Last week Laura and Heather went to see performance artist Bryony Kimmings‘ latest show Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model (CLSRM), a collaboration with her amazing 9 year-old niece Taylor Houchen, in which she explores the growing tween industry and how ‘children are manipulated into becoming prematurely sexualised consumers’. We went with a few anxieties: we’d enjoyed talking with Bryony as our and her projects developed, including as part of a panel she organised on ‘The Age of Celebrity‘, but worried that our research had made us hypercritical of any and all representations of young people’s relationships to popular culture and celebrity. Our anxieties were misplaced, as Bryony’s found a way to capture the complexity of tweenage girlhood including showing how media savvy young people are and what adult desires are mixed up in our construction of children as innocent and in need of our protection. The show is moving, entertaining and thought-provoking and the best thing we can recommend is that you find a way to go and see it yourself. But in this post we’ll talk about a few of our impressions of the show (warning- including some spoilers).
On one level, CLSRM is the story of how Bryony created a role model based on Taylor’s interests and managed by her. The resulting Catherine Bennett aka CB has Taylor’s favourite first name, her mum’s surname, is a palaeontologist, and – like Taylor – loves tuna pasta. In order to break into the tween market, CB has launched a music career. In the show we get sample two of her songs – Apathy and the poptastic Animal Kingdom – where in a pantomime moment, the audience get to do the actions along with the song (don’t sit in the front row if you don’t want to risk being plucked out of the audience at this point to strut your stuff on stage). The song is all about friendship – something pop songs often don’t talk about.
However, on another level, CLSRM is a painfully honest interrogation by Bryony of her desire to protect Taylor from what she – as an adult – sees as damaging and what she, perhaps, feels damaged her as a child. The most dramatic evocation of this is a scene where Bryony gouges out Taylor’s eyes out only shortly afterwards to abandon this grown-up fantasy as ridiculous.
By the end Bryony opts instead to send Taylor out into the world dressed as Catherine the Great with a rucksack on her back filled with feminism, a sense of her power to change the world, a few tools with which to smash the system and some memories for when she needs them. Four things surely every child needs.
That both Catherine the Great and Catherine Bennett may have faults as role models, is acknowledged, but what we took from this show was a sense of the narrowness of what contemporary capitalism has to offer in the way of ‘female role models’ and of the sadness of this. At least both Catherines offer alternatives to this.
We were both left thinking about the performance and in our discussions afterwards we wondered about whether such a show would ever be made by a concerned uncle and his nephew. We suspect this is unlikely, but if it did then it would likely focus on violence and video games rather than sexualisation and pop music. The girl child remains the symbol of vulnerability as our data shows over and over, permeable to influence from the latest pop idol. Perhaps CLSRM can contribute to what Hermione Hoby writing in the Observer identifies as heroines, from campaigner Malala Yousafzai to singer Ella Yelich O’Connor, who like Taylor are redefining girlhood as a place of strength and power.
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