This is such a silly question to ask, don’t you think? Like, why wouldn’t a man pick a woman as his role model? Why wouldn’t a man see qualities or traits or habits in a successful woman and want to emulate them?
Yet, every time I ask a guy I know if he has any female role models I hear answers like:
“Yeah, I totally do. Wonder Woman.”
Or the more common answer, “My mom is my role model.”
Aw, that’s so sweet. But that’s not at all what I mean. Our parents are usually role models, that’s kinda how that works. But once you’re out of the house, learning to be the person you want to be, as you gaze across our culture looking for inspiration and examples, and you see someone and say to yourself, “There! There’s someone I want to be like!”
How often does a man pick a woman as that person?
The other day I was walking with a friend. During a lull in our conversation I asked him who his female role model is. I decided to assume he could or should have one and skipped ahead to the question of who is she?
Most of my friends expect out-of-the-blue questions from me. And they usually don’t balk at them, either. They don’t shrug them off. It’s like a game we play — a fun distraction from whatever adult concerns presently cloud our minds. But not this time. My friend shrugged me off. So I asked him again when we were a little further down the block.
This time I rephrased it. “Growing up, who were the women you wanted to be like?”
My friend started to speak. Hesitated. Thought about his answer some more. He knitted his brow in thoughtful consternation. After a few more paces, he turned, looked at me. There was a somewhat embarrassed look in his eye.
He said, “I don’t want to be a woman.”
I wanted to laugh. It was so honest, such a truthful answer. I stopped myself from laughing. I contained my growing smile. I didn’t want to confirm my friend’s feelings of shame. Important to ensure he felt safe to share his honest thoughts with me. To let my amusement out, I nodded with all of the enthusiasm of laughter.
My friend continued, “I’m not like you, Z, I don’t want to be a woman.”
That’s not quite how I would put it. But he’s right. He and I are different when it comes to how we view women. Since I was raised by women, picking female role models came as natural to me as PMS regularly visited my sister. I grew up paying attention to women. You could say it was purely selfish. I found it made my life/world better. One of the benefits of attuning myself to women was I found there are scores of them who have a way of being that I wish to emulate. I didn’t necessarily want to be them, but I sure wanted to be like them.
Amelia Earhart was my first serious female role model. She was an unmitigated badass. Any seven-year-old who heard her story could figure that out. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up, even more than I wanted to be an astronaut. To my young eyes, Amelia Earhart was, and remains, my image of what bravery looks like.
I told this to my friend as an example of having a female role model. To me, Amelia Earhart was daring incarnate. I asked my friend for the third time if there were any women he wanted to be like. Any woman. As long as it wasn’t his mother.
My friend was growing frustrated. He seemed to resent that I kept pressing him for an answer when he’d attempted to answer twice before. Now my questions were making him feel like he was losing a game he no longer wanted to play. Or perhaps he was just irritated that I was repeating myself. His annoyance showed in his body language, shoulders rode higher, lines pinched in his face, mouth flattened, lips thinned.
As if to put the conversation behind us, he told me he didn’t have any female role models. He never did. He only wanted to be a man when he grew up. He only looked up to men. Later, he liked women, but sexually. He concentrated on the ones he was attracted to, so he wasn’t looking for women he wanted to emulate. He had never really had any female role models. Not one.
But then he added, since I’d kept after him, that he did remember his long since departed grandfather telling him stories about when he was a boy back in the late twenties, living with his older sisters. My friend remembered thinking that his grandfather’s older sisters sounded really cool. They were actual-factual flappers. They had short hair, wore crazy beaded knee-high dresses, drank bathtub gin, smoked cigarettes in public and listened to jazz music. It all sounds so quaint now, but at the time, they were rebels. Those badass flapper girls.
While we were both relieved to find my friend had female role models, something struck me about this conversation. My friend’s only female role models were an historic ideal, no different than Amazon women or Cleopatra; no different than Amelia Earhart. Neither of us had mentioned living women. No one said Kathryn Bigelow, for example.
I found this pattern repeating itself with every guy I asked who his female role models were. I texted one friend and asked who were his female role models other than his mother.
He texted back, “your mother.”
A few moments later, he added “She’s so role ‘modely’ … it’s hawt!”
I tried a new tactic. I declared that he had no female role models. Perhaps he’d rise to the challenge and prove me wrong. But he was ready for me. He deflected my attempt.
He texted back, “I wanna be hot like some women.”
It was at least an answer. I asked which women.
He replied, “Doris Kearns Goodwin.”
(If you don’t know who she is, she’s a biographer, political commentator, presidential historian, and the author of a very famous bestseller about Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals.)
Doris Kearns Goodwin was his *mic drop* out of our text exchange.
But the subtext is the real story. My friend couldn’t see women as anything more than sexual beings. Like, he sexualized my mother. That’s hawt. And then he suggested he’d want to be like … hot women. That’s double hawt! And then, in order to give a straight answer, he tried to completely unsex the idea of a female role model and picked a presidential historian — but he still picked one who wears tasteful Chanel skirt-suits for her TV appearances. Doris is librarian hawt!
Some dudes told me they did indeed have female role models, if we’re including make-believe women. They looked up to characters from movies, TV, anime and comics. They were okay with having a fictional woman as a role model. They didn’t picture being her, rather they appreciated a superpower or one attribute of her personality, and usually, as they spoke, their respect for her shifted to talk of her as a partner, as a complement to them and their abilities.
The only woman whose name came up often was Sigourney Weaver. (I don’t know if this has to do with her height or with the fact that she kicked all kind of alien ass on screen). But other than Sigourney Weaver, it was difficult to find a woman — even a fictional one — a lot of men wanted to be like. This surprised me. I was almost embarrassed to admit my list of female role models runs at least twenty deep. And here I couldn’t find a guy who had a list of at least three.
Why was it so difficult to find a man who had any women for role models, other than his mother (or a close family member)?
“I don’t want to be a woman.”
That’s how my friend put it. And why would he? Women are often portrayed as weak, or as victims, as dumb bitches, as sexpots to be exploited, as crazy dingbats, or as fat fountains of funny one-liners and practitioners of prat falls. Unless you seek it out, women in mass-consumed media are usually not portrayed as the character you want to be. And that’s just in the fictive universe.
This hidden hierarchy of gender in language and culture runs rampant as blackberry thicket and is just as thorny and difficult to remove. It’s that bias that makes men reluctant to be like women, or identify with women, or imagine life from a woman’s eyes, or conceive of what a day in her experience might be like that. That’s a problem.
Not only can a man have female role models, men should have female role models. The world is better when they do. I can’t believe this advice might sound crazy to some ears, but get ready for it: boys should be told that’s it cool and smart to want to be like women.
A smart man selects from both men and women for his role models. He learns from both and draws lessons from the whole body of humanity’s experience, rather than only taking counsel from the half he might meet in a public restroom.
What is a role model? In the simplest terms, it’s someone you wish to be like. I think it’s safe to say, without citing scientific studies, any man can wish to be like a woman without wanting to be a woman. It’s similar to spending an insomniac night on YouTube, watching Siberian tigers and at some point thinking to yourself: Damn, that’s a badass cat! Look at how it muscles through all that shoulder-deep snow. I would love to be that powerful and graceful. What must that be like?
And yet, at no point do you think, “I want to be a tiger.” (Okay, bad example, maybe I do for a moment or two, whatever). Obviously, you want to channel their powerful grace but you’re not picturing yourself in the snow, hopping around, wearing the stripes. It’s the same with women. A man can imagine emulating a woman’s powerful grace — and do so — without having to figure out the mysteries of buying a bra that fits or deciding if he’s a tampon-or-pad kinda guy. A smart man looks past those obvious (sitcom punchline) gender differences and sees competent women all around him; some of whom are his equals and some of whom are superior. When he spots such a woman, one with enviable skills — maybe she also has a successful attitude, smart work habits, and is a master troubleshooter with tons of diagnostic tricks, he says to himself — “There! There’s someone I want to be like.”
For this cunning man, it’s purely coincidental that he chooses to look up to a woman. Rather than her gender, he sees her excellence. He chooses to study her success, in order to taste his own. When humanity adopts that sort of cooperative/competitive approach to life, our evolution looks more like a cotillion than a concrete jungle.
Zaron Burnett III on Twitter