Bryony Kimmings is a performance artist whose social experiments attempt to 'explode taboo or tricky subjects from the inside out'. Horrified by the impact of celebrity culture on girls' aspirations, she has 'manufactured' - with the help of her 9-year-old niece - a non-sexualised, empowering, feminist pop star who appeals to tweens. Here, she explains how it all began.
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A year or so ago, I was teaching kids about performance art in a primary school. I was eating my sandwich in a playground and observing a group of 9-year-old girls playing together. It was much like I remember as a girl, all gangly legs, pulled up socks and chatterbox mouths. The group began to chat with me and before long I found myself asking them that age-old adult question, "so, what do you want to be when you are older?" Lydia, the ringleader, immediately chirped up. "I want to be in The Only Way is Essex and I am going to marry a MAN" she shouted. She then effected a WAG swagger, fake Gucci bag slung on arm, tiny dog on an imaginary lead and minced off with the rest of the girls following suit in a sexualised crocodile from hell. My jaw dropped.
Now I'm a telly addict. I love TOWIE, in a car-crash, knowing kind of way. But to see this emulation on this tiny vessel, to feel the limitations of future choices it played out, to see the sexualisation it inferred right in front of me, made me go cold.
I'm fully aware that most mothers of tweens reading this will know this feeling, perhaps not with their own kin (as not all kids want to be famous, or even care about what happens in Essex) but through others, or through the media that surrounds their children. But for me, a childless woman who slept late and gigged to the wee hours, this was a SHOCK. My eyes opened, and suddenly the playground was heaving with half made humans with sensitive, sponge like brains being bombarded from all angles by the most hideous messages of gender limits, body hatred and rich fixations. It's like I woke up out of a deep sleep - and in that moment my life changed.
I began to research the subject of the sexualisation of childhood, knowing I needed to make work about it. I read some amazing books and met some brilliant scientists, writers, politicians, and charity workers all working hard to explore and explode the hyper-sexualisation of tweens. Peggy Orenstein's "Cinderella Ate my Daughter", "So Sexy So Soon" by Jean Kilbourne, and "The Macho Paradox" (to look at this subject from a little boys view) by Jackson Katz are all fantastic starting places.
‘We wanted to prove that an alternative, non-sexualised, empowering, feminist, role model was possible, in the hope the world would follow suit.’
I learnt some grim facts: Children consume, on average, 6.5 hours of media a day. "Pester power" is a marketing technique directly designed to pit parent against child. A child of 18 will have seen over 100,000 violent acts online. 11 is now the national average age of first exposure to online porn. In America, girls and boys grow up wanting to be President in equal numbers, but as they reach their teen years the number of girls aspiring to be president drops drastically below the number of boys. The correlation between these worrying statistics and what tweens were being fed through popular culture was as plain to see as the nose on my painted performance art face. But I knew this could not be an angry rant of a project, no matter how angry I got.
So I hatched a plan, a ridiculous scheme to create an alternative pop role model for children involving my wonderful 9-year-old niece Taylor. Working together over a period of a year, after school and in the holidays, Taylor and I invented Catherine Bennett (CB to her friends); a museum working, bike riding, book-reading, imagination-championing, tuna-pasta-eating pop star. CB was completely designed by Taylor, a role model for 9 year olds created by one, and since April of this year I have 'played' her, like a character. Taylor has taken on the role of my pop manager, she decides what CB does, what she sings about, what she says, where she goes and what she wears. Her target market is 7-12 year old boys and girls and we LOVE HER!
We wanted to prove that an alternative, non-sexualised, empowering, feminist, role model was possible, in the hope the world would follow suit. Our social experiment (that would then fuel a theatre show, education project and a documentary) would aim to change the real world through positive action.
So far we've launched 3 songs, had thousands of hits on YouTube, been featured in The Guardian, The Independent, on Sky, BBC News and Women's Hour, gained the support of an MP, had our music played on Radio 1 and come into contact with some seriously supportive organisations and people. The reaction has been overwhelming. But we've still got a long way to go.
We want female role models to be heralded for ALL their achievements in life, loudly and publically, right there for all the playground dwellers to see… not just those who manage to fit into a certain dress size, be on a telly programme or marry a MAN!
Find out more about the documentary being made for the Catherine Bennett campaign on Kickstarter.
Right, I'm bumping because I want to see what others think of this .
I worry that it's too gimmicky to have any real or lasting effect. There are 10s / 100s / 1,000s of potential female role models out there, so it feels slightly odd to make up a fake one as if a real one couldn't possibly exist. And it's still a woman singing (albeit about friendships from what I saw), who is also a palaeontologist too. Hmm, so being a palaeontologist isn't enough, you have to be a singer / songwriter as well.
Had a wee look at the utube stuff, what a fabulous aunt you are! I really like Catherine Bennett and her songs, but I do get what unicorns says too. The pop music scene is way too sexualised at the moment, much more than when I was small and pop culture is so much more gender specific. There are strong female role models, but they are too few and far between.
I also like it. Most of the stereotypical female pop stars out there at the moment are made up anyway. They're just playing a character too, so why not play one with a positive message. I've subscribed on youtube, I'm sure nearly 4yo DD1 will love it, especially learning the dance!
<hijack!> failingmammalian, DD1 says her Dad farts like a princess! She means Fiona from Shrek. We also like Merida, the Paperbag Princess, and Princess Smartypants. From DD1s perspective so far, princesses are kick-arse girl knights who get to wear pretty clothes!
Fabulous - and much needed. I think what you describe sums up why so many of us parents are choosing now to home educate and bring a more rounded view of society to their children than the one mass media portrays.
46% of schools admitting girls and offering A level Physics do not have ANY girls studying A level Physics.
The reality is that our young girls are living in a heavily gender-stereotyped world. The more things that make it look as though a science career is (a) interesting and (b) open to women the more chance there is that our girls will choose to study science and maths subjects at school.
If it was routine to see interviews with women scientists and engineers on factual programs and to have them seen as 'normal' jobs for women in soap operas and films, then it would be reasonable to wonder why the world needs a singer pretending to be a scientist. But until that point, I think we need every postive representation that we can get!
And if you look for more information about Bryony Kimmings, you will see that she does actually think it's important to get real women scientists involved in the project so they can be role monels: sciencegrrl.co.uk/if-you-love-blank/