09/16/2010 05:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Female Role Models: Do They All Benefit Women's Progress?

How can we measure social equality and feminist progress? Does one calculate forward thinking by measuring the average salary of one gender versus the other? Can we take a poll on how men perceive women and how women perceive women? Or should we just count the women leaders, or those who have *succeeded* and say that our progressive work is nearly done?

Perhaps we can take all of that and more into account when figuring out where we are and how far we've come -- or even how much we might have unintentionally regressed. Our female role models for one, are a particularly interesting group to analyze, as they are extremely varied and often ambivalent with regard to how they may impact women and men with their presence in the public eye.

By examining those in the media for example, we see quite a range of what a powerful or successful woman is. On one hand, there are extremely beautiful and wealthy female celebrities, who may or may not be considered talented, but have nonetheless 'made it' onstage or in film and television.

A perfect example of such a triumphant beauty is Megan Fox, who was recently featured in a critical article by Erin Scottberg entitled: "Is Megan Fox Bad for Women"?

Based on the idea that the young actress has openly admitted that her character-invoking talent could be better, we are led to interpret that her success is entirely based upon her appearance, signifying that her accomplishments in relation to women's empowerment is useless if not harmful. For if she achieved everything without 'substance,' does her work communicate an overarching message that women are only successful when attractive?

According to some, her example may lead women and girls to believe that they can only succeed by using their bodies. In this case, is her notoriety forfeit in relation to women's empowerment? Are human bodies therefore superficial and invalid in the realm of integrity? Perhaps extremism is not the answer, as comfortable and decisive as it can be.

What indeed is the true lesson behind Megan Fox's success? Before we plan out notions of 'good' and 'bad', one subtle but important distinction to consider is how women can succeed by using their bodies. Nevertheless, this fact does not necessarily indicate that women can only succeed by using their bodies. In this way, looks can then be perceived as but one valid tool of women's (or men's) ambition.

As such, let us consider women in the political sphere, whose social contributions -- such as those of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin -- may depend entirely upon the side with which the observer identities politically. Nevertheless, is it 'good' that Hillary Clinton is showing younger women how to be powerhouse politicians with immeasurable influence? Is it beneficial that Clinton has shown women how to use their minds to achieve success? How about Sarah Palin? Using her resources to succeed -- or at least remain relevant in the public eye?

On another note, what about self-made women whose politics or looks do not seem to be an obvious factor in their powerful image, such as Oprah? Truly, who in their right mind wouldn't appreciate Oprah on some level? Well, many: including those who are simultaneously jealous and yet not jealous of her attributes.

In a sense, Oprah is the antithesis of Megan Fox. She's entirely self-made, excessively wealthy, philanthropic beyond belief, and full of obvious character and personality. Moreover, she is not a sex symbol in any sense of the term -- probably because she happens to violate the bounds of Hollywood notions of appeal, even though she constantly strives for her own form of beauty in appearance.

Oprah is quite the mixed bag of what women want in their lives: personality, character, success, and generosity. Alas, she lacks the image of the elusive 'hottie' that we all more or less covet for ourselves. Still it is no wonder that she is one of women's favorite role models, since her example lends us the silent but very obvious message that we can forge whichever path we choose regardless of social norms and expectations. Yes, we can use our wit and integrity to succeed . . .

So what works best? Looks? Smarts? Personality?

Or rather, which role model or archetype is the best for women? Alternatively, which one (or ones not listed) are terrible for women? We all have our favorites and we all have our opinions about which kind of success makes us feel the warmest, the fuzziest, and the most powerful.

Still, let us not forget one significant similarity between these types of women when puzzling over what we find important in the great scheme of things: they are all using one or maybe more of their resources to get ahead. While one group may utilize appearance, another may use intellect more prominently, whereas the last group may simply charm its way to the top. Interestingly enough, it actually does take a significant amount of brain power to know how to use one's resources anyway. Therefore each technique, whether used in tandem with each other or employed individually, are still tricks of the trade when it comes to climbing the ladder of achievement.

Having evaded the real answer to the real question -- is one resource or technique better than the other? -- we can now ask ourselves another important one: do we have the right to scorn one particular method of success if we do not consider it as saavy as another one? Resources are resources, and as long as they are used responsibly with openness and integrity, it may be that none are particularly 'bad' in terms of helping women find empowerment.