I am a high school English teacher, and I love teaching my students about strong female trailblazers from our past who have helped shape the world into what it is today. Some would call me crazy, but I’m reading Jane Austen with a class composed almost entirely of senior boys. When they balk at the frivolity of the Bennet sisters’ daily routine of lounging, decorating hats with ribbon, and gossiping about eligible bachelors, I remind them that Austen was poking fun at these things, too. She knew that women deserved better than hanging their entire lives on the hope of “marrying up.” Her satire and realism were just the wake-up call that the 18th century needed.
I have my sophomores read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, an autobiographical account of the much unsung hero Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave turned writer/abolitionist. If the pen is a sword, she cuts her readers deep, offering them a darkly honest account of not just the physical ramifications of being enslaved, but the resulting psychological and emotional trauma as well. They are always surprised at how Jacobs casually turns down someone’s offer to purchase her freedom towards the end of the story. She refuses on principle, reminding her readers that a human being is not a material object that can be bought or sold.
In another class, I have each student practice research skills by writing a paper about a woman from history who changed the world. There is no shortage of women to choose from: Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman, Joan of Arc, Sally Ride, and Malala, just to name a few. I had one student suggest that he wanted to write his paper about Lizzo, and my breath caught in my chest.
Lizzo, to me, represents an entire generation of women who are famous for the wrong reasons.
Maybe she is a great entertainer, and she doesn’t fit the usual mold for a female singer/songwriter, but she is not MY role model. Despite her best intentions, the reason I remember her name is because of her tendency to post nude photos online and do/say things for their shock value more than anything else. Yes, it’s nice that she is comfortable with her body, but the way that she expresses herself is not something I would want to see young girls trying to copy. Many people would categorize her as a hero for our rising generation of youth, but I feel deeply uncomfortable hearing teenagers sing her lyrics.
Then why is she being heralded as a female role model? Why are we praising women like Billie Eilish, who seems to be on EVERY one of my students’ playlists, as this shining vision of what we should all aspire to be when her lyrics are dark and sexual and disturbing? I can’t get on board with that.
Maybe the problem is that our heroes these days are all being heaved from the entertainment industry. If all it takes to be famous is to do something shocking enough to trend on Twitter, then we’re setting the bar really low. Why aren’t we recognizing the women who are breaking the boundaries of science, jumping into politics for all the right reasons, or engineering solutions to the world’s most difficult problems? Why are we only noticing the women who take off their clothes and objectify themselves on public platforms?
I watched the recent Superbowl halftime show with mingled feelings of horror and confusion. Shakira and Jennifer Lopez were on stage together. I really like both of them, and I had confidence that they would put on a really good show, but I was shocked at the images they chose to represent on the stage. Shakira performed a suggestive dance number with a rope alluding to sadomasochism, and J.Lo performed a dance number on a stripper pole. The camera got more close-up shots of barely-covered spread-eagled vaginas than either woman’s actual face. However, the Twitterverse was abuzz with how strong and empowered and brave these women were to participate in this over-the-top display of female objectification.
I always hoped that I would be the mother of girls, but sometimes, in moments like this, I count myself lucky that I have only boys.
How is a young girl to navigate all of these confusing messages being pushed by society? How would a young girl justify in her mind the idea that Jane Austen is an “empowered female,” but Lizzo is also an “empowered female”? Both women are so strikingly different, you almost have to go back to the drawing board to define what the term “empowered” even means. Should we laud every famous woman as a female role model, or should we lay that title aside for women of higher caliber who are using their minds (and not necessarily their bodies) to do some good in this world?