The Sunday Times May 21, 2006

Shame on you, girls
India Knight

Ugly and "stoopid" - the foul-looking Jade Goody thought East Anglia, in Eastern England, is called "East Angular."

What on earth is the matter with girls in this country? Seriously: it’s gone beyond a joke. Not so long ago, we young females all aspired to work hard, gave the question of tertiary education due consideration and expressed a desire to be prime minister. In today’s post-feminist times the only acceptable-seeming ambition (even for the intelligent) is to acquire silicone breasts, become famous by having sex with then marrying a footballer, go through all his money, and spend your life devoted to the twin pursuits of shopping for expensive prostitute-wear and having acrylic nails.

Actually that’s not quite right — sleeping with the footballer would be enough, because you could always sell your story to keep you in fake tan. Class. If it’s not shagging a Premiership player it’s simpering inanely about wanting to be a pop star, and if it’s not wanting to be a pop star, it’s hoping to find fame on reality television. (If these girls had paid attention at school, they might have understood the difference between fame and infamy.) What is going on? Who are they, these shameless horrors parading across our streets and television screens, and why are they like that? More to the point, why aren’t they dying of embarrassment? That’s what really bewilders me.

We’ve all known girls whose ambitions were to do as little and be kept as lavishly as possible — but they were stealthy about it. What’s with the triumphant strutting? Is it supposed to indicate some sort of evolution? Because baboons behave with more grace and intelligence.

Last Thursday night watching this year’s inmates entering the Big Brother house, it was hard not to be struck by the fact that, out of 14 people, there wasn’t one recognisably okay, intelligent-seeming woman. (Well, maybe one. But she prided herself on having no friends and no relationships of any kind.) One girl was pretty and had competed in Miss World. One seemed to labour under the misapprehension that she was some sort of Sloane — I don’t think so, love. One 20-year-old described herself as a “geezer bird” (“I deal with boredom by getting naked and terrorising it up”). One has 30M breasts, thanks to surgery. One was a Mancunian upholsterer, who laughed a lot and had the virtue of not appearing like an instant emetic. One stated that her intention in entering Big Brother was “to get noticed by rich and famous men”, which presumably explains her get-up of corset, stockings and Playboy bunny ears.

And of course everyone was glued to the set: this year’s first-night ratings are the highest ever. Which is absolutely fine — I’m a fan of Big Brother — unless you’re a particular kind of teenage girl looking for a new role model.

When Big Brother first aired, many aeons ago, they’d chuck some jaw-droppingly thick bird into the mix for a laugh — a witless, brainless, soulless blonde with a PhD in inanity. It wasn’t kind: we were encouraged to laugh at rather than with, to gawp at the eye-popping dimness on display, perhaps even to feel some twinge of compassion.

If I’d had a teenage daughter, I’d have pointed to the telly and said: “See, that’s why I bang on about homework. Feast your eyes on the alternative.” And she’d have shivered with horror and knuckled down.

But then the gormless blondes started winning. At about the same time, airhead heiresses and bit-part television actresses with a talent for stripping off started making their appearance across the Atlantic. Americans, being Americans, didn’t feel sorry for them: they thought them fabulous, shining examples of “living the dream”. And suddenly in Britain, thanks to a combination of television and gossip magazines, those monstrously thick girls like Jade Goody with their orange tans weren’t funny or pitiful or grotesque any more. They were where it was at. For an entire generation of young women it became okay to want to be one of them.

This is to say, it became okay to be criminally stupid. It became okay to parade your shortcomings — and what shortcomings they turned out to be — with pride. Airing your ambition to marry a rich bloke seemed perfectly reasonable. Devoting your life to hair extensions looked like a good career move.

And it is as a result of this seriously unhappy state of affairs that last week, a rigorously conducted survey found that girls are now more likely to binge drink, smoke, steal and take drugs than boys. Sixteen per cent of those questioned — aged 14 and 15 — regularly fought.

Colin Pritchard, of Bournemouth University, who led the research, said: “There is an element of following role models set by the media. We can look back to the Spice Girls, where girls were set an example in which aggressive behaviour was considered praiseworthy.”

He added: “One thing we found among teenagers of all backgrounds was that those who said they liked school were the least likely to binge drink, take drugs, or otherwise engage in bad behaviour.”

Ambition in women has always taken many forms: I’m not suggesting that there existed a time when all young girls wanted to be astronauts or nuclear physicists. But the idea of hard graft was always part of ambition before, whether it was at the parent-pleasing end of the scale — medicine, the law — or at the fluffier edge. Even Jordan, for heaven’s sake, puts a lot of effort and energy into maintaining her pin-up crown.

The awful thing about all of this is that these proudly stupid girls never really win. They think it’s all a laugh — the fighting, the binge drinking, the fags and the sex and the vomit. In some peculiarly misguided corner of their minds, such behaviour makes them popular, fun to be around, lively, exciting.

But the end of the story never changes. It hasn’t for centuries, and it’s not about to now. If you offer yourself up like a piece of meat, you get treated like one. It’s over by the time you’re 25, with only a sackload of psychological problems to keep you company. Why do young girls insist on believing it’s worth it?