Carina Murphy looks at our favourite Essex gal/meme queen through a feminist lens.
Allow me to introduce Gemma Collins, the 36 year old ex-car saleswoman from Brentwood, Essex. You probably know her from everywhere on the internet. While she’s always been a stand out on the reality show that made her name, Gemma’s fame has exploded over the last six months; from blessing our feeds with innumerable and fantastically quotable clips to being crowned Queen of the ‘memay’, ‘GC’’s social media presence of late has been nothing short of sensational. The Twitter account ‘Gemma Reacts’ gained 24,000 followers in less than four days, and it’s not alone; new accounts devoted to her antics seem to pop up every five minutes. Perhaps most fanatic is one fan’s transposition of her into the Lord’s Prayer; ‘Our Gemma’ it goes, ‘who art in Brentwood, Hunni be thy name…’.
Gemma Collins is more than just a bit of Facebook buzz – the mania surrounding her larger than life personality is starting to look almost like a cult. Given the cultural phenomenon that is her rise to stardom, and the iconic stature which she is fast assuming for thousands of people, it’s worth considering whether Gemma’s earned her podium (like she earned her divaship), whether she’s a positive role model to look up to, and whether or not we, in choosing to do so, have in fact gone mad.
As loved as she is, Gemma is certainly not without her critics. It’s easy to accuse her of lacking substance, of not having a ‘proper job’, and of generally being ridiculous. To all of the above I would respond as I do when people try and drag Kim Kardashian – she’s obviously doing something right. A talentless woman with no real job and half a brain cell couldn’t build herself a net worth of almost 3 million pounds, run a successful boutique, and be dubbed the seventh most influential person in Essex (above Russell Brand, Dermot O’Leary, Dame Maggie Smith, and the multi-millionaire businesswoman Deborah Meaden). While she may not have taken the traditional route, Gemma has still made it. Regardless of whether she’s deliberately exploiting a gap in the market for a more relatable brand of woman celebrity or simply doing it subconsciously, Gemma is a fine example of an extremely successful woman who has become both rich and influential by utilising the talents she’s got.
However, ‘success’ does not always equal ‘progress’: there are some aspects of Gemma’s persona which are troubling from a feminist point of view. The majority of her fanbase is made up of impressionable young women and girls. Her appeal rests largely on the fact that, as a self-styled ‘Bridget Jones’ who does not conform to the stereotypical stick-thin woman celebrity, is not afraid of slipping up here and there, and is more than capable of laughing at her own blunders, Gemma is a figure to whom the majority of women can relate – as demonstrated by the popularity of ‘Gemma Reacts’ et al. More to the point, her no-nonsense, body-confident attitude is one that many who watch her will feel inspired to emulate.
While this is all very empowering, what is not is her almost all-consuming obsession with finding a man. I refer you here to the recent episode in which her Instagram became a shrine to fellow TOWIE cast member and ex-boyfriend James ‘Arg’ Argent in a desperate bid to get him back. Such dependent behaviour played out in so public a sphere is worrying because impressionable fans may come to consider it healthy and normal. Even more damaging was her behaviour on Celebrity Big Brother, where she kicked fellow housemate Darren Day out of the kitchen and refused to let him wash up, claiming ‘it’s not a man’s job’. It seems unnecessary to point out how such reinforcement of archaic gender distinctions doesn’t make Gemma a brilliant feminist role model.
Yet it does well to remember that this incident not only got Gemma evicted from the house, but also got her booed off stage. Arguably, any anti-feminist behaviour she may exhibit is harmless because no-one, not even Gemma Collins, seems to take Gemma Collins particularly seriously. Internet jokes about her are, while always affectionate, gentle mockery. Being ridiculous is an integral part of her Bridget Jones persona – no-one is expecting the woman who insists on being ‘a massive fan of the dictionary’ to start offering accurate political commentary. Instead it seems that the spotlight is fixed on her unapologetic authenticity, positive message of self-love, infectious bodily confidence and championing of everyone who has ever wanted to wear a mesh swimsuit but felt too insecure to try it. As she says: ‘I am as I am, and I ain’t gonna apologise for it’.
In a world where girls grow up surrounded by plastic celebs who flaunt an unattainable image of inhumane perfection, Gemma is not only wonderfully refreshing but an incredibly healthy dose of reality. And while she may be a little crazy in love sometimes, at least she doesn’t let men mess her around like so many of her women castmates. Nothing demonstrates Gemma’s indomitable womanhood and her genuine, warm hearted desire to help all girls feel fab than the iconic poolside moment when she told Arg to take a good final look at her swimsuit-clad body, scolded him with ‘don’t you ever disrespect a girl’, and strutted off stage to the cheers of her TOWIE sisters – ‘I may not be a size ten but I know I’ve got a good heart. So take that, and kiss that!’.
Illustration by Ruby Rowan Gleeson.