The Not So Irreplaceable Beyonce: Why Are We Obsessed With Female Role Models?

Who cares that Beyonce's bizarre new single, "Bow Down", has caused female fans to lose interest? Women don't need role models anyway...
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Who cares that Beyonce's bizarre new single, "Bow Down", has caused female fans to lose interest? Women don't need role models anyway...

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To be perfectly honest, I’ve never really understood the appeal of Beyoncé. More of a rounded performer than a singer of any note, she’s a titanic monument to self-belief, perched precariously on top of a spectacular pair of legs. And yet, ever since she disbanded Destiny’s Child to focus on her one-decent-song-per-album solo career, she’s been lionised to an unhealthy degree. People are willing to overlook her shrill, reedy voice, disingenuous stage persona and gratingly repetitive back catalogue, preferring to label her as the ultimate Independent Woman.

At least, they were until last week. Suddenly, all the single ladies (all the single ladies) are wondering why they ever pledged their platonic troth to such a conceited egotist. What once seemed like assertive empowerment now comes across as grasping entitlement. "Bow down bitches" she says in her new single. "Poke it up your arse," her once-loyal subjects are starting to shout back.

Not that any of this should come as much of a surprise. Isn’t this what always happens whenever a famous woman gets too successful? We pick them apart and condemn them for not living up to the unrealistic standards that the rest of society has chosen for them. Rihanna gets plenty of stick for shacking up with the guy who treats her the way Paul Hollywood handles his shortcrust pastry. Tulisa’s still trying to live down a single sloppy blow job that her ex-boyfriend decided to shop to the press. And then there’s Taylor Swift; a woman so wholesome that she shits Hovis; yet she’s regularly depicted in the press as some kind of guitar-wielding succubus. I swear, women are running out of role models at such a rate that by the end of 2013, there'll only be Lorraine Kelly and the ginger one out of Girls Aloud left to set the right sort of example.

Then again, what do I care? After all, I'm a man. The last time anyone picked out a role model for me, he wore a green beret and showed me how to fasten my woggle. So rather that lamenting the fact that Beyoncé is no longer an exemplar of modern womanhood, we should be asking why society has decided that women need famous figureheads to rally around.

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In many ways, this obsession with role models is really no different than the age-old double standard about promiscuity. How would you rather be defined - as a legendary swordsman, or a skank? Similarly, most of us would prefer to simply get on with whatever it is we’re doing, without having to worry about whether or not we’re setting a good example.

The difference, of course, is that the role model problem is more subtly pernicious. People who talk about female role models foolishly assume that they're somehow doing women a favour. Dress like Audrey Hepburn if you want to achieve timeless stylishness. Check out the way Karren Brady has managed her career in male-dominated world. And only pay attention to Claire out of Steps when she's back on the Atkins.

The implication here, is that women can only envisage their own potential if it's in relation to another woman. No wonder, then, that so many magazines use the byline 'Steal Her Style' to talk about current fashion trends. Women are being insidiously conditioned into perceiving each other as targets or threats. The media would have us believe that they're incapable of planning a career, a night out, or even an outfit, unless it's already been endorsed by a woman in the public eye.

We all aspire to be influential. We hold ourselves to a higher standard, and we'd like to think that other people would do the same. But no-one sets out to be a role model. It's an unrealistic objective, not to mention an unwieldy burden. The most we can do is our best. And if we fuck up, we just hope that no-one's watching. Women like Beyoncé, Taylor and Rihanna have no such luck.