Can Shakespeare’s heroines such Cleopatra, Viola and Beatrice really act as contemporary role models for teenage girls?
That’s the hope of one school in London, which has launched a new programme to help its students consider icons outside of popstars, models and reality TV stars.
With Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift being named as two of the most inspirational women among girls at Wimbledon High School, headteacher Jane Lunnon has decided it’s time to offer up a new set of heroes.
Addressing colleagues at the annual Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference(HMC), which aptly took place in Stratford-upon-Avon, Lunnon explained:
“My school is full of really aspirational, delightful young women, but they are just as likely to cite Taylor Swift or Kim Kardashian as a role model as Malala [Yousafzai] or Michelle Obama.
“In fact, slightly more likely, and quite passionately defend them as being great businesswomen.
“It’s well documented that there is a paucity of female role models who are speaking to girls at the moment, certainly in western society. It made me think, where else can we look for them?”
For Lunnon, the answer lies in the works of The Bard.
Currently in its pilot phase, the new educational programme is designed to help girls explore Shakespeare’s social commentary, with a focus on studying the female characters, their stories and how their experiences can be applied to modern day.
Cleopatra, a powerful female leader, is of course in the upper ranks of Lunnon’s proposed alternative role models, along with Rosalind, the razor sharp protagonist of As You Like It, Twelfth Night’s Viola, and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing.
“Look at Rosalind, look at Beatrice, look at Viola. Their capacity, in their challenges and dilemmas, to laugh, to be vivacious, to be resourceful, to be resilient, they embody it so beautifully. And that is a really powerful message,” adds Lunnon.
“It’s not that terrible things didn’t happen to them. It’s the way they respond. I think that is a really important message: to know what matters. Getting kids to laugh at themselves – it’s very important. And Shakespeare does that.”
In her conference address, Lunnon also flagged a recent NHS study which found that 12.6% of women aged between 16 and 24 screen positive for PTSD, while 19% have self-harmed, and 28.2% have a mental condition of some description.
The report concluded that ‘young women have become a high risk group’ with regards to mental health, which Lunnon believes is partly exasperated by the pressures of 24/7 social media and online bullying.
“Anyone who works in education with girls has spent a lot of time trying to work out what is happening and why,” she noted. “Social media and all of the messages that come through it and the roles models it promotes are incredibly influential.”