Last week in this post about combatting the false standard of beauty presented in the media I mentioned that one of the best ways to send a better message to my daughter without cutting her off from pop culture entirely is to make sure she sees plenty of examples of successful women who are appreciated for their talents and character rather than just their physical beauty. I decided to come up with a short list of examples of women in the public sphere whom Lyndie and I admire and endorse as good role models for girls. This isn’t in any particular order and is not intended to be definitive. I’ve made a concerted effort to include women from a variety of different fields – acting, music, writing, comedy, sports, politics, education, technology.
To make it more interesting I avoided any that might be too obvious (Michelle Obama, Oprah, Sonia Soyomayor, Toni Morrison, etc). Also, I would like to reiterate that this list is not intended to be exhaustive. There are a number of fine young actresses who have handled the spotlight with class (Natalie Portman, Emma Watson, Kristen Stewart, Ellen Page, etc), plenty of accomplished female comediennes who are smart and witty (Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ellen Degeneres, Ellie Kemper, etc), and dozens upon dozens of talented and creative singer-songwriters and indie rockers who create unique and lovely art (Regina Spektor, Ingrid Michaelson, Jaymay, Rosie Thomas, etc), and all are worthy role models, as well as countless other women I haven’t thought of. This is just a list of the ones that come most readily to mind when I think of women that set a great example of confidence, creativity, and class for our daughters.
1. Danica McKellar – Most people know her as Winnie from The Wonder Years, the object of many a school boy crush, but she makes this list for her post-Wonder career offscreen. McKellar received a math degree from UCLA and has since published the books Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail, Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss, and Hot X: Algebra Exposed, all of which aim at debunking the popular myth held my adults and students alike that girls aren’t good at math. Where were these books when my wife was in school? Danica does lose a couple points for posing for Stuff in 2005. Yes, women should be unashamed of their bodies, but I have no interest in ever seeing my daughter in Stuff. Not that I read Stuff. Nevermind.
2. Zooey Deschanel – She has her own eclectic style. She picks smart scripts and original roles. She rocks as the lead singer of fantastically fun indie band She & Him. She’s beautiful, to be sure, but she inhabits it with an easy grace and a lack of pretention that’s refreshing. She’s a favorite in our house.
3. Sofia Coppola – One of my favorite directors working today, Coppola has established herself as one of the most subtle, graceful and insightful auteurs in Hollywood. She shook herself off from the brutal (and admittedly deserved) reviews of her early acting attempts and accusations (undeserved) that she was just the spoiled rich kid of a talented father. Coppola spent the 90s experimenting with photography, fashion design and modelling before turning to writing and directing feature films. Since then she has made some brilliant (and often misunderstood) films. Her first three, including the stunning Lost in Translation, focus on young women trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into this crazy world. She’s let criticism roll off her back and stayed true to her artistic visions. A class act.
4. Tina Fey – The top level of comedy has historically been a boys only club, but Fey has spent the last decade breaking down the doors and showing those boys how it’s done. She’s flat out funny, she was Saturday Night Live‘s first female head writer, she writes and stars in one of the most successful comedies on television, and she may have actually influenced the last presidential election (though her hilarious Sarah Palin was not much more absurd than the real thing).
5. Felicia Day – Day is one of those people you want to hate because they’re so freaking talented but you can’t because they’re so cool and likable. After graduating high school at 16 she was accepted to Juilliard for her prodigious violin skills, but chose instead to double major in violin and mathematics at Texas on a full scholarship, from which she graduated valedictorian. Also, she has occasionally done professional ballet and is a trained opera singer. I’m not kidding. In this house we didn’t know her from Eve until we stumbled upon her wickedly funny web series The Guild about a group of online gamers. The series, which she created, writes and stars in, has won a number of top level web awards and just keeps getting funnier. You might also recognize her from small roles in a variety of TV shows, or from Joss Whedon’s classic Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.
6. Marta Vieira da Silva – Following the Brazilian futbol tradition of going only by her first name, Marta is, quite simply, the best female soccer player in the world. I’m making her representative of all the female athletes out there who have refused to be relegated to the cheerleading contests while the boys play real sports. If you love soccer, you will love watching Marta – she’s an absolute magician with the ball; fearless, crazy fast, and ridiculously skilled on the dribble. She’s just one of the young women who make women’s sports worth watching.
7. Rachel Held Evans – If Rachel, who on rare occasions has visited this blog, were to see herself on this list I’m she would do a good amount of laughing. Argument could be had on whether or not she qualifies as “famous”, but since we know her only from the public sphere, I’m going to include her. Evans created something of a firestorm in the Evangelical Christian community in 2010 with her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town, in which she tackles some highly controversial topics, speaking up for many of us who still reside in traditional churches but hold opposing views on a number of subjects. She has taken some brutal heat for her stances, but she has handled it with a grace and a desire to make peace, but without backing down. Much like Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, she wrote a book that so many of us felt came from our own hearts. I’m looking forward to what she’s working on next.
8. Kathryn Bigelow – It’s sadly been rare enough just for a woman to crack the ranks of the top film directors, but Bigelow has done it making the kind of movies good girls just don’t direct. Action, horror, war, buddy films – you name the male-dominated film genre and she’s probably made a respected movie in it. She topped it all off in early 2010 by becoming the first woman to ever win a Best Director Oscar, which she deservedly received for The Hurt Locker, a brutally realistic look at the war in Afghanistan. At 59 years of age she handles herself with grace, style, and the unfeigned confidence of knowing she’s got what it takes to be named among the best in her field.
9. Michelle Williams – After some less than stunning early roles in Dawson’s Creek and Halloween H2O, Williams has since put together what is maybe the most impressive filmography in Hollywood for anyone 30 or under. Into the second decade of her adult acting career she continues to take smart, brave roles in both independent and studio films, maintaining an inspiring level of artistic integrity. At 30 years of age she has already worked with such acclaimed directors as Wim Wenders, Ang Lee, Todd Haynes, Charlie Kaufman, Kelly Reichardt, Lukas Moodysson and Martin Scorcese and has been nominated for numerous Independent Spirit Awards, SAG awards, and an Academy Award for Brokeback Mountain. She refuses to take easy roles for money or popularity, but continues to push herself and chooses powerful, moving films, regardless of how large or small the budget.
10. Suzanne Collins – There were a number of fiction writers I considered for inclusion here, but I went with Collins for her versatility, current relevance, and her talent for creating tough, smart characters and exciting but realistic settings and her unwillingness to soften the blows of a sometimes brutal world for her readers. Collins started out writing children’s television shows, but has gone on to write two young adult fantasy book series – The Underland Chronicles and the hugely popular The Hunger Games trilogy. Let’s hope Collins and some of her contemporaries (you might have heard of one with the last name of Rowling) can convince kids of both genders that not only is reading really fun, but writing is really cool.
11. Mira Nair – Nair has been criminally underappreciated in the world of independent film over the last twenty years. Born in India, educated at Harvard and living in New York, she has made a number of beautiful, moving films, many of them dealing with the immigrant experience and living life in a land not one’s own. From the humorous The Perez Family to the poignant The Namesake (from the novel by fellow Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri) she consistently finds a way to confront and display difficult issues realistically but with a pervading sense of hope. She recognizes the resident human spirit in each of her characters, even those who are less than savory. She recently bought the rights to Mohsin Hamid’s troubling and fascinating novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and I have no doubt she will handle the story with a sharp eye for beauty and a merciful heart.
12. Jade Raymond – Here is another young women who stormed the boys’ clubhouse and demanded and earned respect. This computer scientist has made a career as a video game programmer and developer for Sony, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, most notably handling the first two entries in the Assassin’s Creed series. She is now the director of the Ubisoft Toronto studio and is developing Splinter Cell 6. I’m guessing most of the 19 year old guys who have and will play her titles are not expecting a well-dressed young woman to be programming their games, but the few who do know her name are probably harboring a bit of a crush.
13. Helen Mirren, Anjelica Huston - In a culture obsessed with youth in which many are reluctant to accept the grace of maturity, these two actresses have aged with class and dignity and continue to produce fantastic work. Both Academy Award winners, they embody their roles with the balance of gravity and levity that is the mark of maturity. These women (and others) provide a great example of accepting this maturity and regal beauty rather than refusing it in the name of a few more years of artificial youth.
14. Corinne Bailey Rae - Bailey Rae is admirable not just for her talents but for her willingness to be exactly herself. British by birth and half African Kittitian by ethnicity, Bailey Rae has often gone against people’s expectations with the kind of music she writes and plays. A classic rock junkie in her teen years, she formed an all girl indie hard rock band that had some small success, and in the last five years she has found worldwide success with her eclectic brand of smart, funky acoustic pop. In between these two gigs, she finished a degree in English Literature. She is also very active in humanitarian work, working closely with the charities CORD and Pump Aid.
15. Hilary Hahn – The prodigious Hahn started studying violin at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute at the age of three, and was accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music at 10. She made her orchestral debut at 11 and played Carnegie Hall at 16, the same year she completed the requirements for her Bachelor’s Degree, though she studied several more years. You’ve probably heard her haunting play on the soundtrack to The Village, and love the movie or hate it you have to admit the score was gorgeous. Hahn has a great public personality as well, maintaining an amusing journal on her website and a Twitter feed from the perspective of her violin case. For a young person with such amazing talents she is remarkably unpretentious, and has even done small tours with several singer-songwriters such as Josh Ritter. And, while it adds nothing to her role model resume, her violin is worth more than your house.
So what are you thoughts? Did I miss someone you think definitely needed to be on here? Do you think I’m irresponsible for considering some of these women? Are there any famous men or women you have thought of as good examples for your kids?