Comment: Roll on the new role models

Everywhere you looked there were beautiful women with glacial smiles and guns

IN THE new television series of Ally McBeal, which starts this Wednesday, a wonderful new lawyer joins Ally's firm. Nell is beautiful and sexy and brilliant and confident, she's successful in every case she takes on, she wears dark lipstick and tight suits, and she reduces all the men to mush. If this series had been made in the Eighties, she would have been the heroine. But she isn't the heroine. It's Ally McBeal who is the heroine, the woman who falls over and talks to herself and falls for the wrong men and sometimes messes up a meeting.

Heroines can't be trusted any more. There was a time when it looked as though women had really got into their stride in novels and films and television. Everywhere you looked there were beautiful, larger-than-life women with glacial smiles toting guns or icepicks and threatening lawsuits and scaring the men witless.

You know the women I mean - any time you went to the cinema you could see Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, Demi Moore in Disclosure and GI Jane, Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns - the list goes on and on. And the bestselling novels in the Eighties, those fat lumps of trash by Judith Krantz or Jackie Collins or Barbara Taylor Bradford, all centred on tough, thin women who never failed to get their men, never failed to close a deal, and never spilt coffee on their Calvin Klein suits.

Feminist commentators loved these heroines. The American feminist Naomi Wolf welcomed them as a sign of the genderquake, claiming they had "as much or more power to advance women's progress on the psychic level as the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment on the political level." Helen Wilkinson, the young British feminist, wrote approvingly that movies such as Blue Steel, Nikita and Tank Girl "provided us with a strong series of macho female role models... movies such as these resonate and reflect changes in attitude and behaviour in society at large, as the power balance between men and women begins to shift and that shift reverberates throughout our culture."

Indeed, as you can see from Naomi Wolf's and Helen Wilkinson's cheerleading tones, such heroines weren't just seen as fiction, they were seen as role models - as templates for how women should be living their lives, standing side by side with real-life women who seemed to be stepping up to fit the mould.

Whether we were looking at Madonna or the Spice Girls or the new women MPs or Tina Brown or Nicola Horlick, throughout the Eighties and early Nineties certain approved women kept being taken up and promoted as the template for other women. The Women's Unit even gave one ill-starred press conference last year in which it was suggested that a committee of suitable female role models, such as Emma Thompson and Geri Halliwell, should be formed as a focus for young women's aspirations.

Was anything similar suggested for men? Not likely. Men are seen as much too grown up to need role-models in the shape of powerful images of themselves. They might mess up, they might have their problems, but nobody suggests that they could be distracted from the complexities of their real lives by being fed icons rather than employment or education.

Of course one of the problems with real-life heroines is that they never behave quite the way they are meant to. Geri Halliwell, far from being the ambassador for girl power that she once was, has been blurting out to television and newspaper audiences that the other Spice Girls were horrible to her and that she feels lonely despite all her wealth and success. Posh Spice has been reincarnated as a traditional bride, whose fiance asked her father for her hand, and who appeared in a tightly corseted satin wedding dress. Madonna stopped being seen whirling on stage in Gaultier conical bras with her hand on her crotch, and became an earth mother.

Those new women MPs stopped looking as if they might be able to revolutionise the establishment, and instead starting looking as ineffectual as junior clerks in a large corporation - which was rather closer to the truth. It doesn't matter whom you try to put on that pedestal, they keep trying to clamber off it when your back is turned.

And fictional heroines have also slipped off their masks. It's not just Ally McBeal, although she is one of the most popular of the new line of popular heroines who wouldn't have a clue how to wield an icepick.

Bridget Jones led the way in the new line of fictional protagonists who seem dedicated to pricking rather than bolstering the dream of living inside a Donna Karan advertisement. "Wish to be like Tina Brown, though not, obviously, quite so hardworking," "Wish to be like Kathleen Tynan, though not, obviously, dead"; "Tomorrow new spartan health and beauty regime will begin. Will emerge as a purged and beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer figure," she would think dreamily before being late for work or getting locked out of her flat or making a fool of herself on television or finding another woman in her boyfriend's flat.

And the trend for accident-prone anti-heroines hasn't yet started to fade. This summer sees the publication of what has been called the American equivalent of Bridget Jones. Melissa Bank's first novel, The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, is another blockbuster that fields a heroine who is distinguished more by her worldly failures than her successes, and who is looking, usually unsuccessfully, for love. She tells one more successful and older boyfriend that his friends see her as a "blurry young person". "You are a blurry young person," he replies.

You can mourn the fact that the new anti-heroines, the Ally McBeals and Bridget Joneses, don't have quite the pizzazz of the Thelmas and Louises. You can think that Madonna as fortysomething mother or Posh Spice as pretty bride isn't quite the same as the kick-ass girls they used to be. You might be waiting for some bigger and better heroines to come along. In fact, they're still around if you want to go looking for them, and no doubt one day they will take centre stage once again.

But in the meantime, you can see that the way that these anti-heroines behave is rather endearing. They aren't perfect, but we needn't see them simply as wholly negative, part of some kind of backlash against growing female power. Yes, these women might think too much about their bodies and their boyfriends and they might both laugh and cry rather uncontrollably. But they still have a good idea of where they're going.

Ally McBeal still knows that she's one of the best lawyers in her circle, and can always talk herself out of a tight corner in court. Bridget Jones still knows that her girlfriends will always be around to have fun with if her boyfriend of the moment runs out. Melissa Bank's Jane Rosenal knows that she'll never be a Manhattan powermonger, but she finds out that "I didn't think I wanted power. I think I want freedom."

None of them have it all, but all of them have something. And all of them are good at laughing at themselves. They come to us with a sharp eye for whatever is absurd and amusing about themselves and their environment.

And isn't it, in some ways, rather nice if women have started to feel that they don't really need those larger-than-life heroines so much any more? Because it's only when people are feeling pretty confident that they're able to laugh at themselves. And when all the glossy, gleaming, glamorous heroines are found to have feet of clay, and you're stuck with ordinary women instead, then you realise that it's no good putting your faith in anyone else to change your life.

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada