WAGs and Wannabes? Depictions of Girls’ Ambitions in Contemporary British Cinema

Written by Kim. Posted in News

In recent years there has been increasingly widespread debate about the ‘appropriateness’ of young people’s ambitions within areas such as the media, politics and education. In this blog post Sarah Hill looks at narratives of femininity and aspiration in the British film Kicks, exploring how the film deals with the classed and gendered nature of dominant notions of girls’ aspirations and success in the twenty-first century.

In 2008 Culture Minister Barbara Follett was quoted as saying: ‘Kids nowadays just want to be famous. If you ask little girls, they either want to be footballers’ wives or win The X Factor. Our society is in danger of being Barbie-dolled’. Follett’s highly gendered criticism is indicative of the debates circulating around young people’s ambitions today. Follett’s remarks place the blame squarely upon young girls, even going as far as to suggest that girls’ aspirations are a ‘dangerous’ threat to society. However, the research carried out by the CelebYouth Project has gone some way in attempting to counteract this myth.

My own research at the University of East Anglia examines the representation of young women in contemporary British cinema. I am interested in how contemporary discourses of young femininity are mediated within the film texts themselves and their extra-textual materials (such as film reviews, production notes and other publicity materials). One particularly prominent discourse I encounter within these films time and time again is the idea of the ‘ambitious young woman’. Anita Harris refers to this figure as the ‘can-do’ girl. For Harris, the ‘can-do’ girls are the girls with girls with the world at their feet”:

[They] are identifiable by their commitment to exceptional careers and career planning, their belief in their capacity to succeed, and their display of a consumer lifestyle (Harris, 2004: 14).

Harris observes how success in the twenty-first century is constructed as a ‘mainstream’ experience for young women where ‘good choices, effort and ambition alone’ are all it takes to succeed (Harris, 2004: 16). While this neoliberal idea of ambition and success suggests anything is possible for those that work hard enough, there is also a sense that some ambitions are more ‘appropriate’ than others. Within contemporary British cinema, sporting success is a common example of an ‘appropriate’ ambition for teenage girls.

Like Hollywood, British cinema has seen an increase in the female-centred sports film in recent years with films such as Bend It Like Beckham, Freestyle, StreetDance 3D, Chalet Girl and Fast Girls. This is unsurprising given that the typical sports film narrative of a young woman working hard and overcoming obstacles to achieve success through their own hard work ties in neatly with postfeminist ideals of individualism, choice and empowerment.

However, I’d like to focus on British cinema’s representation of ‘inappropriate’ ambitions by looking at the film Kicks. Kicks is set in Liverpool, a city often associated with British celebrity culture due to its association with footballers and their wives and girlfriends. The film tells the story of the friendship between two fifteen-year-old girls: shy Nicole (Kerrie Hayes) and confident Jasmine (Nichola Burley), who dreams of becoming a WAG (WAG is an acronym for ‘Wives and Girlfriends of footballers). Jasmine and Nicole are obsessed with fictional Liverpool footballer Lee Cassidy (Jamie Doyle) and when they discover he plans to transfer to Real Madrid they decide to kidnap him in order to make him change his mind. It is the character of Jasmine and her ‘inappropriate’ ambition to become a WAG that I am concerned with here, looking specifically at how the film engages with ideas about young girls’ aspirations of fame and celebrity.

Nicole (Kerrie Hayes) and Jasmine (Nichola Burley)

Nicole (Kerrie Hayes) and Jasmine (Nichola Burley)

The filmmakers were highly vocal in their promotional interviews about the fact that the film is underpinned by concerns about celebrity culture’s emphasis on image, and the impact this has upon teenage girls. Screenwriter Leigh Campbell revealed that her inspiration came from: ‘Looking at girls today and how they increasingly get their validation from what they look like and who they’re with, rather than their own sense of self-worth’. Likewise, director Lindy Heymann, was quoted in The Observer in 2009, saying ‘If you’re an intelligent woman and a you’re a filmmaker you are going to be questioning the prevailing attitude among teenage girls that what you think is secondary to how you look’.

Campbell and Heymann’s comments articulate the common concerns regarding teenage girls’ ambitions outlined above but the reality is very different. In 2008 it was reported that a survey by mybliss.co.uk found that teenage girls would ‘rather be WAGs than politicians’. While this is true, the article gives the impression that being a WAG was the most popular career choice for the girls surveyed, when in actual fact the majority (21.8%) said they aspired to be like author JK Rowling, compared to 2.4% who wanted to be a WAG. The WAG is constructed as particularly inappropriate figure for girls to aspire to because, as Allen and Mendick note, the WAG is ‘unable to display evidence of acceptable labour by which to legitimize their status and fame’.

Within Kicks, Jasmine is highly aware of the WAG’s illegitimate status, and she confidently asserts that she wants to be famous on her own terms first by ‘getting a boob job and a portfolio doing a bit of glamour modeling’ before marrying a footballer. Jasmine’s plan to become famous by herself first indicates she is attempting to disassociate herself with the type of ‘fame by proxy’ associated with WAGs. To an extent, by planning her dream career in this way Jasmine displays the characteristics of the middle class ‘can-do’ girl who strategically plans their career, although Jasmine’s choice of career is represented as illegitimate due to its reliance on sexuality rather than skill. It is particularly interesting that Jasmine associates her plan to become a model beforehand as being somehow better than being ‘just a WAG’, as these aspirations are often subsumed into the same “improper” status usually associated with working-class girls (Allen. 2011: 304).

When Nicole suggests Jasmine meet a footballer by ‘getting a job in a posh shop’ Jasmine is horrified, claiming, ‘That’s for wannabes, I’m the real deal’. In placing herself above the ‘wannabes’, Jasmine appears to believe she is more invested in her future role through her careful career planning. Key to this is the presentation of Jasmine as a middle-class girl from a wealthy family. As such she has access to resources that will enable her to strategically craft her career in the manner of a ‘can-do’ girl. Jasmine’s claim that she’s ‘the real deal’ is interesting in terms of the idea of authenticity. In her research into young people’s perceptions of fame, Kim Allen observes how ‘“staying true to yourself” is significant to the girls’ perceptions of success’ but they are also aware the ‘performance of femininity complicates the performance of “authentic” celebrity selfhood’ (Allen, 2011: 303). Jasmine may claim to be authentic but her earlier comments about getting a ‘boob job’ show she is aware that she will have to considerable change her appearance in order to perform the type of femininity associated with glamour models and WAGs.

It has been claimed young people view celebrity as a ‘modern morality play’ filled with cautionary tales of greed and insincerity and Kicks delivers its own stark warning. During the film’s kidnap plot, Jasmine and Nicole learn that Lee Cassidy is not the person they thought he was. Here the film presents the image of the stereotypical footballer who is shallow and greedy, and who objectifies young women for his own gratification. In the final scene of the film a disillusioned Jasmine and Nicole burn all their Lee Cassidy memorabilia, destroying Jasmine’s dreams in the process. This is indicative of the film’s view that, ultimately, female friendship means more to Jasmine and Nicole than a desire to be part of this culture.

With its depiction of Liverpool as a city where many of the girls are eager for fame and the footballers are stereotypically shallow, Kicks raises the question of whether the film is simply perpetuating the myth – and indeed moral panic – that young people want to be famous as quickly as possible. Kicks’ criticism of this particular aspect of celebrity culture is certainly highly apparent. However, through the character of Jasmine and her articulation of her ambitions, the film also engages with debates about girls’ perceptions of talent, hard work and authenticity.

 

About the author:  Sarah Hill is a PhD candidate in the school of Art, Media and American Studies at the University of East Anglia. Her research explores the construction of young femininity in contemporary British cinema. She tweets at  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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