In a short personal essay for Glamour from 2017, author Christopher Rosa waxes lyrical about what he sees as a rare and praiseworthy personal trait. “I’m a 24-year-old guy, and all of my role models are women,” he begins emphatically. “They always have been.” He notes his “incredible mother and older sister,” that nearly all his teachers and bosses have been women and that he’s “even inspired by the women in the music, movies and TV” he consumes. For all of this preening, though, he names just five — Britney Spears, Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga and Vanessa Grigoriadis — and devotes only a single line to the qualities he admires in one of them: “I didn’t idolize Spears in a sexual, exploitative way like my male peers did. I admired her talent and strength.” Bluntly, the piece is less about what makes these women special than about how special he is for admiring them.
Rosa’s right that it’s unusual for men to have female role models, and there’s since been a flurry of commentary on the topic. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Emma Watson lamented that when young boys are asked which superheroes they look up to, few, if any, cite heroines, and when Jodie Whittaker was announced as the first female Doctor Who, actor Peter Davidson described the decision as a “loss of a role model for boys,” prompting immediate backlash. Writers argued that boys can and should have female role models, and that their reluctance to emulate women is regrettable — fairly uncontentious claims in progressive circles.
But speaking to men about their female role models is still like pulling teeth, and not only because they usually don’t consider women candidates in the first place — that’s only the first hurdle. Men often make predictable, clichéd choices — as my colleague Zaron Burnett III pointed out in 2014, fictional characters like Wonder Women and “my mother” are the most common answers — and they cite reasons that shore up traditional notions of femininity and service (“she always put us kids first”).
To test whether we’d come any further than this in the last few years, I asked men on Twitter to tell me about their role models. I didn’t specify that they needed to be people of any particular gender, and sure enough, all but two of the roughly 35 men who replied to me named male role models: One named his mother in a list including about 10 men, and the second named Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which seemed to confirm the “mom or fictional character” hypothesis. Another guy even said that he was responding to my request about “male role models,” so he’d automatically conflated “role models for men” with “male role models.”
When I went on to ask these men about female role models in particular, many gave examples of women in their families or personal lives, like their mothers, wives and bosses. “Is it lame to say my wife?” asked Andrew Forrester, a 31-year-old from Texas, rhetorically. “She’s extremely charitable in how she treats others, and I want to make people feel the way she makes them feel.”
There’s nothing inherently negative about choosing a role model you know personally — it might even be healthier than wanting to emulate certain public figures — but men seem to do this less often with their male heroes. As Burnett notes, familial role models go without saying. “Our parents are usually role models, that’s kinda how that works,” he writes. “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.”
Here, looking out over the cultural landscape, is where more interesting answers start to emerge. Artists and writers were popular choices among the men I spoke to, as were political figures and activists. “She seems fearless, vocal and unrelenting,” Arash Azizzada, a 32-year-old in Washington D.C., says of Angela Davis. “She is a unique and under-covered story in a tumultuous part of American history. She went up against the system and came out on top.”
Bobby Simmons, a 35-year-old in London, tells me Ursula K. Le Guin is an example for him — “she took the set coordinates of writing and understood that those parameters can be totally reshaped in ways we couldn’t imagine before” — and Terrence Greene, a 23-year-old from Ireland, named performers like Robyn, M.I.A., Katie Taylor and Sinead O’Connor.
It shouldn’t be difficult to convince men that women like Davis and Le Guin are worth emulating, or rare for men to name them as role models. But an unwillingness to identify with womanhood and femininity is a cornerstone of traditional masculinity, and the reverse isn’t true. Consider, for example, this study of gendered characters in children’s storybooks which found that girls responded better to a male role model than boys did with a female role model. This prohibition on identifying with womanhood means that men and boys tend to view women as women — i.e., the Other — first, and as a set of potentially admirable characteristics, values and actions second, if at all.
That this is dehumanizing for women is self-evident, but men are also poorer for it. “I’d been trying to build up a body of thought in my chosen profession with one hand tied behind my back, cheating myself out of countless other narratives,” Miles Klee writes in a piece about men not reading female writers. “If you’re passionate about an art, a science, a sport or a business, you owe it to yourself to seek out the women who are mastering it, and to study how they do so. Otherwise, you’ll never get more than halfway to anywhere good.”
Convincing men that women can be their role models is part of a wider battle to persuade them that women are fully human. Throughout the ages, women have been viewed as either sub-human or as goddesses, but never as “all the way human,” to use Terry Crews’ memorable phrase. In her aforementioned Entertainment Weekly interview, Watson says that she feels “like we need to live in a culture that values, respects, looks up to and idolizes women as much as men,” but women can probably do without the idolization, given that this pedestalizing has always been shallow, distancing and ultimately to men’s benefit. As the long-running, black feminist organization the Combahee River Collective says in its mission statement, “to be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.”
If men can’t view women as fully human — as people who happen to be women — then they’ll never really see them as role models. This helps explain why they need to be pushed to consider women in the first place, and why they’ll often then champion fictional characters like Wonder Woman or saintlike, maternal figures who make them feel good or serve them rather than those who are fully realized, flawed and independent.
Role models are supposed to be people you want to emulate, after all. How many men are truly out here emulating their mothers?