Joan Smith: Consumer choice is the new corset

Katie Price has taken control of her life and is hailed as a role model, but she is no Simone de Beauvoir
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The Independent Online

Once upon a time, little girls dreamed of marrying a prince and living happily ever. Now it seems they aspire to have breast implants, date a footballer or two, marry an Australian crooner, get divorced and marry a transvestite cage-fighter. Isn't that what social commentators mean when they describe newly married Katie Price as a role model for younger women? And not just younger women: one of my relatives, who is in her sixties, was devastated when Price came to a nearby town on a book tour and she couldn't get a ticket. "I love her," she told me. "I don't know why. I just love her."

My relative regards Price, who married for the second time in a quickie ceremony in Las Vegas last week, as a woman who has transcended the boundaries of her upbringing. Price is undeniably brilliant at providing stories: in one of the best twists yet, her "surprise" (warning to readers: adjectives seldom retain their original in meaning for long in Priceworld) wedding to Alex Reid made headlines by being a "private" affair, unlike her previous wedding to Peter Andre. On that occasion, the tutelary deity was OK!, which reportedly bought the rights to the event for a sum in the region of £1.75m "Lucrative" is one of the few words in this convoluted tale that displays an adamantine resistance to alteration.

How do we know that last week's wedding was private? Because Price said so on a TV show, of course. That didn't stop pictures of the happy couple flashing round the world, along with reports that they'd celebrated the marriage by visiting pole-dancing clubs in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, Price's ex-husband Andre broke down on Sky TV when the presenter, Kay Burley, asked him how he'd feel if Reid wanted to adopt his two children with the former glamour model. Andre seems to be a nice if rather emotional chap and this possibility, which hadn't actually been raised by any of the principals as far as I can tell, had him weeping buckets. Almost 4,000 people promptly joined a group on Facebook calling for Burley to be sacked, drawing yet another character into an already complex narrative of passion, rejection, sponsorship, "reality" TV and themed pink accessories.

Price is a phenomenon, described by Wikipedia as an "actress, author, writer, businesswoman, media personality, philanthropist, glamour model, producer, feature artist, songwriter and television personality". And she's only 31, for heaven's sake, which makes Napoleon Bonaparte look a bit of a slouch; at a similar age, he had had no elective surgery and had barely launched his first coup d'état.

I might want to argue with some of those Wikipedia designations but the one I don't question is "businesswoman". Price has made millions out of a talent for giving the public what it wants; from being just another Page 3 girl, she has turned herself into a figure whose every move commands attention and even received a scolding from the UK's most celebrated male feminist, the novelist Martin Amis. His sour remarks did no damage to Price, one of a handful of women whose astute business brains are often overlooked – Victoria Beckham and Elizabeth Hurley are other examples – but their success raises fascinating questions about contemporary feminism.

There is a school of thought that celebrates Price as a feminist icon, a woman who is doing something which has achieved almost sacramental sta

tus in modern culture: she makes choices. This magic formula is used to defend everything from pole dancing and cosmetic surgery to wearing the burqa; choice is so clearly a good thing that it can't be questioned, even if the consequence is damage in one form or another.

The personal is no longer political, while justified scepticism about some of Freud's work has banished the idea of the unconscious; people are insulted if you suggest they might be doing something for motives they don't fully understand. Add to that a distortion of feminist ideas in popular culture, and it's easy to see how Price has achieved a weird form of cultural domination: she has the body she wants, not just the one she was born with, and she deserves every bit of power and money she can get her hands on. She has more clothes than you'd find in a little girl's dressing-up box, plus houses and ponies – a keen horsewoman, she has come up with her own line in riding gear – and she usually gets to keep them when a relationship ends. In the 21st century, that's women's liberation, surely?

It's actually the triumph of consumerism, which has got mixed up in the minds of many young women with the notion of freedom. It's just over six decades since Simone de Beauvoir considered women's second-class status and came up with a brilliant formula: "One is not born, but rather becomes, woman". Beauvoir wasn't so much arguing that becoming a woman was hard work (thought it was), as suggesting that what women were taught to aim for was inauthentic. They had to suppress feelings and ambitions to concentrate on fulfilling male ideals of womanhood, and the result was the female eunuch that Germaine Greer would go on to write about.

Generations of women set about throwing age-old ideas out of the window, demanding the right to education and work outside the home, and ditching underwear and make-up. It was a thrilling experiment, and it became possible to play with notions of pleasure and femininity in a way denied to previous generations. Bras and lipstick came back – not for all women, of course – as writers like Gloria Steinem, Shere Hite and Nancy Friday showed how to navigate between patriarchal puritanism on the one hand and the commercial sex industry on the other.

So how did we get from 20th-century notions of equality to today's pole-dancing glamour models and footballers' wives? Price is their poster girl, and it would be easy to see her success as a riposte to old-fashioned (some would say outdated) notions of gender equality. But it's vital not to confuse ubiquity and popularity, and the public response to her second appearance on the "reality" TV show I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here suggests that she inspires mockery as well as admiration. Price is the butt of constant jokes about breast implants while her taste and aspirations – sparkly tiaras and other childish accessories – inspire ribald humour. Indeed, the precise function she fulfils in popular culture is to supply an apparently endless stock of new narratives which are akin (and often as ridiculous) to tales about the gods in Greek mythology; her desires are as transparent and uninhibited as those of Zeus or Aphrodite and, on present form, almost as transient.

One problem with this is that real people, unlike gods, get hurt. Many of the people who follow Price's adventures know that, and wouldn't want her life for themselves. If they connect her with feminism at all, it's only in the primitive sense that she's a self-made woman. That's an achievement of sorts, but it certainly isn't what Simone de Beauvoir had in mind when she sat down to write The Second Sex.

Alan Watkins is away