Be Cleopatra not a Kardashian, girls advised
Young women should model themselves on Shakespeare's heroines instead of reality stars like Kim Kardashian West, says a leading head teacher.
Jane Lunnon, head of Wimbledon High School, wants girls to focus on characters like Cleopatra, "who wield power and influence in a man's world".
She has launched a project to encourage pupils to imagine Shakespeare's heroines in contemporary surroundings.
"Cleopatra shows that you can be both flawed and brilliant," said Mrs Lunnon.
The project stemmed from a poll of pupils at the girls' school in south-west London which showed that a significant number regarded Kim Kardashian West and pop star Taylor Swift as role models.
"I just thought there is something concerning about this," said Mrs Lunnon, speaking at the annual meeting of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference which represents top private school leaders.
Kardashian West, who is married to rapper Kanye West and was robbed at gunpoint in Paris this week, rose to prominence in the TV show Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
Mrs Lunnon pointed out parallels between the reality star and Cleopatra, the ruler of Egypt and lover of Julius Caesar and, later, of Mark Antony.
"The thing about Cleopatra is it's... about image and how she sells the myth of Cleopatra. Kim Kardashian is selling the myth about Kim Kardashian."
But the crucial difference is in Cleopatra's additional ability to embody power as the Queen of Egypt, added Mrs Lunnon.
"She remains this incredible, strong icon, beyond her love for a man."
Mrs Lunnon acknowledged that fans of Kim Kardashian West argue that she is a "fantastic businesswoman" who has made the most of her assets.
"It's not so much that she's a role model but I worry if she is the dominant role model out there," she said.
She said she was also concerned that the TV personality trades on an image of airbrushed perfection.
By contrast, Shakespeare's description of Cleopatra is of someone whose beauty is flawed, Mrs Lunnon pointed out.
The young women in Shakespeare's comedies, "who face adversity with vim and vigour", should be another source of inspiration, she added.
In particular, she mentioned:
- the strong and cynical Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, who rails against the unequal status of women
- the exiled Rosalind in As You Like It, admired for her intelligence and quick wit as well as her beauty
- and the resourceful Viola in Twelfth Night who survives a shipwreck and disguises herself as a man to find work.
Mrs Lunnon said: "Look at Rosalind, look at Beatrice, look at Viola, the capacity in challenge and dilemma and pain, to love, to be vivacious, to be resourceful, to be resilient - they embody it so vividly, and that is a really powerful message.
"It's not that terrible things happen to them, it's how they respond."
Mrs Lunnon said the pilot scheme was "still in the foothills" - but ultimately she would like to extend it in partnership with state schools.
"As an English teacher I'm very used to using Shakespeare as a great source for intellectual stimulation and exploration - but really probing and using Shakespeare as a pastoral educational tool I thought was really interesting and, in particular, Shakespeare's characters as role models."
Jacqui O'Hanlon, director of education at the Royal Shakespeare Company, told the conference: "You don't have to work very hard to get young people to engage with the contemporary relevance of Shakespeare's work.
"As soon as you start putting them in the shoes of the characters and getting them to speak the text and think about the dilemmas those characters are in, they are automatically making reference to their own lives."