What Does Girl Power Really Mean?

Those of you who believe in the importance of women's empowerment will be interested to know that there is now a Yoga Teacher Barbie available at Target stores. This doll represents so much of what is wrong with the (mixed) messages we send our young girls.

For decades, Mattel has been pitching Barbie as an independent woman and a role model of sorts for our daughters. On one level, Barbie tells girls that they can be astronauts, rock starts, doctors and, yes, yoga teachers. However, the unspoken message that girls receive from Barbie - and from more recent incarnations of the same concept like Bratz dolls - is that they will be respected only if they are considered physically attractive. It is common knowledge that, given her proportions, Barbie could not walk upright if she were a real woman.


Culturally, we seem to be of two minds when it comes to empowering our girls. On one hand, we pay lip service to the importance of telling our girls they are just as capable as boys. On the other hand, we demonstrate to them that, unless they are attractive and behave in ways that are deemed "acceptable," they are not deserving of equal treatment. In fact, as this study done by researchers at Columbia University and NYU, women who are accomplished and who openly make efforts to excel are often considered less likeable than men with the same traits. So, strong women are bitches.

Fiona Apple photo, courtesy of Phillip Nguyen


Gaining equal respect has been a challenge for women throughout history, of course. However, I feel that from the 1970's through the 1990's, American society was making positive progress. When I was in middle school and high school, I remember loving the music of female artists like Alanis Morisette, the Indigo Girls, and Fiona Apple. And before them were musicians like Janis Joplin and Patti Smith. Girls today, however, don't have the same kinds of role models. For the most part, female musicians today are made to look like brightly colored, plastic Barbie dolls and their music tends to be more formulaic. There are a few exceptions, like Adele, for instance. And there are many amazing, strong female musicians whose music is not of the Top 40 variety. But in the 1990's, the dominant zeitgeist gave birth to the Lilith Fair, a phenomenon that simply wouldn't happen today.


We began to see the first hints of this negative trend in the mid-to-late 1990's. It was largely ushered in by the Spice Girls, in my opinion. Remember them? They preached about girl power while dressed as misogynistic clich├ęs. Then we watched as Paris Hilton's astounding fame continued to skyrocket, telling young girls that being a pretty bimbo was desirable. And from there, the conversation around female empowerment continued to degrade to the point that, today, there are politicians seriously arguing that affordable access to birth control is unimportant.

Spice Girls Photo courtesy of Kate Draws

When it comes to sexuality, women are more enlightened than in previous decades, but many woman are still somewhat disempowered. As women, we are not conditioned to be proud of our sexuality in the way that men are. Our culture tells us to be sex but discourages us, in some ways, from being sexually empowered. This, of course, is why intelligent sex education in schools would be hugely helpful for girls. It would teach them to appreciate their bodies before they adopt the disempowering beliefs that are constantly showered upon them.


I'll leave it to the cultural anthropologists to determine why we've made thus u-turn. But I strongly believe that, whatever the reason for its occurrence, this rolling back of respect for women must be abruptly halted. Yes, we must demand that men value us for our minds and souls (and of course, many men already do). But ultimately, it is up to us as women to believe in our own agency and work to prove that we deserve equal respect and treatment.