As a child of the 1990s, there was a healthy mix of good and bad female role models (not unlike today, I suppose). Real and fictional, animated or live action, literary or televised, what I believe despite what the media and subjugating anti-women’s groups would have you believe, are that no matter what era we grew up in, there will always be strong women to guide strong women and lead us away from the Kardashians. These were the girls and women I looked up to when I was an impressionable teenager, each to whom I own a piece of what I am today.
When I was in junior high, I read “The Daring Game”, a book about bright young women around my age who have adventures in a boarding school in Victoria, BC; they’re all misfits, yet fit together and forge a strong and unforgettable friendship. I loved the book so much, I then read “Awake and Dreaming”, a story of another misfit, nine years old, who realized through a series of both devastating and fantastical events, that she was destined to be a writer. Kit Pearson’s YA novels spoke to me; they spoke to my generation, they spoke to a myriad of “misfit” young women who rose above their struggles while grappling with growing up, and weren’t necessarily consumed with boys, makeup, clothing and weight the way girls in my class were, or girls on TV shows and in movies I watched; in fact, these girls reviled this perceived notion of what femininity means in young adulthood. Kit Pearson helped me to realize that I too was destined to be a writer. And that I was above what plagued and followed me around when I was in junior high.
Always sarcastic, smarter, awkward, intellectually superior than her cheerleading, football-playing, hair-twirling peers yet almost longing to be a part of the very peers she reviled, Daria was a lifesaver for me in high school. With her dowdy green jacket, straight face and monotone-presented points of view, Daria represented to me, everything I was thinking and feeling but too afraid to say. Yet, she was still a sympathetic character, always halfway-out but it was evidenced that at times, she wished she could give a damn. For the most part though, she shrugged off caring, she refused to punt a volleyball, and she refused to get involved in sensationalism and stupid, surfaced enthusiasm. Without Daria, my adolescence would have been spent wondering why popular culture never really embraced people like me.
I never appreciated just how much Hermione Granger represented female heroism until she clocked Slytherin’s Draco Malfoy in the face in Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban. Hermione is a typical teenage girl in that she struggles with self-esteem issues, crushes, and dates. But she is also of her trio, the smart one; equally as brave as her male counterparts; and oftentimes, it is her getting her male friends out of a jam. Hermione is carefully written to NEVER be the damsel in distress and when she is, she’s not the only one in peril. And it’s not always up to the men to help her out. I owe J.K. Rowling one for proving that female literary characters in fantasy aren’t always just archetypal useless princesses locked up in physical and metaphorical towers. In Ani DiFranco’s great and powerful song, Not a Pretty Girl, she asks the rhetorical question: “Don’t you think every kitten figures out how to get down, whether or not you ever show up?”
To this day, Bif Naked is an advocate and activist for social change and sustainability. And when I was growing up her rebellious appearance, openness, and social advocacy made a HUGE difference in my teenage years. I remember her once going on Much Music and saying, “It doesn’t even matter of your breasts look like hot dogs, as long as they’re real.” Not only were Bif’s messages of peace, harmony, love and acceptance crucial to my upbringing as a girl in the Western, media-swarmed world, but she had a voice; she wasn’t this auto-tuned, made-up, scantily clad airhead pop star. She could rock the fuck out and sing about things that mattered: surviving abuse, loving yourself, family issues, and being one’s own leader. I once considered Bif Naked my favourite artist. I always wanted to be like her.
Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel-turned-film, Ghost World represented a Daria-like type of girl: those who want to belong but are stuck on the outside and not for lack of trying, but because they are who they are. Like Daria, Enid’s best friend is someone on the cusp who ends up wanting more than to reject everything in contemporary society and just be what she perceives as “normal”. Enid can’t, because she can’t. While the story turns dark and eerie and inconclusive, it does say that Enid stays true to herself right to the end.
Pepper Ann is a clumsy but cool girl who didn’t dress like, or look like the other girls in her fictional animated Saturday morning cartoon world; as her theme song says, she’s a heroine who “marches in her own parade”; she has a militantly feminist mother and best friends who simply do their own thing, regardless of what social pressures surround them. Like Hermione, she never got into jams she couldn’t pull herself out of; she was the original animated hipster geek. The show Pepper Ann was the kind of cartoon you watched, and subconsciously felt was written by women.
Breaker High fans of the world, unite! The show was designed so every teenage viewer had someone they identified with, and someone they could crush on. All teenage archetypes are presented here: the smart girl, the geek, the jock, the brooding emo kid, the southern belle, the funny fat guy, etc. etc. etc. Tamira Goldstein was the geeky girl. She wasn’t the smartest, she wasn’t the most outgoing, she wasn’t the richest, and she wasn’t at all confident. She was, to me, the most real teenage girl on that cruise ship high school. Tamira struggled with the typical dramatic teenage girl crises of the other characters and she was by all accounts, a stereotypical ‘loser’. But she was never presented so that we’d feel sorry for her. Rather, we sympathized with her. And we loved who she was, despite that she was a bit lower on the social ladder sometimes. And the end of the day, she got to kiss Ryan Gosling. Who doesn’t want to be like Tamira?
The Spice Girls
The Spice Girls are an interesting hybrid between ‘positive feminist role models’ and skanky bimbos. Did parents really want their little girls to be like the Spice Girls? Well, I remember telling my mom once that if they ever did a concert in Edmonton, I wanted to go and I was met with: “Well, that would be too racy of a show for you, I think.” My mom’s a really liberal, chill kind of person (proof: she bought the “Jagged Little Pill” cassette for my sister for her 10th birthday), so this statement speaks volumes. But the Spice Girls really said something about female empowerment that rang truer than their show-biz outfits and those massive platform union jack-patterned hooker boots: “Girl Power”. It was a phrase none of us had ever heard before, but we all heard it: loud and clear and around the world, as soon as these five hit the music scene with the loudest bang. And it meant something. To me, it meant loving yourself for who you are, speaking your mind, not letting people push you around, valuing female friendships over boyfriends, following your dreams, and not taking shit from anyone. Through their stupid, poppy music, which featured lines like “I want a man, not a boy who thinks he can”, I was presented with a certain kind of simplistic wisdom that at the very least, gave me the illusion that by adapting the philosophy of the Spice Girls, I was a junior feminist in the making.