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Why Boys Don’t Have Many Female Role Models

Couldn’t a woman starring in ‘Doctor Who’ be a role model for young men, too?

News that the 13th Dr. Who would be played by — gasp! — a woman led to a lot of hand-wringing, but took a more complicated turn when a former male actor who played the role in the 1980s deemed the change a loss of a good role model for boys. As the BBC explained, the Doctor is supposed to be a gender-shifting alien, but the controversy highlighted an issue we don’t often discuss: Why can’t a female Dr. Who still be a role model for boys? Can’t boys have a female role model, anyway? Can’t girls have a male one?

Role models matter. We need to see successful people like “us,” whatever that looks like, to believe we can succeed, too. Social learning theory posits that, as children, we mimic what we see adults do. Role models often start out as parents or other family members, but soon become peers, and anyone viewed as successful, including media and celebrity types. Kids who lack positive role models at home or in their communities have greater challenges in life because they often have to “guess” at what normal looks like. It’s harder to follow a roadmap to success if you can’t see one in the first place.

If you’re poor, for instance, seeing others from your background succeed in spite of the same challenges you face makes it seem possible. If you’re a 5-year-old black boy visiting the White House and touching Barack Obama’s hair, it might make the highest office in the land seem within reach for people who look like you.

So what does the fact that we so strongly identify with role models of our own gender mean about us? Sometimes it means that we just trust our own gender more. One study found that same-sex role models in advertising had a greater impact on deterring teenage girls and boys from drinking than opposite-sex ones.

Sometimes it means we need to see our gender represented somewhere it doesn’t normally appear. In male-dominated arenas, women report being more inspired by female role models than men do by male role models.

If you’re a girl in a STEM field, for instance, seeing female engineers, academics, scientists and mathematicians—in real life, or even just in a film, like Hidden Figures, which highlights overlooked women of color in STEM fields — is a critical part of believing you can cut it. It’s not that boys can’t benefit from encouragement or mentors in STEM fields; it’s that when most of the STEM jobs are held by men, boys have fewer obstacles to entry.

In other words, anywhere girls face more negative stereotypes, the impact of a positive same-sex role model is more significant. Same with race. Barack Obama as president wasn’t necessarily a role model for all boys — we’ve had all male presidents since the dawn of America. But it was significant for black boys, because Obama was the first black president, and black males are still lagging in high school and graduation rates, to say nothing of the highest positions of power (only five Fortune 500 companies have black CEOs). But Hillary Clinton running for president was a potential role model for all girls (though likely less so for girls of color), since we’ve still never had a female president.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Studies find that girls are more likely to have a male role model than boys are to have a female role model. One study on the impact of same-sex role models looked at the self-esteem building of third grade children via storybooks. It found that girls and boys both got an esteem boost from same-sex characters in the books — not surprising. Yet they also found that girls responded far more positively to a male role model than boys did to a female role model.

This makes sense for a few key reasons: There are a lot more male role models than female role models, because men typically hold higher positions of power in more celebrated roles, and are featured as exciting protagonists in more films, books and art. Women in lead roles in feature films reached an all-time high in 2016—but all-time high means they took only 29 percent of the leads in the year’s top 100 films. (Up 7 percent from 2015.)

We also live in a male-dominated society, which means male is the default and women are “the other.” Since dominant groups set the default point-of-view, it’s naturally easier for women to identify and look up to men in positions of power than it is the reverse. In other words, boys don’t have to identify with female role models because they don’t “need” them. Women, on the other hand, faced with a far greater shortage of representation in art and media — and far fewer heroes who look like them — make do with what they’ve got.

“Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story,” Laurie Penny wrote at The New Statesman about the issue. “Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s. … Sure, there were tomboys and bad girls, but they were freaks and were usually killed off or married off quickly. Lady hobbits didn’t bring the ring to Mordor. They stayed at home in the shire.”

This is why a female Dr. Who shouldn’t be a problem. Throw us a bone, dudes, you’ve got plenty to spare:

But a discussion of Penny’s point-of-view by Maryanne Johanson at Flick Filosopher highlights another layer. Johnson cites a commenter on Penny’s piece who argues it’s really about boys not wanting to be anything like girls:

We have a world where girls grow up identifying closely with male heroes and putting ourselves into their shoes, understanding and relating to them. Do you think boys grow up identifying with women characters at ALL? It’s unlikely when the most potent insult to men and boys is either that they are girly or gay. Identifying with women characters would be threatening to them. I doubt a single boy (unless he doesn’t identify himself as such) imagines himself to be Hermione.

For what it’s worth, though, some boys do look up to Hermione:

And recently, actor Liev Schreiber took his 8-year-old son Kai to ComicCon dressed as Suicide Squad vixen Harley Quinn:

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Some people were expectedly upset, but Schreiber also received praise for doing so:

But other men are hard-pressed to identify any female role models. Writing about it at Thought Catalog, Zaron Burnett, who says Amelia Earhart is still his ultimate icon of daring and bravery, pressed his male friends to name a female role model. “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,’” he writes. Or the more common answer, ‘My mom is my role model.’”

He pressed one friend a little more to think of any other woman he admired, and after a series of jokes and dodging, the friend finally noted Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential biographer.

Part of this hesitation, of course, has to do with entrenched beliefs about masculinity—about being boys and girls and having role models that teach us how to be boys and girls. In the most basic sense, we’ve pushed the notion culturally that girls and boys learn how to be men and women from mothers and fathers respectively. Girls and boys who don’t learn this from the appropriately gendered parent might not turn out “right” — an argument often used in opposition to same-sex marriage and adoption. How would boys turn out if they were raised with only lesbians as role models, for instance? (A study found they turned out just fine, because they found role models in many other places, too.)

It goes without saying that the more we can relate to other successful, admirable people, the better off we all are. It’s hard to imagine any man or woman going into physics or chemistry wouldn’t look up to Marie Curie. Or any pilot wouldn’t look up to Amelia Earhart. Or that any mathematician or computer programmer wouldn’t admire Ada Lovelace. And fortunately the tide is shifting a little:

Maybe the problem is simply our own bias and fear of encouraging men to identify with women. Writing at Metro U.K., Rebecca Reid argues that more boys would probably have female role models if we just let them do so without such a fuss. After all, success is success.

“A role model is someone who you look up to, someone who you aspire to be like,” Reid writes. “You do not need to have the same genitals as the person you look up to.”