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.

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