Diversity, recent, Women

‘Girls Need Female Role Models’ and Other Bromides

There are a handful of dictums in the modern feminist discourse that are so omnipresent, so incontrovertible, so apparently obvious, that, whenever they are pronounced, the only appropriate reaction is enthusiastic head-bobbing. Or, if you prefer, solemn brow-knitting. Like two plus two equals four, these dictums are axioms, not to be discussed, let alone contested.

Challenge them, however, and you’ll see how easily they fall apart. For example, consider the adage “What will we tell our daughters?” Each time I hear this phrase, I remember Emmeline Grangerford from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Miss Grangerford spent her short life writing funereal poetry and died of disappointment, aged fifteen, after failing to compose a satisfactory eulogy for a deceased neighbour called Whistler because she couldn’t find a word to rhyme with his name. What will we tell our daughters? Why not tell them the same thing we will tell our sons, our friends and colleagues, our Thursday night poker group—and that should be whatever is the fairest and most honest analysis of the situation. What else is there to tell? To imply that our daughters require a special dispensation because they are too fragile to handle reality is very Emmeline Grangerford indeed.

Another apparently undeniable tenet is “We need a female perspective.” Editors use this to justify the publication of dull women writers. But there is no such thing as a female perspective. Or a male perspective, for that matter. Our perspective is based on our individual experience and is therefore fundamentally subjective. Two years ago, a Sunday paper asked me to write an article about being a woman in the City. Tell us how you were harassed and discriminated, the editor instructed, and how hard it was to work among men. The truth is, I was never harassed, discriminated, or mistreated in any way. In fact, I had a fabulous time. Looking back at my career, I realise that I enjoyed greater success than my modest skills deserved and, as a young and attractive woman, I got away with things for which any balding, grey-suited City man would have been fired on the spot.

So that is what I wrote, and it was a “female perspective,” all right. But was it a universal female truth? Of course not, and other women may have very different stories to tell. Granted, I knew more about the City than, say, a farmer, or a professor of French literature—but my experience was still limited. If the Sunday paper wanted a comprehensive article on gender diversity in the City, commissioning a woman as a guarantor of gospel truth on all things female was a mistake. An experienced sociologist, someone who studied dozens of companies, interviewed hundreds of employees and approached the matter with scientific impartiality would have offered a far more useful perspective than mine.

But perhaps most aggravating of all is the idea that “Young girls need female role models.” As its proponents are especially militant, I should elaborate on this particular bromide in more detail. Yes, young girls need role models. But whether these role models are male or female is irrelevant. We admire other people for certain qualities. For me, these are honour, courage, talent, kindness, intellect. Decency. Perhaps skill, if it’s on the level of mastery. At a stretch, I would add commercial savvy. But not gender. Gender does not belong on this list.

When I was six years old, I saw a picture of my great countryman Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and I resolved to become a cosmonaut. Gagarin’s open, luminous smile, his astonishing courage, made me want to pull on the spacesuit, buckle up the scaphander, strap myself to the pilot seat of Vostok 1 and shoot up, up, to the open skies, to the far and the unknown, shoulder to shoulder with Colonel Gagarin, my co-pilot and second in command. Together, we would discover Mars and Venus and Jupiter—and Asteroid B612, the home of the Little Prince. Every evening, we would sit on the edge of the Little Prince’s tiny planet, feet dangling in the open space, and we’d watch the sun set and the planet Earth gleam blue from very far away. Gagarin was my first role model. I will always be in awe of his heroism.

“But why wasn’t your role model Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space?” some people ask. “Tereshkova would have been a more appropriate example for a young girl.” Sorry, more appropriate in what way? “Well, she was more like you—as a woman, she faced similar challenges…” But why should I be inspired by people like me? Out of a sense of duty or loyalty, rather than sincere admiration? Isn’t this the definition of thinking small and narrow? Valentina Tereshkova was formidable, and she continues to inspire others. But to me, there was simply no-one like Gagarin.

In my early twenties, I developed a new fascination—my university professor. He taught an elective on French existentialism and gave me an entirely new understanding of the world. He introduced me to André Gide’s Paludes (‘Swamp’), an 1895 novel which annihilates everything that, today, we would regard as an exemplary life. Gide’s protagonist works hard, loves his family, cares for his friends, helps his neighbours. He is decent and dutiful, he lives to do good. But that’s an ideal human, you might exclaim, is he free for a commencement speech/TED talk/podcast interview?

But, you see, to Gide, this man is not a human at all. He’s a social entity. Something fundamental is lacking. Something, perhaps, that a few decades later, Allen Ginsberg would call “the spirit of the universe.” People who do not possess it, who live in the domain of the practical and the day-to-day, who do not seek the transcendental, who do not question if there is something else out there beside work, friends, and family, people who do not search for that divine spark which distinguishes us from, say, a clever dog, live in the swamp. This is a very difficult concept to grasp, and each time I try to explain it, no one understands. But my professor did. He took a sabbatical once, and sent a replacement to finish his course. The new lecturer was perfectly competent, but when I listened to him and compared him to my mentor, I felt a palpable dip in intellect. If you ever read Camilla Shamsie after Nietzsche, or listened to Justin Bieber after Beethoven, you would know what I mean.

My professor was a man, and so was Yuri Gagarin. Both changed me for the better—and this is all that matters in a role model. The person who influenced me most, however, was a woman. But this is not why I admired her. I admired her because I never knew her to be weak—just as I never knew her to be unkind. I never heard her tell a lie. I knew of the sacrifices she had made for those she loved. I knew of the sacrifices she had made for her country: in the Second World War, she was the only woman to attain the rank of a captain in her division. Afterwards, she had a high-flying career and was the main bread-winner in her family—decades before the emergence of second-wave feminism. And she wrote good poetry. Whenever I was around her, I felt I was in the presence of a triumphant human spirit. To this day, whenever I am confronted with a major decision, I think about what she would say and do. If I had not had her in my life, I would have turned out worse. Much worse.

So, yes: Yuri Gagarin, my university professor, and the woman I will not name because her memory is too sacred. These were my role models. We all need role models. Role models can do wonders to our lives. But, please, let’s choose them for their qualities—not their gender.


Elena Shalneva is a London-based journalist, writing about books and film for Standpoint and about office politics for City AM. She has published several short stories, and is currently completing her first collection. She is also guest lecturer at King’s College London. You can follow her on Twitter @ShalnevaE


  1. Female role models are great, provided they don’t push out male role models, especially in prose friction. Recently, my aunt did some work with excluded kids (she is a trained teacher, who left the profession). It prompted a visit to an Early Learning Centre to find suitable reading material. There were plenty of books with female heroines, but in every instance the principal male character had been consigned to the role of useless and ubiquitous sidekick.

    This is harmful as a cultural tendency- quite apart from the fact that it’s a good idea to use every opportunity to model admirable male behaviour, it causes real problems with boys level of reading engagement and interest. We know from tests that boys score better at maths and worse on reading. Personally, I grasped reading fairly early, but saw no reason to cultivate the skill, until my mother refused point blank, to read comic books for my bedtime stories. Less than a year later, I had read Lord of the Rings, and was insisting on regular visits to my local library to pick up a new batch of Doctor Who books…

    We all know what type of books boys like- anything factual that explains the world, and fiction with heroic male role models. Especially given that we now know that male aggression is mainly biological and can’t be socialised out- only channelled into productive activities like competitive sports, it’s time to rethink the reading materials we create for kids. It’s particularly ironic, given all those years of panic over violent video games for boys, we now know that social media for girls was far more harmful.

  2. The writer’s experience resonates with me. However I do believe that we need female role models. Not necessarily the Amelia Earhart type, or the Madame Curie type (characters I bring up whenever indoctrinated students insist that women “weren’t allowed” to do anything in the past). We need to resurrect the female role model WHO UNDERSTANDS MEN. And I don’t mean understands them as broken selfish toxic creatures, but who gets that men are not women, and should not be expected to behave like them either.

    How about a female role model like the mother on The Waltons, who manages a huge household and her role in a small community? Why is it that domestic heroines are a thing of the past? Managing a household is managing a business. It’s managing people. It’s making sure the ‘employees’ have high morale. Why is it promoted as ‘better’ to manage a large corporation? And it’s not as if women haven’t done this in the past, either.

    And here lies the rub with the ‘female role models’ trope: It’s what they currently are designed to represent. Replacing men. Behaving like women who want to replace men, rather than working with men, and assigning the right tasks to the right people, regardless of their sex.

    My role models were both women and men. Generally the females lived independently but were in unmarried relationships with men they adored.

    Perhaps my greatest male role model is a man who took a risk that today would have gotten him fired (if he weren’t black). He advised me to stop writing female victim stories. Told me I was part of a witch hunt. It took a while to sink in, but this man basically saved my life.

  3. In addition to hating males, modern feminism seeks to make slaves, or at least religious devotees, of modern women. A feminist professor may bemoan the lack of female scientists, but the very last thing she wants is for some plucky student to raise her hand and say: “You’re right, fuck this gender studies class. I’m enrolling into physics tomorrow.”

  4. No kidding about the effect of social media on women. My current sexual fantasy is a woman who doesn’t take a photo of the food if I take her to a nice restaurant.

  5. “The truth is, I was never harassed, discriminated, or mistreated in any way. In fact, I had a fabulous time. “

    Too bad there are not more honest assessments like this in a world in search of victimhood. When searching for role models it is not their gender one should seek to emulate but rather their character.
    Odd that patently obvious statement needed to be the subject of an article. No disrespect intended to the author, just a sign of the times I suppose.

  6. @RayAndrews @Pietro_Aretino, I agree with the author that there’s no such thing as a “female” or “male” perspective, because such a thing would assume that opinions in these groups are monoliths. Even if it could be said that there are average group differences in perspective, that would still preclude any individual from being capable of adequately representing the group.

    People referring to such perspectives often fall back on tired stereotypes, such as women feeling weak and victimised and men being privileged assholes. Those that fall outside those stereotypical boxes are strangely excluded from their own sex category by such narrow thinking: my conservatism and disagreeable nature frequently gets me accused of being a male with a fake profile on Facebook.

    I also agree with the author that you do not need your role models to be of your demographic, and I find the suggestion itself superficial. Carl Sagan was my childhood role model: I never once thought my lack of a penis meant I couldn’t try to be like him. If anything, it is not the lack of female (or POC, or LGBT) role models that’s damaging, but the implication you should need them.

  7. But perhaps most aggravating of all is the idea that “Young girls need female role models.” As its proponents are especially militant, I should elaborate on this particular bromide in more detail. Yes, young girls need role models. But whether these role models are male or female is irrelevant.

    That really depends on whether men and women have different social roles. Not whether they should have different roles, but whether the observably do have different roles.

  8. But not gender. Gender does not belong on this list.

    If, by gender, the writer means sex, then the writer should say sex. There are two sexes, male and female. All of us - minus a small number of developmental anomalies - are either one or the other. Gender is ‘la plume de ma tante.’ If any other meaning should apply, at most it should be when referring to attitude and behavior, not identity.

    Two ‘X’ chromosomes and ovaries = female sex.
    One ‘X’ and one ‘Y’ chromosome plus testicles = male sex.
    German has masculine, feminine and neuter gendesr - not three sexual identities.

    Stop using gender when you mean sex. When you use their language, you forfeit your own belief.

    Simple, no?

  9. Of course you can find role models in any shape and color and place in the world, even and often in the world of fiction/fantasy. However, there is, or can be, a difference if the model in question is closer or farther from the realm of possibility. For instance, I wanted to be WITH Joe Hardy (sorry Frank) while I wanted to BE Nancy Drew.

    It would be interesting to ask a boy, from any generation, even today, about his role models. I guarantee 99.9% will be male. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not sexism. It’s just natural. If women have more male role models, it’s probably because more variety is available.

    So while I admire people of both sexes and all races, I identify better with women, and yes, women of my race.

  10. Yes it’s a weird sort of social constructionist claim. Of course there is a female perspective. Well, female perspectives, in the same way there is a range of femininities. She seems to mean there is no quintessential or representative female perspective.

    Or not valid feminist perspective. I sure give my female perspective to male feminists when I encounter them.

    She also seems to conflate perspective with personal experience. There is that horrifically bad feminist idea that there needs to be female perspectives in philosophy—which should form a shibboleth to automatically fail any (analytic) philosophy course. But of course I had a female perspective in choosing which rational positions and arguments to choose in my own philosophy assignments.

  11. Whilst I understand the thrust of your argument and agree to a degree, I’d like to point out that one of the major role models in every boy’s life is his mother - and especially so now that so many boys are raised without fathers.

    This isn’t to denigrate a natural thing nor to define it in over-rigid terms but children indeed take on role models from their parents; my own were somewhat reversed from the ‘traditional’ ones but on reflection so were half of my peers’ parents.

    My mother and my father were important role models both for my own behavior ( a mix of their own) and for what I looked for in a life partner: a person who could mix masculine and feminine to both succeed in their own adult life as a free adult and to apply themselves to various roles they might adapt throughout that adult life.

  12. It’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it!
    Why is there a prevalent denigration of the importance of motherhood (and fatherhood come to that).
    There is a very lovely essay (by the delightful Ally) on this over at The Philosophy of Motherhood .
    “My own mother, despite her own belittling, did have a place in her kitchen. Her glory was not found in the praise of men, but the love of her family. Her kitchen was a spiritual and emotional refuge from the material cares of the world. As a child, my own insecurities and anxiety were always left behind as I smeared butter on my warm, freshly-cut slice. In the end, education, financial gains, and the “glory of men” are insignificant contributors to my current health, perspective, and contentment. My happiness was baked in my childhood, in my mother’s bread.”

  13. “Yes, young girls need role models. But whether these role models are male or female is irrelevant. We admire other people for certain qualities. For me, these are honour, courage, talent, kindness, intellect. Decency. Perhaps skill, if it’s on the level of mastery. At a stretch, I would add commercial savvy. But not gender. Gender does not belong on this list.”

    Author has mistaken the point of gender in role-modelling. If I want to see how a t-shirt would look on me I’d like the model to share my body shape. Gender is not the role being modelled; gender is the model modelling the role.

  14. It’s a sad truth that most media are after views and clicks. Victimhood is just a method to draw in clicks. That’s why sober analysis is usually only found in books.

    What I’ve noticed a lot is that there is also a strong trend of concept creep, where words like harassment, rape, abuse etc used to mean something horrific, but their definitions are being expanded to mean things that most people would consider to be much less serious, such as the case of someone regretting a one night stand, or someone being awkward about how they ask someone out. It’s almost as though there isn’t enough serious stuff to fuel the ideology, so the ideology has to bump up the statistics to make it look worse than it is.

  15. I think this statement would be more accurate if you left out the word ‘male’ in front of the phrase ‘heroic male role models’

    Boys like heroic role models, with a real hero’s journey, an epic struggle and demons, inner and outer, to fight and overcome. Well rounded, complete portrayals.

    Stories written as inspiration for girls rarely have this. Instead, we are given super competent individuals for whom the hero’s journey is a trifle, and all characters exist to heap praise upon the heroine–the villains curse her amazing beauty, devastating wit and total perfection. Her allies laud her amazing beauty, devastating wit and total perfection.

    The only semblance of a heroic journey she ever has is betrayal–when an ally takes advantage of the largesse she has bestowed and dares to assume that they can be a rival. Ha ha! They are easily dispatched and the brief ‘conflict’ is soon buried beneath a mountain of praise.

    Boys can’t stand stories like that.

    But the big secret is that girls can’t stand stories like that either.

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