Ask any woman who she admires or looks up to, who she feels is a good role model, and you may discover that the woman she names as an inspiration isn’t even real. Many women who have inspired entire generations of women were fictional, but still very, very influential. If you’re not sure who I mean, or how they influenced attitudes and perceptions and even pop culture, keep reading! Here’s my list of 7 influential women who never actually lived.
During World War II, women across the country were encouraged to leave their homes and join a workforce that, depleted of young men to work in munitions factories and ship-yards and tank plants, was desperate for people. But women hadn’t really worked outside the home in large numbers before, and it took a little coaxing in the form of propaganda, like the famous Rosie the Riveter, who was very loosely based on a real woman, Rose Will Monroe, who worked in the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Michigan. Rosie was tough but still glamorous, and while many of the women she inspired left their factory jobs when the war was over, some decided to stay, and Rosie has since become an icon of the early feminist movement.
In Puritan New England, adulteresses were subject to public humility, while their male counterparts were often allowed to quietly fade into the background, facing neither censure nor shame. The story of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” made it clear that the social mores of the time badly needed an update, and Prynne’s humility, dignity, and grace inspires women even now. She didn’t long for revenge; she only wanted peace and to be accepted for who she was.
If you’ve grown up a girl in America in the past 50 years, then at some point or another, you’ve owned a Barbie doll. Since her introduction in 1959, she’s been setting unrealistic physical and life expectations. She’s had a number of make-overs, one main boyfriend, lots and lots of jobs (from airline stewardess to doctor) and lots and lots of THINGS. Who can come close to being as successful, gorgeous, and cool as Barbie? And who could possibly have her figure?!?
Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, was a fictional TV character, but she inspired millions of real women who were working their way up in a world dominated by men. Playing the spunky, brilliant Brown, Bergen won five Emmys, but it mostly her portrayal of single motherhood and her embrace of what a modern family can be, that made her beloved of an entire generation of professional women. That, and a completely surreal fictional argument with then-vice president Dan Quayle.
For African American women of a certain age, Claire Huxtable represents a role model like none before her. She’s a professional in a strong marriage to another professional, keeping her home life and work life in a balance the rest of us envy even now. She was glamorous, intelligent, and not white, but it didn’t matter. For the first time, an African American family was portrayed as healthy, strong, and affluent, but still in touch with their own unique heritage.
Though she’s a long way from anyone in the real world, Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft has indeed inspired women, giving them the chance to play a character designed just for them (though, of course, men like playing her games, too). She’s wealthy, gorgeous, smart, and always gets what she wants. She was designed specifically to counter the stereotypical female characters, and her developers were spot-on: people, especially women, love her! That includes me. Yes, I want to be Lara Croft. I’ve even taken Anthropology classes. And did you know she was designed after one of my real-life role models, Neneh Cherry?
While I don’t necessarily agree that the Disney Princesses are the best role models (why do all of these 16-year-old princesses want so desperately to be married, and what’s happened to all of their mothers?), I have to admit that they are popular, and that there are worse role models out there. I think they can set unrealistic expectations, but at least Disney recognizes their power, and tries to design the stories around the Princess franchise to have morals.
These are just a handful of the influential but fictional women, and I’m sure there are more… I know I’ve looked up to Murphy Brown and have tried to be more daring, like Lara Croft… what about you? Which fictional women do you look up to, and why? Please let me know!
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