5 Qs with ‘New Girl’ Creator Liz Meriwether

LizMeriwether-207x300New Girl on Fox was this close to making our list of feminist shows to watch this fall — and has garnered our affection more with time — so we were thrilled to have a chance to talk to Liz Meriwether, the creator, writer, and executive producer of the show. Meriwether told us about creating a female centric show, the emerging prominence of female comedy in Hollywood, and the polarizing presence of star Zooey Deschanel.

Was it hard to pitch a series that revolved around women to a network?

It wasn’t hard. I felt really encouraged by the way the network received the show the whole way through. I think the first time I met Kevin Reilly, who is the head of Fox, he said to me, I want to keep this female character really unique and I want you to protect her throughout this whole process, which was really rare and the first time I had heard that from a network exec. I actually found that there wasn’t resistance to an odd female character at the center of the show, which I found really gratifying. I really don’t think the show could work if the network hadn’t understood it and really supported it.

There are a few comedies that premiered this season with female leads and have done really well. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?

I don’t know. I feel so lucky to be a part of it, and it really surprised me. I really love how all of the different characters in the new comedies with female protagonists are all different. I think people have a tendency to lump female comedy into one box and I really love that the different shows that are doing well right now have really different styles and really different characters at the front of them. I personally think that they are all really funny, so I’m just really happy to be a part of this…whatever it is… new moment.

Have you noticed more opportunities for female showrunners and comedy writers in the past few years?

I think with [the success of] Bridesmaids, there is just sort-of a feeling of trust from the people in charge that women actually want to see shows and movies that are written and created by women, as opposed to shows created by men that women are just supposed to like. I feel like that trust, from a business sense, is really important for empowering more women creators of shows.

One of the things we love is how real and how rich the characters feel. How were you inspired to create your leads?

I feel like there is a part of me in all of them — well, maybe not the model character! I mean I think originally Jess was based on me and it was me writing about male friends that I had. I looked around and realized that I had a lot of guy friends and I was wondering why that was and what I went to them for that I didn’t go to my girl friends for. I think what was  important for us was really making sure that all of the characters felt real and that the show felt real. We’ve made that our focus with all of the episodes and the stories.

Zooey Deschanel, the star of New Girl, is a polarizing figure among women. (Is she cute or too cute?) Were you worried about women’s reactions to her, or did you know she was right for the character?

I never really realized that before the show came out. I just loved her acting and I loved her music. I just loved Zooey and I never saw her as a polarizing figure. I still sort-of don’t; I think she’s just an amazing actress and I feel like the character is a complicated and she has a lot of different layers. I’ve definitely seen some of the criticism, but I haven’t really understood where it is coming from totally. I think I was really just writing about myself and my main goal was to give Zooey really fun, interesting things to do every week. I just wanted to be honest with myself about the character and present a really funny interesting female character on television.

Women We Want to be When We Grow Up

mirren-1Aging gracefully is no easy feat, but it’s the overall awesomeness of these women that inspires us. Their success, activism and individuality make us aspire to be like them. Here are some of the women we want to be when we grow up: Photo: Retna Ltd

5 Feminist Shows to Watch This Fall

This fall’s crop of new network TV shows certainly has the ladies in mind — from sitcoms to crime dramas to 1960s-set dramas (thanks for that, Mad Men!), every network seems to have turned into Television for Women. But just because a series has female main characters doesn’t make it feminist; yes, that means you, Playboy Club and Charlie’s Angels. Here, our seasonal picks for the most female-friendly shows on the dial:

screen-rant-reviews-ABCs-pan-am-300x1571. Pan Am (ABC): What Playboy Club botches, this drama about stewardesses in 1963 gets right. The show gives us a look at one of the few ways women then could use their feminine wiles to buy themselves some real freedom — by taking to the newly friendly skies. But it also doesn’t deny the sexism inherent in the process — Pan Am girls had to be beautiful, could be grounded for not wearing their girdles, endured weigh-ins, and had to quit at 32 or when they got married. Also a plus: It’s good, soapy fun, with affairs, broken engagements, and even undercover-spy flight attendants!

2. Grey’s Anatomy (ABC): Sorry, we still can’t help ourselves, even eight seasons in. That could be because this show continues to mature with us, already tackling abortion in the very first episode this season — even using the A-word right on screen and showing Sandra Oh’s ambitious Cristina Yang going in for the procedure, both rarities in primetime. Extra points for a continuing successful lesbian marriage and subtle wrestling with mommy-versus-work issues.

3. 2 Broke Girls (CBS): The pilot episode had the titular waitresses fighting over a guy, but only briefly before sardonic hipster Max (the illustrious Kat Dennings) realized it was her grungy boyfriend, not new coworker Caroline (Beth Behrs, making rich and blond totally likeable), who was to blame. From that point on, the two opposites form an unlikely alliance that has us thinking about the most sacred of female TV pairings, Mary and Rhoda.

4. Prime Suspect (NBC): Nothing can compete with the original, British Suspect — who doesn’t want to watch Helen Mirren solve crimes? But this gritty crime series takes on workplace sexism as well as the politics and brutality of the police world in a way that sets it apart from standard catch-the-bad-guys-in-an-hour procedural shows. Kudos to lead Maria Bello, too, for stepping up in Mirren’s role. That’s no easy feat.

5. Up All Night (NBC): This fresh take on the family-com had us swooning over its cast before it even aired: Will Arnett, Christina Applegate, and Maya Rudolf? We think we had a (very good) dream like that once. The reality, for once, is even better: Arnett and Applegate are hilariously perfect as a hard-partying couple now facing new parenthood and Rudolph is just as great as ever as Applegate’s talk-show-host boss. But even more exciting are the subtle messages underneath the comedy, with Applegate taking on the primary breadwinner role in the house, Arnett functioning as a stay-at-home dad with little fanfare, and Rudolph representing for all the baby-phobic ladies out there. That’s right, we’re allowed to be as non-maternal as we want to; even to the point where we think a wallet is a good gift for a baby.

5 Reasons Britney Needs a Feminist Awakening

britney-spears_2011There’s no doubt that Britney Spears is not a feminist icon. But she could very well be the most important female pop culture figure of our times — which is exactly why it would be nothing short of revolutionary if girlfriend ever managed to escape the poptart prison her handlers have constructed around her during her decade-plus reign to realize her own grand significance. Here, we plead our case to the woman behind theFemme Fatale image. Oh, if only we believed she were reading!

Dear Britney,

Here’s why we need you to get with the F-word:

1. Madonna and Christina. Remember how you once made out with these two in a wildly overhyped menage a girl-on-girl-kisses-for-media-attention? We do. And we wish that Madge and Xtina had been able to somehow pass a little feminism your way while swapping spit onstage, because they’ve certainly got girl power to spare. As much as everyone likes to declare you “the next Madonna” — and as much as we understand why — you’re missing that element of self-determination that Madonna’s had since before she was even famous. (That kiss was her idea — go figure.) While you’ve long denied your sexuality even while selling the heck out of it, Madonna has … well, embraced hers. If you haven’t noticed. Same goes for Christina, who grew up with you onThe Mickey Mouse Club and faced the same pressures of growing into womanhood very publicly. She may have been the one who ended up in unfortunate assless chaps, but she never pretended not to know exactly what they meant.

2. Your lyrics about sexual autonomy. As it happens, your lyrics have grown in maturity, whether or not you know it. The producers hired to pen your songs have put some increasingly interesting thoughts in your mouth, taking you from the put-upon ingenue of “… Baby One More Time” to the sexually autonomous diva of “I Wanna Go,” off your new album Femme Fatale: “Shame on me to need release uncontrollably/I wanna go all the way/Takin’ out my freak tonight/I wanna show all the dirt/I got runnin’ through my mind.” For more surprisingly interesting lyrics, please see “Inside Out”on Fatale (about breakup sex) and “Unusual You” on Circus (about the shock of finding a guy who actually treats you right). Think what you could do if these were lyrics that you really owned and wrote yourself!

3. You’ve been a projection screen for a nation’s sexual fantasies for too long. We get it, this is why you’re famous. But this does not have to be your job. There are lots of other good jobs for girls like you. Which is to say girls who could retire right now on their millions and never work again.

4. Your sons. Don’t you want them to know how to treat women? That is, with way more respect than the world has given you?

5. Your massive power. You just scored your sixth No. 1 album with Fatale. The biggest producers in the business vie to be on your albums. You can do whatever you want! Wouldn’t it be amazing to harness that kind of power for the good of womankind?

5 Feminist TV Shows to Watch Right Now

We talked feminist TV shows just three months ago, but the networks are throwing new shows at us so fast these days, that we’ve got some new mentions (as well as old favorites) currently making our Top 5:

1. Body of Proof: In ABC’s new straight-up procedural, Dana Delany plays a neurosurgeon-turned-medical-examiner who helps solve murders. But, look at that, this time a woman gets to be the freakishly brilliant, quirkily abrasive one at the center of a broadcast network show solving the crimes! (Thanks, TNT and other cable channels, for pioneering that mind-blowing idea with the likes of The Closer.) Extra points for employing the always-brilliant Delany and giving her character a very real mommy complex: She’s estranged from her preteen daughter after years of dedicating herself to neurosurgery, and awkwardly trying to rebuild that relationship.

2. Game of Thrones: HBO’s is by far the best of the upcoming epic swords-and-sandals series you’ve undoubtedly seen advertised everywhere (along with Starz’ Camelot and Showtime’s The Borgias). I’m not normally into this kind of thing — it’s based on George R. R. Martin’s elaborate fantasy book series filled with about 3 trillion characters, mythical lands, mythical creatures, people with names like Eddard, and a big old war for the crown. (I didn’t even like Lord of the Rings. Sorry.) But the beauty of Game is in the layers — the multi-dimensional characters (no one’s 100-percent good or evil, though some come close on the evil side), the soapy machinations, the tons of sex. It’s also, surprisingly, in the female characters. Martin’s world is, alas, as sexist as medieval England (it matches the costumes), but these ladies are fighting it at every turn, from the conniving Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) to the bent-on-revenge Lady Catelynn Stark (Michelle Fairley).

3. Degrassi: This immortal teen favorite (just renewed for season 11 on TeenNick) has always tackled complex issues, from school shootings to teen pregnancy, like no American show dares. The current run is no different: For proof, see [SPOILER ALERT] the two-parter in which Fiona (Annie Clark) gets sober, testifies against her abusive ex-boyfriend, and discovers she’s a lesbian while making out with transgender classmate Adam (Jordon Todosey). Top that, 90210.

4. Grey’s Anatomy: Yes, we’re still grooving on our favorite post-feminist utopia as Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) struggles with fertility issues, the coolest lesbian couple ever (Sara Ramirez and Jessica Capshaw) prepare for baby (provided they survive that accident), and Miranda (the incomparable Chandra Wilson) parses out power issues with her nurse boyfriend.

5. 30 Rock: This one pretty much always gets an honorary spot. Also, we’re as excited for Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants (out next week!), as we once were for a new New Kids on the Block album.

Top 5 Feminist Sci-Fi Heroines

leiaIn outer space, no one can hear your sexism.

As a lifelong sci-fi fan I’ve always gloried in the many rich portrayals of women in leadership roles, from captain of a starship to leader of a resistance army. Whether the constraints of the genre somehow free writers and show creators to take on gender in a new way, or whether sci-fi geeks are just more forward thinking, it works out well for the audience of female fans who want to see themselves in characters who are more than just bystanders.

To that end, here are the Top Five Feminist Sci-Fi Heroines:

1. Leia. Star Wars‘ princess took crap from no one, not even an eight-foot-tall Wookie. When she wasn’t blasting her way out of captivity on the Death Star right alongside her would-be rescuers, she was leading an underground rebel army on Hoth and strangling Jabba the Hut with her own leash. A Jedi by birth, she became a leader by virtue of difficult, secretive work, and without her there would have been no Rebel Alliance. And when she finally did hear a declaration of love from sexy Han Solo, it was prompted by her pulling a concealed weapon and killing the stormtrooper threatening them both.

starbuck2. Starbuck. While the modern iteration of space drama Battlestar Galactica had a number of fantastic female characters — flinty, courageous president Laura Roslin; conflicted Sharon Agathon, who lived a Cylon double life; strange, sexy Caprica Six — the most visible, complex and ultimately triumphant story of the series was that of Lt. Kara Thrace, the female reminagining of the original series’ kickass pilot, call sign Starbuck. This hard-drinking, high-flying, water-walking Viper jock packed a lot of punches into her petite blonde frame, and while her cockiness could grate, it was also justified by her chops in the cockpit. She spent most of the series fighting for survival, and in the end she led the fleet of what remained of humanity to its new home after a devastating nuclear attack. Her mindset is best described in recounting a scene in which she shot one enemy and then pointed a gun at another, smiling wolfishly. “Follow me,” she taunted him. “Please.”

delenn43. Delenn. Babylon 5‘s leading female character had roots in her species’ religious community, but her badassery was not to be denied. The Minbari warrior’s army fought Earth to a standstill and then made peace, and Delenn underwent a metamorphosis to share part of herself, literally, with the human race. When her new friends on the Babylon space station were threatened, she showed up in a ship and announced that the only people who had ever survived her type of attack were behind her. “You are in front of me,” she said. “If you value your lives, be somewhere else.” Played by the stunning Mira Furlan, known to other geeks as Danielle from Lost, her courage on behalf of all of her people, human and Minbari, was an audience’s inspiration.

4. Aeryn. Viewers of Farscape first met Aeryn when she pulled off her helmet, having finished solidly kicking the ass of series hero and American astronaut John Crichton. Over the show’s four seasons, Aeryn grew from a closed-off soldier for the genocidal Peacekeepers to an ally of the prisoners she was stranded with, fighting for their right to determine their own futures. In the process, she found hers, and love with Crichton, but that didn’t diminish her strength. Pregnant with his child and going into labor in the middle of a firefight, she grabbed a gun back when he tried to take it away from her. “Shooting makes me feel better!” Oh, Aeryn, never change.


normal_zoe_015. Zoe. Second in command of Serenity, the Firefly-class spaceship carrying a gang of thieves and mercenaries, Zoe Washburn is the strong and silent type. She met Captain Mal Reynolds while fighting for independence against the evil Alliance, and their browncoat friendship endured. Described by her pilot husband as being able to kill a man with her pinky, Zoe’s the one everyone else on the crew fears.

Rihanna: Taking Sexy Feminism to the Extreme

rihannafm_606x900-1Rihanna’s turning out to be quite the complicated figure, isn’t she? The gorgeous girl who gave us one of the greatest pop gifts ever in “Umbrella” once seemed headed for pretty-woman-who-sings-dance-hits-with-little-meaning territory; then, she became national news in the most unfortunate of ways, by being beaten by then-boyfriend Chris Brown at a pre-Grammy event two years ago. Now she’s emerged as a fascinating presence in pop: Yes, she still dabbles in those fluffy dance tunes (see her duet with Drake, “What’s My Name,” performed quite sexily at last night’s Grammys), but she’s made going pantsless into an act of empowerment (with a strong assist from Gaga and Beyonce, of course). And, more than anything, she also packs the occasional single with an unexpected truckload of meaning.

Case in point, her newest single, “S&M.” Though she certainly pushed some buttons last year with her Eminem collaboration “Love the Way You Lie” — in which she sings, “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn/But that’s alright because I like the way it hurts” — her latest challenges listeners to process her personal life and artistic expressions at a whole different level. First, there’s the (extremely singable) refrain, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but whips and chains excite me.” Then, there’s the video, which plays as both a critique on the media coverage of her troubles (reporters are shown gagged at a press conference while she’s trapped under cellophane against a wall, and she walks gossip blogger Perez Hilton on a leash) and, more provocatively, her penchant for S&M (she’s shown tied up, in latex, and wearing a Playboy Bunny costume, among other scenarios). There’s no actual sex, and everything is art-directed to the hilt, giving it a heightened, pop-art vibe — it’s hardly realistic. And yet it’s been banned in 11 countries and protected by an 18-plus filter on YouTube. The song itself has been relegated to evening-play-only on many radio stations, and she wasn’t allowed to perform it at the recent Brit Awards. All this hysteria seems a bit overblown, to the point where it’s hard not to suspect a bit of sexism. Women are objectified constantly in rap and rock videos by male artists, yet apparently aren’t allowed to express specific desires themselves. Remember Justin Timberlake’s once-omnipresent “SexyBack,” in which he sings, “You see these shackles/Baby, I’m your slave”? That, it seems, was just fine. As Charlsie at College Candy points out, it’s likely no one would have trouble handling JT in such an oversexed video. And it must be noted that “Love the Way You Lie” — in which Eminem raps about tying a girlfriend to the bed and setting it afire — was praised widely, played without restrictions, and featured at the Grammys. I support this — I see it as a nuanced look behind the cycle of domestic violence, and a discussion-provoker. But why can’t Rihanna express her kinkier side as well?

It might be because of a feeling some bloggers have expressed — that the song and video are hypocritical for a woman who ultimately pressed charges against Brown for his assault against her. (I won’t dignify any of those with a link here, but they’re out there.) This line of thought, however, is exactly what makes “S&M” more than a fun song about fetish. There couldn’t be anything more dangerous than the assumption that a woman who likes a little bondage in the bedroom deserves to be beaten. It’s a she-was-asking-for-it argument taken to a skewed extreme, and it’s a controversy she could have chosen not to court. Instead, she put her complicated feelings into song and made a danceable pop tune that happens to challenge some serious assumptions along the way. And by the way, is she also saying something pretty interesting about the relationship between media and celebrities by equating it with S&M?

These are particularly bold moves for a woman who’s chosen not to speak much publicly about the Brown incident. She’s putting herself out there in her art, and letting listeners and viewers interpret for themselves — the act of a true artist and provocateur. The fact that her messages are pretty damn catchy is just a bonus.

New Feminist Icons: Beyond Gloria Steinem and Virginia Woolf

We believe any woman can be a feminist icon, but these ladies are currently leading the way.

xtina tinafey michelleobamaWomen wouldn’t be where we are today without the feminist icons who first fought for and inspired us. We owe our right to vote to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Sojourner Truth spoke up for all women when the slavery-era abolitionist delivered her groundbreaking speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Betty Friedan gave us one of the most important feminist texts in The Feminine Mystique, helping women to break out of their happy-homemaker bonds—and she co-founded the National Organization for Women. Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Parker were among the first to give voice to the emotional depth and biting wit of women during times of extreme sexism. Shirley Chisholm paved the way for Hillary Rodham Clinton and any other female presidential hopeful. And Gloria Steinem made fighting for gender justice chic to generations of women. These icons—and countless others—were our mothers’ and grandmothers’ feminist role models. They planted the seeds for what’s become a blooming revolution that advances and changes with every move we make.

And, boy, how it’s changed. Just as feminism has evolved from elite to radical, from first-wave to third-wave, so too has the concept of role models. The above women were instrumental in the feminist movement, but these days many young women look to public figures and entertainers for inspiration—in everything from how to style their hair (see: Jennifer Aniston) to what books they should read (see: Oprah). That’s why we love seeing some great female stars using their powers for good. After all, tackling Anna Karenina because you heard that Reese Witherspoon loved it doesn’t make your reading it any less valid. Incorporating environmental, free-trade consciousness into your diet and purchasing habits because you were inspired by an article you read on Alicia Silverstone doesn’t weaken the impact of those decisions. Contributing to Planned Parenthood and reading up on gender justice because an abortion-themed episode of Friday Night Lights moved you doesn’t make your activism less legitimate.

The potential feminist power of entertainment is that even women whose main source of exposure to the outside world is through their television sets or magazines can find feminist role models. TV shows with strong female leads—30 Rock and The Closer, Grey’s Anatomy and How I Met Your Mother—are on every week, reaching millions more than a women’s studies text or independent feminist website. And, of course, there’s that lady who grew up idolizing Mary Richards and became one of the most influential women on the planet. Every day, millions of women change their lives, focus and goals because of something they saw on The Oprah Winfrey Show. It’s that devotion that gave Oprah the ability to launch her own TV network in January, 2011, a first for any woman. It’s people like her who convince us we just might make it after all.

And it’s in that spirit that we offer our own ideas about today’s Marys—the role models who can inspire an empowered spirit in a new generation of women. That doesn’t mean famous women are better feminists than the hard-working grassroots community organizers, activists, scientists, scholars, moms, freedom fighters, volunteers, and other everyday heroines. But if a few celebrities can make feminism seem cool to young women who’d otherwise never consider it, we say that’s damn sexy progress. The following women are leading the way, shaping and changing popular culture and feminism with every move they make. Meet your new feminist icons.

Tina Fey – Feminism’s Involuntary Heroine

Tina Fey may be the greatest feminist pioneer we’ve seen in a generation—despite the fact that she never set out to be.

In 1997, Fey became the first female head writer in Saturday Night Live’s 22-year history—and her tenure was credited with saving the then-fledgling franchise. As her skits grew more topical, hilarious and pro-woman, ladies everywhere fell for her. So did men, but she titillated with her brain, rather than with her body. Fey’s first scripted film, Mean Girls, became the new Clueless—empowering, quotable, and layered with positive messages for girls and women. The fact that it’s also laugh-out-loud funny is testament to Fey’s talent. Defending women—and bashing the stereotypes against them—is Fey’s feminist calling card. Yes, it’s true—feminists can be funny!

30 Rock, however, is the pièce de résistance on Fey’s feminist resume: Her showbiz-based sitcom about a hard-working TV writer and her unlucky-in-love shenanigans gave women a role model more relatable—and thus more powerful—than Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw. If Carrie is a descendant of Holly Golightly, Liz is the spiritual daughter of Mary Richards. While both have their iconic and feminist merits, Liz Lemon is the woman most of us truly feel like in this harried, complicated new millennium. For better or worse, trying to balance a successful career, a history of bungled relationships, and an appetite for sub sandwiches or white wine is far more relatable to most of us than penning sex columns in between glamorous parties and $400-shoe-buying sprees.

Liz Lemon captures the quintessential lady problem of the modern age: the frustration—and futility—of trying to “have it all.” The ridiculous nature by which she fails and flails is Fey’s critique on the expectations placed on educated, ambitious career women everywhere. The show is a fictional fuck-you to the stereotype. The fact that Tina Fey, the woman—a wife and mother in real life—has managed to defy it only furthers her feminist cred.

Feminist Lessons Learned

Smart is sexy: From the onset of her popularity, Fey has owned her sexy-nerd looks, refusing to go bombshell—unless it’s for laughs. Even though men now call her a sex symbol—not that we’re looking to such labels for validation—she’s won them over without compromising her ideals. Even when trading in her signature glasses and short hair for smoky eyes and va-va-voom dresses in magazine photo shoots, she’s always called the shots. Case in point: The April 2010 issue ofEsquire—which pictures her donning a navel-grazing neckline on the cover and frolicking with a police officer in boudoir clothing inside—drew accusations of hypocrisy. But she fired back onEsquire’s web site:

I got an email [from Esquire] with a list of the potential setups, and my email back was like, ‘Well, I need to decline being handcuffed to a bed.’ I won’t straddle anyone. I won’t make out with a cop. There are certain things, I totally get them as a premise, but, you know, I’m a mom. And my kid’s going to find this someday. I don’t want to be handcuffed to a bed in Esquire.

The photos were sexy, yes, but also comical and within the limits that made her comfortable. Knowing where the line is and defending it is a feminist act. Plus, by walking that line, Fey is rejecting the stereotype that women can either be sexy or smart. Sexy feminists can take pride in both: Is smart not sexy?

Body image isn’t worth obsession: When asked about dieting—which, gag, always somehow makes its way into interviews with any famous woman—Fey is quick to denounce it. “I don’t weigh myself. I try not to participate too much in the incredible amount of wasted energy that women have around dealing with food. I just feel like being healthy is sort of a job requirement to be on TV, and being a writer is so much coping with fatigue and stress, and you just eat. You eat to stay awake,” she told Vogue in March 2010. Food as Public Enemy No. 1? Fat chance.

Speaking up is better than shutting up, damn the consequences: Fey has been quick to celebrate women’s accomplishments—Hillary Rodham Clinton, female astronauts—as well as ridicule their low points—the Pussycat Dolls, celebrity mistresses—in her sitcom and on “Women’s News” segments on SNL’s “Weekend Update.” During the 2008 presidential primaries, Fey snapped back at the sexist talk aimed at Clinton (subtext to Rush Limbaugh: Fuck off!), defending women as the ones who make society work. “Bitches get stuff done!” she railed. And then she coined what may have been the feminist phrase of the decade: “Bitch is the new black.”

Christina Aguilera – An Exercise in Feminist Evolution

Yes, there were ass-less chaps. We’ll get to those in a minute.

The world met Christina Aguilera in that teen-pop-saturated year of 1999. The former All-New Mickey Mouse Club kid stood out among the flaxen-haired, dimple-cheeked masses because of her voice. It was bigger, stronger, and more dimensional than anything we’d heard since Mariah Carey. So we listened. And what we heard within the mix of sexualized coming-of-age fluff like “Genie in a Bottle” were girl anthems about empowerment, individualism, and standing up for yourself. “Fighter,” “What a Girl Wants,” and “Can’t Hold Us Down” championed a woman’s rights to call the shots and reject the double standards set forth by sexism and patriarchy. As she sang in “Can’t Hold Us Down”: “Am I not supposed to have an opinion?/Should I keep quiet just because I’m a woman?” Those are some lyrics we’re happy to have stuck in our heads to a catchy tune—and even better, stuck in the heads of young girls around the world.

In Christina’s world, women are never reduced to pining for a man or cowering from his abuse. They’re loud-mouthed, opinionated bitches (a title she owns, Tina Fey-style) who get what they want when they want it. It’s a ballsy message Madonna could get behind. She also has a softer side: Her song “Beautiful” is a powerful celebration of individuality and difference, with a video featuring young people of all genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds, proclaiming their common beauty. No matter how you dress up the package, her message is one of the more feminist in popular music today.

Of course, the packaging of Christina Aguilera has always been part of the discussion surrounding her—oftentimes, the loudest part. Pop star as fetish object is nothing new, but most young performers are either too naïve to reject the image forced on them by an industry still run and ruled by men, or so eager to excel that they go too far (see: Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus). But as soon as Christina was old enough to understand her sexuality, she owned it. Sometimes that meant going a little too far, and these actions weren’t without consequence; little girls everywhere wanted to wear the belly shirts and spandex she popularized during her early reign.

Aguilera has often talked about the Catch-22 of being a female performer who’s pressured to showcase her physical attributes while being criticized for doing so. “How do I not be exploited whilst selling my sexuality? For me it’s a matter of opinion about how far is too far. … I am not an object. I am in control. I’m in the power position. I decide who I am and it’s too bad if you don’t get it—or want it,” she told Cosmopolitan. The lesson: Giving into a short-shorts trend or stuffing our bra at some point in our lives doesn’t mean we can’t evolve into self-aware feminists. As humans, we experiment and explore the extremes of ourselves to see where we feel most at home within our bodies. Aguilera simply did it in the public eye.

So as Aguilera evolved, she may have made mistakes—and when we say mistakes, we mean those ass-less chaps from the “Dirrrty” video. But most young women have a pair of ass-less chaps in their past—metaphorically speaking. Learning from them is what matters.

Feminist Lessons Learned

Take control of your own image: What we like best about Aguilera is her evolution—from pop pawn to “Dirrrty” girl to retro pinup to mom who’s not afraid to still be sexy. Having the confidence to go through growing pains in public and never apologize for them is downright admirable.

As soon as she wielded a bit of control over her career (a quadruple-platinum debut album will do that), Aguilera challenged the status quo, consciously projecting a sex-positive feminist image of herself. In a sense, she became a modern-day Riot Girrl. Just as Bikini Kill and its ilk called for the emancipation of women’s sexuality during the grunge-rock era, Christina shrugged off the suggestion that it’s something to be ridiculed. As she told Cosmopolitan, “If a man does this kind of thing, he’s allowed to get away with it. If a woman does it, she’s labeled a slut or whatever. That’s not going to stop me. I’m just going to show that it’s the wrong way of thinking.”

Activism is sexy: For as long as she’s had money and pop-star cachet, Christina has been an activist, advocating on behalf of women and children. She was named the Ambassador Against Hunger for the United Nations, and is a spokesperson for World Hunger Relief, a global campaign that targets maternal and child hunger worldwide. “A child dies every six seconds of hunger, which is a huge statistic for me. After having my own child I just had to do something about it and help change that situation,” she told The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Her philanthropy doesn’t end there. She drew from the personal pain of being the witness to and victim of domestic violence as a child and made it a rallying cry—something the best feminist icons have always done. “I’ve suffered too much hurt in my life to be in that place again. I’m through being the victim,” she told Blender. She promotes self-confidence and courage to women in domestic violence safe houses around the country—most notably in her hometown of Pittsburgh, where she’s given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the city’s The Women’s Center and Shelter. She’s become a regular visitor there, donating her time, money, and music to help the women who most need a feminist icon in their lives.

Michelle Obama – A Modern-Day Super Hero

That old expression, “Behind every good man stands a strong woman,” is a lesson in condescending sexism. But in the case of First Lady Michelle Obama, it finds a new, feminist meaning.

Before she even met Barack, Michelle was an icon in the making. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Michelle’s family was short on cash, but rich on ambition. Michelle’s father set high standards for his kids, both of whom attended Princeton as undergrads, and Michelle then went on to receive her JD from Harvard, where she made a name for herself on campus for organizing demonstrations to call for more minority students and professors.

A fast ascent to the top of corporate law firms, medical centers, and government institutions followed. Then she met Barack (she was his mentor), married, and had two daughters. She epitomized the “have it all” woman: high-powered career, an equal marriage, and motherhood. She also prioritized her personal values. She left her lucrative career in corporate America to go into public service, advocating on behalf of women, children and young adults. She put into action the lessons she taught her children—that public service makes you a better person, diversity makes us a better society, and every person deserves a chance to live a healthy life.

Every move she makes is fueled by that personal passion. She doesn’t have to shout that she’s a feminist to show us that she is one. Whenever the President speaks of Michelle, he talks of her strength, drive, and dedication to the welfare of all. This isn’t just rhetoric, but a life’s mission she’s invested in—and one that helps influence policy that affects all of our lives. There’s nothing more Sexy-Feminist than that.

Feminist Lessons Learned

Actions speak louder than words: Many First Ladies have taken up social causes while in the White House. Some resulted in groundbreaking changes, such as Eleanor Roosevelt’s New Deal—what, you thought FDR came up with that? Others fell victim to political bullying and resulted in failure (think: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s healthcare reform). Still others served more as political PR than effective policy (Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign). But when it comes the causes Michelle Obama champions, she gets her hands dirty—literally.

Not only did she plant an organic garden at the White House to set an example for the rest of the nation, she’s also taken up the issue of childhood obesity by outlining an ambitious plan to end the epidemic within a generation. The official campaign she submitted to Congress includes 70 proposals to reduce childhood obesity, addressing everything from the way that food is marketed to children to how to make healthy meals accessible and affordable to all, including those in underserved inner-city areas.

She’s also an outspoken critic of lackluster childcare options for working mothers. “Staying home to care for a sick child or taking an elderly parent to a doctor’s appointment shouldn’t mean risking one’s job,” she said when testifying in front of the Department of Labor in January 2010. “Things like paid family leave and sick days and affordable child care should be the norm, not the exception.” Word.

Confidence is sexy: Not since Jackie Kennedy has there been so much attention paid to a First Lady’s fashion sense. The beautiful thing about Michelle Obama is the element of “real” she brings to her image: She’s been photographed wearing $10,000 couture gowns and $40 J. Crew twin sets, and feels at home in both.

She also has the figure of a healthy woman rather than a rail-thin fashion plate. The manner in which the media talks about her style is monumental: Rather than focus on her sexuality, discussions about Michelle Obama’s look focus on her strength: Those arms! Those calves! She’s comfortable in her own skin, she owns her curves and athletic build, and she encourages other women to do the same. It’s no wonder so many American women have made her their fashion icon. She sets an achievable standard.

Loving and supporting your man is a feminist act: One of the biggest downfalls of feminism throughout the years has been its relationship to men. Yes, by definition feminism advocates women’s equality to men, who to this day dictate the political, social, and cultural rules in this country. However, men are not the enemy—at least not all of them are. Michelle and Barack Obama demonstrate just that. It’s clear they adore each other. Michelle doesn’t shy away from valuing and admiring her husband, a positive message to all women. The sooner we realize that men can be our greatest allies in the fight for equality, the sooner that fight ends.

Marriage may be rooted in patriarchal women-as-chattel customs, but that’s no longer what it has to stand for today. It’s about partnership and family, two values essential to fighting any inequality. Michelle’s clear devotion to her husband—and the change he seeks to bring to the world—is to be admired, not criticized. She hasn’t lost herself by allowing him to lead; rather, she’s showing women that choosing to prioritize your family’s goals—which sometimes may focus on the husband—over your personal ones is courageous.

Plus, when the Obama reign at the White House comes to an end, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a shift in leadership within the household. We’ve seen it happen before, after all. We salute you, Hillary.

More Icons Worth Admiring

Suze Orman: She makes financial freedom an achievable goal for women everywhere. Her books serve as wake-up calls for a generation of women who benefited from good educations and no-holds-barred ambitions, but found themselves in a consumerism trap and oftentimes victimized by financial institutions. There’s no better way to empower women than giving them power over money.

Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer: Prominent TV anchor/reporter jobs have been hard to come by for women for most of the time television has existed. After Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey busted the doors open, they’ve stayed only slightly ajar, and the majority of those who’ve squeezed through have been accepted due more to their physical appearance than to their resumes—hello, Fox News and female sports correspondents of the ’90s! But in an era when the media seems to have forgotten its journalistic roots, these talented, fearless, ethical professionals are helping to preserve the credibility of our nation—and kick through a few glass ceilings at the same time.

Additional shout-outs to Christiane Amanpour, Robin Roberts, Rachel Maddow, Lisa Ling, and Roxana Saberi, all rock-stars in their own right.

Gwen Stefani: She’s eschewed the F-word, but we’ve got news for you Gwen: You’re a feminist. Deal with it. She wrote the script for fierce, independent women coming of age in the 1990s. “Just a Girl” is still our feminist anthem. Fronting an all-male band and embarking on a successful solo career—not to mention wearing the bread-winning pants in her marriage to Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale—doesn’t hurt, either.

Portia de Rossi & Ellen DeGeneres: These two gorgeous, talented ladies might be the most mainstream lesbian power couple ever, and as such, they send an important message. They’re sexy, smart, funny, out, proud, and examples who can make gay marriage a more accessible concept for the masses. Portia looks like every man’s fantasy—tall, blond, exotic features, amazing body—but she defends gay rights every chance she gets, and isn’t afraid to expose the ugliness in her own life to help others. Her 2010 memoir, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, chronicled her near-life-long battle with eating disorders. It’s only when she accepts who she is—despite how it may run contrary to the popular opinion of “normal”—does she find peace and happiness. It’s a feminist message for the masses.

Ellen sacrificed her career for living her truth and became one of America’s national treasures in the process. A gay woman holding the heart strings of Middle America is about as monumental as a black woman running her own TV network. And let’s talk about iconic presence: If Ellen DeGeneres can have a Cover Girl contract, the public—and political—perception of beauty has a real chance at reform.

Lady Gaga’s Feminist Evolution

lady_gaga-300x300I’ve been personally debating the feminist-or-notmerits of Lady Gaga for awhile now. She parades around without pants; but she’s also one of the most successful businesswomen in pop music. She sings about sexuality as a weapon—one that’s not always used responsibly—but then again, so did Madonna. Yes, ladies, Madonna—in all her cone-boobed, bondage glory—is a feminist.

And I almost wrote Gaga off entirely when sherefused to use the F-word when identifying herself. But in a new interview with Los Angeles Times pop-music critic Ann Powers, Gaga discusses the importance of feminism as if it’s been her raison d’être all along.

“I’m getting the sense that you’re a little bit of a feminist, like I am, which is good,” she said. “I find that men get away with saying a lot in this business, and that women get away with saying very little . . . In my opinion, women need and want someone to look up to that they feel have the full sense of who they are, and says, ‘I’m great.’ ”

As Powers points, out, Gaga’s casual use of the term “feminist” is surprising. But rather than attack her for previous statements, Powers allows the young entertainer this change of perspective. She’s given her the opportunity to grow and evolve. And this is perhaps the greater feminist act. Why is it that we don’t permit our public women the option to actually—I don’t know—grow up?

Take Christina Aguilera, for example. When she was wearing chaps and writhing around in mud, she may not have been the best example of a feminist role model. But the modern-day mother, entrepreneur, activist and identifying feminist certainly is. What changed? She matured and gained perspective, a luxury every human should be allowed.

If Christians can be born-again, so can feminists.