Fragile Ophelia or Feigned Kardashian: Which one should you follow?

Head of Wimbledon High School, Jane Lunon, caused contention last week by suggesting that the young women of today should not be imitating the behaviours of the 36 year old reality TV star, Kim Kardashian, but should be using the timeless heroines of Shakespeare’s plays as templates of behaviour.

From ascending to fame through the unauthorised release of a sex tape, to her use of illusory air brushed perfection in the media, Lunon lists multiple justifications for her controversial conclusion that there is ‘something concerning’ about Kim Kardashian, who embodies the very notion of famous for being famous, fulfilling the female role model of today. There is a common distaste for how the star flaunts her groomed children, as well as her provocative display of sexualised ‘selfies’ across social media. Yet equally, there are many people that would perceive such body confidence as an empowering precedent to young people, particularly as she flaunts a curvaceous figure that defies both the skeletal expectation of the fashion industry, and the degrading headlines she sadly accumulates.  

This is similar to her role within business, in which the successful entrepreneur resists what is considered a male dominated field. While Lunon acknowledges the star’s business potential, she fails to celebrate the mother of two’s exemplary balance of working life and motherhood; the powerful statement that a familial future does not have to restrict a woman’s professional prospects. As the co-creator of one of this year’s biggest apps, Lunon fails to reward Kim Kardashian for her breakthrough into the heavily masculine technological business world, and the fact that she is therefore a huge advocate for pushing boundaries of social expectation and female prospects. Here she incorporates beauty and brains akin to Rosalind of ‘As You Like It’, whom Lunon emphasises for her displays of intelligence and quick wit alongside feminine beauty. But should we really be using such literary heroines as models of behaviour?

Take Hamlet’s Ophelia, her insane episode has been interpreted as a conscious and therefore heroic choice to defy the constraining world around her through the unrestrained force of madness.  Yet, it is equally possible that this is a presentation of her struggle up the ‘steep and thorny pathway to heaven’ that she acknowledges women must face, earlier in the play. Through her psychological degradation, we see a rather isolated Ophelia – ensnared by the strings of patriarchal puppeteers, caught up in the springs laid by men to catch the ‘woodcocks’ such as herself. Yes, suicide is an intentional way out of this world, but whether that can be seen as brave decision or cowardly escape is very much open for discussion. I would argue that Ophelia dissolves into the opacity ordained by her society and with it dissolves her potential as a strong female mentor.

'Ophelia' (detail) Sir John Everett Millais

‘Ophelia’ (detail) Sir John Everett Millais

While I feel Lunon missed some key elements to Kim Kardashian’s success and admiration, I do agree that she may not be the best role model of today; however, I do not feel that Shakespeare’s females were any the more heroic and deserving of our admiration. Lunon says, ‘the thing about Cleopatra is it’s… about image and how she sells the myth of Cleopatra.  Kim Kardashian is selling the myth about Kim Kardashian’.  Though she aligns each for their duplicitous displays to their audience, Lunon claims it is Cleopatra’s possession of power as queen that really empowers her; a role, I would argue, that is not too dissimilar from Kim’s leading and influential role in business. While masquerading the self through false images may be pragmatic and intelligent, allowing both the celebrity and character to manoeuvre themselves into positions of power, echoing the characterisation of Rosalind’s opportunistic characterisation, it is arguably something that should not be encouraged.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra (1963)

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra (1963)

Women should have the freedom of expression in today’s age to be able to be whoever they like. The freedom to not feel the pressure to excessively exercise and maintain an hourglass physique that is equally unattainable to the size 0 models we see on the catwalk. The continual subjection to the approval and judgement of surgical enhancement is the very epitome of modifying the self to fit the mould society shapes. It is perhaps more ‘concerning’ that females are still being directed on how they should act and whom they should emulate – precisely the expectation that Shakespeare’s female characterisations caution us of through the likes of Ophelia and Cleopatra. Shakespeare preached the importance of, in Polonius’ words, ‘to thine own self be true’ of which neither heroine succeeded in and therefore met their deathly fate. Ultimately, as a familiar figure of popular culture today and real life person, Kim Kardashian will inevitably attain more idolisers than such literary figures, but that is not to say if young women want to use Shakespeare’s females or any other female, that it is ‘concerning’ in any way.

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