PEABODY — She's known from coast to coast as the cupcake lady, but Rebecca Hains of Peabody isn't all sweetness. And she's much more than someone caught up in a government snafu.
Otherwise, you probably wouldn't have heard from her when airport security officers seized her cupcake prior to a Dec. 21 flight from Las Vegas. The guardians of the air suspected all was not kosher with its "gel-like" vanilla-bourbon icing.
When the Transportation Security Administration seized Hains' cupcake, the Salem State University communications professor knew just how to respond. "If the TSA was going to take a cupcake from somebody," she says now, "take one from somebody who knows what to do with the media attention."
She began fielding questions from media outlets all over the country and eventually appeared on "Fox & Friends," an early morning news show.
None of this was planned, however.
"I never dreamed it would go viral," she said, adding that it was the bakery, Wicked Good Cupcakes in Cohasset, that began spreading the word.
She laughs when people suggest she knew in advance that the specter of terrorism would arise at the sight of her cupcake. Part of her ease in handling all this comes from the way she was raised and something she calls "girl power."
By a happy coincidence, Hains' brush with fame came only weeks before publication of her book "Growing Up With Girl Power." It's a study that examines the sorts of role models and influences available to young girls today and the impact these have.
Hains, 35, spent a year and a half following the progress of two groups of girls, about 20 in all, ages 8 to 11. She spent hours talking with them and visited their homes.
"The quantity of interaction was great," she said.
Strong role models are a key part of developing girl power, Hains said, and these examples often emerge from pop culture. She cites, in recent years, the effect of the singing group "The Spice Girls" in the 1990s. In interviews, she listened to young people who grew up in that era laud their influence.
Yet pop stars are not enough, Hains stresses.
Today, she doesn't see any single role model for girls. Rather, mass culture offers "a better range of role models. ... In the last decade, there are so many more females in lead roles on television, which has improved girls' ideas of what they can do. It shows them that they have strength."
The best role models, she believes, "are any young woman or women out there doing good work in the world, trying to improve the world and themselves."
These are individuals who reach for their dreams. From the world of pop culture, she cites Harry Potter's sidekick, Hermione, or the Disney heroine in the animated feature film "Mulan." As for real people, she offers a list including Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Julia Child and Rosa Parks.
On the negative side, Hains raises concerns about some of the images young girls confront, including a determined effort to emphasize differences that separate boys and girls — a policy, she says, that carries right down to the pink version of the traditionally red Radio Flyer wagon.
"Look at any toy store," she said. The girls section "is pink, pink, pink." And overwhelmingly girls at ages 3 to 5 are drawn to and offered the Disney princesses.
"There's nothing wrong with that unless it's the only idea," she said, adding that it "almost makes it impossible for boys and girls to play together."
Nor is it a small matter, Hains said. "The most important work that young children do is through play."
Disney notwithstanding, young girls are also increasingly exposed to adult sexuality, Hains said. She gives the example of a girl who enjoyed an interactive Internet site allowing kids to dress up dolls, trying on all sorts of outfits. But the figures offered were so "curvaceous and buxom" that the girl didn't notice the difference when one day she stumbled on a pornographic site offering similar features.
She cites a 7-year-old who decided her dress-up doll would look "hotter" with a bra.
Despite progress, Hains laments that girls still struggle with issues of self-esteem and unrealistic body images promoted by the media.
Sex shouldn't be the thing that introduces girls to the wider world, Hains said. She urges people to confront the problem, noting that as hard as parents try to shield their children from the media, it can be all but impossible. "It's everywhere," she said, "even if you don't watch it at home."
Married, with one small son, Hains grew up in Methuen and earned a doctorate at Temple University. Her interest in communications goes back to her days in the high school reporter program at The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover.