A Rose By Any Other Name

In this article, the BBC have reported that a Headteacher in Wimbledon wants girls to stop admiring world-bestriding multi-million selling pop star Taylor Swift and go-to-sex-tape-pantomime-villain-of-the-older-generation Kim Kardashian and instead wants them to focus on characters like Cleopatra, “who wield power and influence in a man’s world”…perhaps because Swift and Kardashian  have wielded neither power nor influence in recent times.

Apparently, “Cleopatra shows that you can be both flawed and brilliant,” which is something that Taylor Swift, with her infamous string of ‘failed’ relationships, her apparent inability to handle a perceived slight mixed with her uncanny ability to fill an entire stadium full of adoring fans who want to listen to the songs she wrote, obviously does not do.

Apparently, the big similarity between Kardashian and Cleopatra is that they both project their brand. Fair enough. But, says the article, the thing that makes Cleopatra stand out is that “She remains this incredible, strong icon, beyond her love for a man.” Ah yes, because nobody had heard of Kardashian before she married that rapper and Taylor Swift is only famous because, like a walking country and western song from the 70s, she simply can’t hold on to her man.  The article then states that ‘there is something concerning’ about the fact that young girls look up to Swift and Kardashian as role models. I quite agree, having never known a time before now in history when people would look up to pop stars and celebrities as role models because I, fortunately, was born at the age of 45 and have no time for this ‘celebrity’ fad.

The article points out three particular heroines who should be admired ‘beyond [their] love for a man’:

  • the strong and cynical Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, who rails against the unequal status of women…until she calls it a day and admits that she’s desperately in love with Benedick (something which is hinted at early on in the play) and marries him in order to find peace, contentment, validation and completion.
  • the resourceful Viola in Twelfth Night who survives a shipwreck and disguises herself as a man to find work…which she does in the court of a man with whom she immediately falls in love, before unveiling herself at the end of the play and marrying him in order to find peace, contentment, validation and completion.
  • the exiled Rosalind in As You Like It, admired for her intelligence and quick wit as well as her beauty…Ok, you can have this one but she does still spend most of the play in exile before being reunited with Orlando, marrying him and finding peace and contentment.

Anyway, my point is this. I have nothing against Jane Lunnon, and I certainly have nothing against introducing Shakespeare into the lives of students, and I have nothing against young women being given a whole raft of role models from whom they can choose, but what worries me is the elitst and snobbish implication that Kim Kardashian does not deserve to be held up as a role model whereas these fictional women created by a middle-class white man do. I also don’t think that telling the teenagers in my class that they are wrong to idolise those whom they have chosen to idolise, but instead should read some 16th Century Elizabethan pentameter on the topic, will engage them in my subject.

I am no great fan of Kim Kardashian, by the way. I don’t hate her, by any means, but I don’t particularly love her either. Then again, I’m pretty sure that I’m not her demographic. As far as I can tell, she’s used what talents she has to make herself arguably the biggest celebrity in the modern world, and I don’t care what anyone says – that takes a certain something that most people simply don’t have, and that something is not just millions of dollars or a nice figure. As for Taylor Swift, she may not be perfect but she can string a pop song together as well as anyone else currently working in that industry and that equally takes something that most people don’t have. Perhaps beyond all that, if you’re over the age of 20, you simply don’t get an opinion on who teenage girls SHOULD look up to as a role model. Especially if that role model is someone not entirely dissimilar to the one you are recommending instead…

  • “Stop admiring that self-made woman who’s also vain and histrionic enough to provoke her audience into mocking her…and study Cleopatra!
  • Stop admiring that woman who portrays a front to the world as a way to survive and find herself…and study Viola!
  • Stop admiring a scheming, capable, powerful woman who will stop at nothing to further her and her husband’s power…and study Lady Macbeth!
  • Stop admiring a young woman who makes serious mistakes in love but at least writes some impressive poetry on the subject…and study Juliet!”

Instead of telling them that their choices are wrong, and that they should look up to others instead, why not show them that these women of stature have their roots in our past? That it’s not just Kim Kardashian in 2016 who has to be worried that her power in a man’s world will make people uncomfortable, leave her a target for ridicule and (sadly) actual danger? It’s not just Taylor Swift who has to walk around cursed by society as ‘unmarriable’? Society’s obsession with powerful women is not just a phase for millennials. Let them see that their role models are valid, that they have similarities with these characters, and that Shakespeare was maybe trying to point out that someone doesn’t have to be perfect to be powerful. These women are showing their fans that they don’t have to be flawless to own the stage…and didn’t someone once say that all the world’s a stage?



About PS

English teacher in Shanghai.
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