got some surprising and illuminative responses. Emma Watson was by far the most popular choice with 66% agreeing that she is a good role model. Upon further discussion their reasons were well justified – she works hard for her success, she is seen as principled, honest and her charity work was singled out for praise by a large number of the group. In stark contrast Kim Kardashian was resoundingly unpopular with 66% ‘strongly disagreeing’ with the suggestion that she could be a good role model, that she was born into privilege, that she seems ‘fake’ and that her celebrity is self-serving were all cited as reasons for rejecting her.
The discussion of male role models was just as compelling, with David Cameron being voted the most unpopular of the group. While 9% ‘strongly agreed’ that he was a good role model they were out voted by 38% who strongly disagreed – again, it was the idea that he was born into privilege rather than working for his position that was cited as a key reason, alongside a feeling that his policies show a lack of compassion and selflessness that the group clearly understood as a key criteria for their role models. Interestingly Prince Harry, despite being arguably even more privileged than Cameron scored much better with 42% of participants voting either ‘strongly agree’ or ‘agree’ that he is a good role model – his work in the army, his sense of fun and his apparently down to earth demeanour working alongside his philanthropic endeavours to make him one of the more popular figures on the programme.
Having spent some time thinking about a variety of public figures and their position as role models we moved on to exploring the representation of images in magazines, discussing the various ways in which men and women were represented and how these images connected to images of role models and celebrity. We used the discussions as a basis for creating a series of posters which reflected on the ideas raised during the day, cutting up images, thinking about the words and language used and creating our own responses to them. All of the work will be displayed at the public International Day of the Girl exhibition in Norwich on October 11th 2015 – keep an eye on www.dayofthegirlnorwich.org to find out where this will be taking place!
It was a great day, all of the PhD helpers, the student ambassadors and session leaders had as much fun as the participants themselves and Tori and Sarah would like to thank all of those who helped, with special thanks to Kim Ridelagh in UEA Outreach and, of course, the amazing young people who came and took part in the event!
By Sarah Godfrey, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Film, Television and Media Studies.
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