Ten years ago, a list of female role models would have been dominated by worthies such as Mother Teresa or tragi-queen celebrities like Princess Diana. But 21st-century women, it seems, prefer their heroines to be unsullied by the grubbiness of real life. In a new survey, young women chose fictional characters as their role models almost every time.
In the poll, conducted by NOP, 450 women aged 15-35 were asked to choose the women who best represented their role model from a list of five celebrities and five fictional characters. Top by a good margin came Rachel, Jennifer Aniston's flaky character in the US sitcom Friends, selected by more than a quarter of those interviewed. Other favourites were the equally flaky Bridget Jones (10 per cent), Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City (9 per cent) and Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice (7 per cent).
Despite our insatiable thirst for celebrity watching, Nicole Kidman was the only "real" woman in the top five - joint second with Bridget Jones. Nigella Lawson and Victoria Beckham were joint sixth, chosen by 6 per cent of respondents, Kylie Minogue came in eighth and Ulrika Jonsson finished in last place, beaten even by Olivia Joules, Helen Fielding's new fictional successor to Bridget Jones.
The results are no surprise to Helen Haste, a professor of psychology at the University of Bath. "When women look for a role model, whether they are in their teens or their 60s, they are on an identity quest - they want information about what it is to be a rounded human being. And we get lots more of that information with fictional characters.
"However much young women read about Victoria Beckham in magazines, they know Bridget Jones much better - with her, we get 250 pages of her innermost thoughts. We know Victoria has crises but we know how Bridget copes with hers."
This view is confirmed by Roz Moir, 23, a student from London, who plumped for Carrie Bradshaw. "She is so unembarrassed and unapologetic about being obsessed by sex, men and clothes," she said. "Her life is well rounded and friends play a huge part, which is refreshing. She makes huge mistakes but because it's fiction there's always a happy ending, so you hope there will be for you too. I do see her as a real person I can relate to."
The results show a clear double standard. While respondents loved their fictional heroines for their flaws, they were unforgiving of shortcomings in celebrities. Ulrika Jonsson, whose autobiography Honest contained the sort of detail that would make Bridget Jones blush, clearly did herself no favours; rather than cutely dippy, she is viewed by some as "unstable".
"Women are less forgiving than men of flaws," said David Bain, the planning director of the advertising agency Banks Hoggins O'Shea/FCB. "In celebrities, women see the distance between the real person and the image. In fiction, there is no such dissonance."
The choice of heroines would make a Seventies feminist weep. The three top names - Rachel, Bridget and Carrie - are characterised by dippy neediness rather than backbone. But Professor Haste is unconcerned. "What you see in these characters is a striving to be a good person, which is a perennial preoccupation of young people. Young women try to achieve this through relationships, not just romantic ones.
"Young men look for more traditional hero qualities, which used to mean stoicism and today probably mean style, resilience and caring. Things change a bit, but the story is basically the same."
Full results: 1 Rachel Green (28 per cent); 2= Bridget Jones (10), Nicole Kidman (10); 4 Carrie Bradshaw (9); 5 Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice (7); 6= Nigella Lawson (6), Victoria Beckham (6); 8= Kylie Minogue (4), Olivia Joules (4); 10 Ulrika Jonsson (1)
(12 per cent of respondents chose "none of the above")
FICTIONAL LEADING LADIES...
Rachel Green, 33 (Friends, Channel 4): Ditzy, poor-little-rich-girl with great hair. Struggled as a waitress; landed glam job in fashion, plus low-maintenance baby and maybe even a Great Love. What the women in the survey said: Funny, honest, courageous, loved by both female and male friends. Gets her guy in the end.
Bridget Jones, 32 (Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding): Endearingly scatty. Obsessed with men, weight and fag intake. Constantly trying to get her life under control.What they said: Funny, honest, loyal, loved by friends and family and gets her man. But too insecure and conventional.
Carrie Bradshaw, 35 (Sex and the City, Channel 4): Big heart which she wears on her sleeve; a fab job that can be done at home in fetching underwear. Close, supportive friends. What they said: No 1 for her glamorous lifestyle -fashion icon and a successful writer. Gets her man in the end.
Elizabeth Bennet, 21 (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen): Intelligent and feisty. Heart warms towards her heart's elect when she claps eyes on his stately home. What they said: Witty, bright, kind, loved by family and friends. Gets her man.
Olivia Joules, 30-ish (Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Helen Fielding): Journalist-turned-spy. Hangs from helicopters in pursuit of terrorists, but only in Prada. What they said: Great career, saves the world, gets her man.
... VERSUS REAL-LIFE ACHIEVERS
Nicole Kidman, 37 (actress):Crystal-cool single mother of two who endured very public divorce with dignity. Fiercely successful in her career.What they said: Admired for her beauty, talent and dress sense. But seen as too ambitious.
Victoria Beckham, 30 (pop star): Lived the fairytale by marrying David Beckham. Shopping habit to rival Carrie Bradshaw's. Mother of two and accomplished self-publicist. Smiled bravely through allegations about her husband's affairs. What they said: Admired for her guts. Envied for her money, wardrobe, marriage and loving family. But not seen as someone who could be a genuine friend.
Nigella Lawson, 43 (celebrity chef): All the cup cakes of Martha Stewart but none of the scandal. Nursed her first husband through cancer, now married to Charles Saatchi. What they said: Admired for beauty, size, family values and dress sense. Frowned on for losing weight after remarrying.
Kylie Minogue, 35 (pop star): Most successful of all soap escapees. Most-commented-on bottom in showbiz. What they said: Admired for beauty and talent. Pitied for unstable love life and lack of home base.
Ulrika Jonsson, 36 (TV personality): Disarming ability to bounce back. "Colourful" love life includes affair with Stan Collymore, who hit her, and tryst with Sven Goran Eriksson. What they said: Admired for looks, humour, intelligence, survival skills. Pitied for visible ageingand bad love choices.Reuse content