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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

Female Role Models: The Absent Conversation

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In my work studying the sons of single and two-mother families, I found deep concern about the lack of male role models for these boys. But shift genders, and girls and female role models is a conversation we seldom seem to have.

Part of that is the fact that 80 percent of the single parent families in the U.S. are headed by females. Combined with two-parent families, it's statistically likely that girls will have a female role model in residence.

Still, we're up against powerful cultural and media currents. The great post-feminist irony is that in an age of hard-won female opportunity, media is channeling that opportunity to a place of hyper-sexualized stupidity. It's not who you are -- it's how hot you are.

Ask a young girl about the females she looks up to, and chances are good that -- after family members -- her list will be crowded with celebrities.

Young women at the most emotionally malleable time in their lives will naturally turn to celebrities for cues on everything from love to dress to sexuality. You don't have to spend a lot of time wading around in the media muck to see that young females are represented by a collection ranging from sad to frightening -- whose claim to celebrity is becoming a coarse side show.

But give girls some credit.

Most are not going to pattern their behavior on women who exit stores without paying or exit limos without underwear. They understand there is no reality show potential in the young women who manage to build public careers without making sex tapes, having sex in communal hot tubs, or collapsing on a Hollywood sidewalk at 3 a.m.

But at the same time, we can't dismiss celebrity's cumulative power. Sex objects in disarray have become the depressing norm. Strong, confident, accomplished women are out there by the legions. But they are going about building lives beyond the peripheral vision of popular culture.

Especially for young girls, peers provide the guide to things socially acceptable and desirable. Studies show very clearly that popular media is a super-peer; a force that can literally shape identities at a time when those identities are in play.

None of that is new. What's new is that technology has made sleaze-celebrity extremely loud and incredibly intimate.

I remember those innocent days when a mother could say: "I don't let my kids watch MTV." Good luck with that today. Celebrity images are blasted at young girls 24 hours a day, pinging from TV screens to computer screens to smart phone screens.

The web has knocked down the appearance of separation between image and real-life. These professional bad examples are fully interactive. Experience enough of the Bad Girls Club, and you could come to accept that the acceptable -- even preferable -- response is a punch in the face.

The problem is more obvious than the solutions. The media culture is a formidable beast.

Still, some are pushing back. Sisters and parents Abi and Emma Moore founded a UK Website called Pinkstinks (pinkstinks.org.uk) to counter marketing and media they see as overwhelmingly focused on girls being pretty, passive, and obsessed with shopping. They pick on pink as the default color for all things submissive and girly.

Their mission is to use multimedia and partnerships to confront the "damaging messages that bombard girls though toys, clothes and media."

The site started when Abi was making a film for CNN about scientist Naomi Halas, who is quietly and anonymously doing ground-breaking work using nano-technology to fight cancer. At the same time, Paris Hilton was being released from jail to a tsunami of media coverage -- including telling Barbara Walters that she found spirituality in jail. And her skin was dry. That was enough for the sisters, and their website was born.

One website -- or 20 -- won't stem the tide. But with a shared and wide commitment to present -- and, if we're lucky, to be -- the real role models, we might lift young girls above it.