Why We Need More Female Music Role Models

07/26/2011 02:58 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2011

This past Sunday night, I felt as though my dreams came true -- well one of my childhood dreams at least. Folk artist (and HuffPost blogger) Dar Williams played a private concert at Habonim Dror Camp Moshava -- the social justice oriented, Jewish summer camp in Maryland that I attended and worked at for 15 years.

Effervescent and charming as ever, giggling at herself onstage, the 44-year-old Dar captured the undivided attention of the entire camp audience -- which included all current campers and staff as well as dozens of alumni and parents.

"This [camp] is a very reflective place. There's a lot of places that I see where you can walk and really think about how you are in this world and what this world is and what you want this world to become. A lot of this camp is perhaps, I think, what we would like the world to become," said Williams to the crowd as she opened her hour and a half set.

Dar Williams is known for her quirky personality and songs that address a range of social issues from gender identity and religious diversity to materialism and war. In person, her idealism was utterly infectious.

It was this idealism that reminded me of my first brushes with gender empowerment -- and the role that Dar's music played in those experiences. My 10-year-old self (and the almost 24-year-old that I've become) owe a lot to Dar Williams.

It's no secret that pop culture -- including movies, music, books and television -- both shape and mimic existing cultural patterns within our society. One of the patterns that I have noticed is a lack of empowering female role models, especially those that encourage kids (and adults) to question traditional gender roles and stereotypes.

Just this past April, a study published in the academic journal Gender and Society concluded that male characters far exceeded female characters in 20th century children's books -- even when the central characters in a story were animals. While 57 percent of the books surveyed featured central male characters, only 31 percent did the same for female characters.

The study's authors argued that these figures are indicative of a larger issue:

The messages conveyed through representation of males and females ... contribute to children's ideas of what it means to be a boy, girl, man, or woman. The disparities we find point to the symbolic annihilation of women and girls ... suggesting to children that these characters are less important than their male counterparts.

I would argue that the same could be said for music. In fact, a 1996 survey of MTV music videos found that men were the primary focus of these videos almost five times more often than women were. Even when women were the center of these songs and videos, their bodies often became the focus, rather than their talent.

This is not to say that music that isn't explicitly political or feminist does not have value or that all mainstream pop is without merit. Ciara's gender-bending music video for "Like a Boy," is an example of a piece of current pop culture that strikes a happy medium between contemporary pop-R&B tropes and more revolutionary sensibilities.

At its core, music is simply a form of human communication. I believe that the words of any given song, coupled with its ability to evoke an additional emotional reaction in the listener, make it a particularly powerful medium.

Which brings me back to Dar. I have a vivid memory of listening to a Dar Williams song entitled "When I Was a Boy," and discussing it with my counselors and peers. The year was 1998 and I was a 10-year-old camper.

This Dar song in particular explores the rigidity of traditional gender roles, using the analogy of a woman looking back on her childhood "as a boy" -- or rather, doing things that might have been categorized as more "male," like playing pirates with Peter Pan or climbing trees without worrying about her looks. These past experiences are contrasted with her present:

And now I'm in this clothing store./And the sign says less is more./More that's tight means more to see./More for them not more for me./That can't help me climb a tree in ten seconds flat.

At the end of the song, the narrator believes that she has it all figured out and she "surrenders" to the man that she's walking with. However, it turns out that these rigid gender roles don't just hurt women -- they hurt men too:

And so I tell the man I'm with about the other life I lived/
And I say "Now you're top gun, I have lost and you have won."/And he says, "Oh no, no can't you see/When I was a girl my mom and I we always talked/And I picked flowers everywhere that I walked./And I could always cry, now even when I'm alone I seldom do./And I have lost some kindness/But I was a girl too./And you were just like me ... and I was just like you.

Looking back, I believe that discussions like the one that I had while listening to this song set off an "aha!" moment for me. Some of my friends admit to having very similar experiences. When discussing the concert with a friend of mine, she said that reflecting back on her own childhood memories of Dar's music, she could actively remember the moment when she just "got it."

Obviously, music alone cannot be (and shouldn't be) solely responsible for someone's understanding of a complex issue like gender. However, posing questions is a necessity -- and music like Dar's brings up lots of questions.

Ultimately, boys and girls alike deserve strong female (and male) role models that force them to understand the complexities of any identity -- be it gender, religion, sexuality or race-based.

On Sunday, I witnessed an 11-year-old boy go up onto the stage in front of the entire camp and say to Dar -- without an ounce of pretension -- "You're not your average songwriter."

Dar may not be average, but perhaps we should strive to make the average cultural material that we expose ourselves and our children to, closer to her standard. In Dar's own words, which are now immortalized in a mural on the side of the camp dining hall: "Where does magic come from? I think magic's in the learning."

So let's learn.