Against better judgement I have started watching the current series of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. I’m not here to defend this choice, as tempting as that is, but to write about some significant points that the show – in less than a week on air – has raised about appearance, achievement, and the media’s approach to the female body.
Rebecca Adlington is one of this year’s contestants, and a personal hero. When I was younger (I’m talking 14/15) it was my dream to be an Olympic swimmer. I blame some incredibly slow twitch muscles for my failure to succeed (if you can’t join them – blame your genes!), but would like to think I have a small inkling of the sacrifice and dedication it takes to make it to the starting block of an Olympic race, let alone finish with a medal.
That is why it has been particularly heartbreaking to witness, despite all her achievements, Rebecca’s deep insecurities. Earlier this week she was reduced to tears by what began as a discussion of Miss Universe winner Amy Willerton’s life as a model/beauty queen. Rebecca acknowledged in the privacy of the camp’s ‘diary room’ that she had spent almost her entire life dedicated to making her body perform in the most active sense of the word. Wiping away tears, she admitted, “It’s making me very, very insecure that I have to look [a certain way]. For me, I was an athlete.”
Would a male athlete have been reduced to tears in the jungle, comparing himself unfavourably to a male model? A large part of Rebecca’s reaction stems from her own self-esteem (or lack thereof), but this has been compounded by the ideals of femininity presented in the media, coupled with targeted attacks on her Twitter account. The likes of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, and Sir Chris Hoy do not have to put up with relentless messages that tell them their thighs are too big, or that their ears stick out too much.
Men’s achievements are still taken more seriously in some quarters (I stress – in some quarters); the spectacle of the race is entertainment enough. The topic of outfits is another discussion entirely, but consider all the ridiculous commentary surrounding the women’s volleyball during London 2012. Women are expected to be able to perform and present an appealing aesthetic. In fact, it probably doesn’t matter if she comes last in her race, as long as she looks good doing it.
Really taking the biscuit has been the subsequent coverage of Rebecca’s upset. *Certain* media outlets – I am referring to the ones that perpetuate the idea of what constitutes female beauty and belittle any who fail to achieve it – have taken this golden opportunity to partake in their own favourite sport. That is, pitting women against each other. Yay! There’s a fun pastime, right there: highlighting women’s ‘flaws’ and ‘mistakes’ and then sitting back to watch as they tear each other apart.
The same paper that took such glee in reporting on the supposed “showdown” – it was a tetchy discussion! – between Amy and Rebecca, posted another article (for want of a better word) a day later blatantly squaring them off. There is a table of comparison and everything. You can have a look here if you have the stomach for it.
The tone is deliberately skewed to make those in the comments (oh god, the world of internet comments) pick a side. The same paper that has been salivating over pictures of Amy in her bikini since before the show even began has decided that women should hate her, because she represents an industry that makes women hate themselves. Amy is obviously beautiful: slim, tanned, long hair, the works, and she knows this. I mean, you don’t win Miss Universe and still question your own attractiveness. But why should knowledge of her own beauty be a Bad Thing?
In the bizarre world of tabloids, Rebecca’s pre-existing insecurities have been used to black mark Amy. The thought process is that “real women” (a phrase that deserves to be trapped in an eternal bush-tucker trial) must devalue Amy in order to empower all the women (probably, sadly, a majority) like Rebecca made to feel that they are not good enough because they cannot fit into a pair of size 8 jeans.
How, how, is this in any way a viable form of female empowerment?! Instead of dismissing Amy’s successes – pitted against a gold medalist I’m sure most of us would feel our achievements pale in comparison – why not celebrate both for rising to the top in their respective fields, no matter what your opinion of their respective career paths? By fueling these petty rivalries and playing on women’s self-doubt these media sites manage to distract from the real issues facing women both in the public eye and in ‘normal life’.
There was another significant moment during the week, which involved fellow camp mate Matthew Wright and a women’s swimsuit. For those who know anything about I’m a Celebrity…, Myleene Klass and the white bikini is folklore. Basically, by the simple act of showering under the camp waterfall everyday in a certain two-piece, former Popstars winner Myleene was able to successfully reboot her career upon leaving the jungle.
The “subject” of ladies in swimsuits has been turned into an annual competition; another classic divide and conquer tactic. Matthew, a television presenter and newspaper journalist, took the chance to poke fun at the tabloids’ barely contained excitement over who would provide the “Myleene Moment”, by donning the famous white bikini and taking the role himself.
It was funny, it was ridiculous, but it also made a point. The roles in the jungle are much more tightly defined for the female contestants than for the men. As fun as the show may be, I’m a Celebrity… is not immune to the frequent reality series’ pitfall that sees women compared and judged, not for what they can accomplish and overcome, but how they present themselves.
Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Matthew’s joke (that I understood as poking fun at the sort of showbiz commentary he once wrote) has been misconstrued by some articles as his attempt to mock “attention-seeking” female camp mates. How reassuring to know that women will always be responsible for their own bad press.