Lack of female role models? Make one up


Originally written for The Guardian.

At the last count, there are currently more than 40,000 Disney Princessproducts on the market. It has been estimated that pre-teens now spend seven hours a day staring at a smartphone, computer or TV, and witness many thousands of violent acts online each year.

These are just a few of the startling facts performance artist Bryony Kimmings uncovered during research for her latest project. Part social experiment, part educational project, part theatre show, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model – now showing at the Edinburgh fringe – is a response to Kimmings’ mounting anger at the commodification of childhood and the pop industry’s objectification of women and young girls. In her attempt to push back, she has recruited an unlikely ally: her niece, Taylor, now 10.

“I was a bit shocked at what was available to her,” Kimmings explains during a break from rehearsals. As the two talked, it became clear that the female role models on offer in the media were worryingly limited, and that they all seemed to offer the same bland version of success. Kimmings names flesh-baring pop stars such as Rihanna and Katy Perry, who perpetuate a similar idea of femininity. As she points out, young people can get “a really limited view of what women are”. So the pair decided to take matters into their own hands – and invent an alternative.

Dreamed up by Taylor and brought to life by her aunt, Kimmings’ new alter ego is a pop star created with a child, for children. Catherine Bennett – CB to her fans – is a dinosaur-loving, bike-riding, tuna pasta-eating hero who squeezes in a pop career around working in a museum as a palaeontologist. As Taylor explains, it was important to make CB “very different” to the female celebrities children usually see. Where most stars straighten their hair, CB wears hers defiantly curly. While other singers opt to bare their flesh, CB’s skirts are kept firmly below the knee.

But, like all pop stars, Catherine Bennett wants to be famous. Kimmings repeatedly refers to the project as “the fame experiment”, approaching it with all the hope and mischief of a kid with a chemistry set. To help Bennett hit the big time, Kimmings has assembled a true pop-star entourage: real-life makeup artists who have worked with Girls Aloud, i-D magazine stylists and a PR company. The team have offered their expertise to turn Catherine Bennett into a viable superstar, giving her the best possible shot at fame. “I just copied what they did with real pop stars,” Kimmings says, noting the enthusiasm and generosity she has met from those in the industry – many of whom feel just as disillusioned about how the system works.

Catherine Bennett’s successes so far include recording two music videos, closing the Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield in July and appearing as part of Yoko Ono’s Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre in London. For her to be considered truly famous, however, Taylor has decided she needs to achieve a series of “fame aims”, including reaching a million hits on YouTube and making three celebrity friends. But the ultimate target, Kimmings adds, is to spawn a copycat.

While it might be said that the project’s fixation on fame runs the risk of reinforcing dominant definitions of success, it is important to Kimmings and Taylor that their creation makes her mark. If CB’s influence can be seen elsewhere, says Kimmings, the duo will know that they have “changed a bigger thing”.

The theatre show, which debuted as a work-in-progress at the Almeida festival in London ahead of its run in Edinburgh, is rejecting the “show and tell” format of Kimmings’ previous fringe successes, Sex Idiot and 7 Day Drunk, which dwelt, respectively, on Kimmings’ acquisition of an STI and her problematic relationship with booze. Instead, Kimmings is adopting a more “abstract” and “fantasy-based” approach, taking inspiration from the aesthetic of shows such as Game of Thrones to tell a coming-of-age narrative with a twist. “There’s quite a lot of symbolism,” Kimmings says, “but hopefully not in a cheesy way, hopefully in a cool way.” In the show, she and her niece appear together on stage to explore the darker side of growing up, from inappropriate dance routines to internet violence. The version I see is still being developed, but you can expect fake armour and a healthy amount of leaping around.

After Edinburgh, the show will tour until the end of 2014, while the mission to meet the fame aims continues. By the time Kimmings says goodbye to Bennett, she would like “just the tiniest of shifts in the brains of loads of children, or just a couple more cool representations of feminist women in the media”.

Kimmings is realistic about what she and Taylor are up against, but she remains resolutely optimistic. “I’ve got this blind hope that it’s going to happen,” she smiles, making it clear that this latest show is not about to let audiences off the hook. As Taylor adds cheerfully: “It’s a bit like being kicked in the stomach.”