I’m a feminist and a high school English teacher in the south suburbs of Chicago. Last year, one of the students in my class was inspired to start a group for girls at our school and approached me about sponsoring it. Of course I agreed! A few weeks ago, we tackled the topic of positive female role models in pop culture. The high school students came up with a list of eight current, mainstream “feminist idols” they and their friends look up to.
The list is a good insight into what interests teen girls these days, as well as hopefully a helpful resource. We talk a lot about degrading and regrettable portrayals of women in media, here are eight actresses and comedians my high schoolers are excited about supporting.
1. Emma Stone: My students loved the movie Easy A, a modern film inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In it, Emma Stone plays a high school student who tries to bring the book into her real life. The movie definitely has feminist undertones, but Stone herself is a major feminist. In a recent interview she did with her boyfriend Andrew Garfield, she was asked who her style icon was. After Garfield said he never got asked questions like that, Stone piped up, “You get asked interesting, poignant questions because you’re a boy… It is sexism.” Way to call out sexist media, Emma Stone!
2. Zoe Saldana: One of my students who absolutely loves science fiction films adores Zoe Saldana for her roles in movies like Avatar and Star Trek. Like Emma Stone, Zoe Saldana has called out sexist media on several occasions. Recently, she has been encouraging women to make more films and, also, to speak with their wallets and boycott movies that don’t portray women in a good light. She said, “But we as consumers have a lot more power than we think. Women need to demand better roles and get audiences to see their films. Because if a film doesn’t make $150 million, producers and studios aren’t going to bankroll a similar film next time. If there were more filmmakers that were female, trust me, it would be all about women.”
3. Mindy Kaling: When I asked my students if they ever watch The Office, a few of them had only seen handful of episodes. However, they all know who Mindy Kaling is. One of my sophomore students noted, “It is so refreshing to see a young woman of color who is not ashamed to be normal-sized and who is also super funny.” (My students are the smartest, huh?)
4. Amy Poehler: “Who says women aren’t funny?” one of my students asked. “Amy Poehler is hilarious!” Not only is Parks and Recreation one of the funniest shows on television, but Poehler’s character, Leslie Knope, is a great role model for girls: She is elected to her town’s city council, she has a great relationship with her boyfriend, and she is a wonderful friend and coworker. Poehler might find inspiration for Leslie Knope in her own beliefs. In a 2006 interview, she said, “I get worried for young girls sometimes; I want them to feel that they can be sassy and full and weird and geeky and smart and independent, and not so withered and shriveled.”
5. Tina Fey: When I described Tina Fey’s book Bossypants to my students, expanding on Fey’s descriptions of magazine photo shoots and whether or not she really could “have it all,” one of my senior girls made a note of the title to check it out from the library, saying it sounded like she could learn a lot from the book.
6. Tavi Gevinson: All of my students, from Twilight lovers to Harry Potter fans, devour Tavi Gevinson’s website, Rookie. The site updates several times a day with articles about things teenage girls care about, from fashion to body image issues, music playlists to tips for redoing your bedroom. Every summer, Gevinson and her crew take a road trip across the United States to meet their readers. It’s not often that you can find an age-appropriate feminist website for teenagers, and Gevinson provides that and then some.
7. Zooey Deschanel: Zooey Deschanel is the woman some feminists love to hate for her seemingly feigned “quirkiness” and innocence. However, one senior student in my group idolizes her. The student points out that Deschanel has often spoken out about feminism and sexism, which hits home for teenage girls. She was recently asked whether or not she wanted to have children and called out the sexism of that question on the spot, replying, “That is so personal, and it’s my pet peeve when people press you on it. And it’s always women who get asked! Is anybody saying that to George Clooney?”
8. Wanda Sykes: One comedy fan in my group mentioned Wanda Sykes, exclaiming that she’s great not only because of her sense of humor, but also because she’s outspoken. One of my students who is struggling with coming out looks up to Sykes as a role model—Sykes came out very publicly not too long ago. Her comedy and her opinions teach girls that they don’t have to be afraid of saying what they believe. Who could ask for anything more in a feminist role model?