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Everybody says Jesus and Einstein: Representations of female role models

August 24, 2013

If you stopped your average man on the street and asked him who his heroes were, his role models, the people he finds most inspiring, most likely he will pick another man. In a sense, this is natural; we tend to identify people who we have something in common with as being role models because we empathise with them more, we can see ourselves in their shoes because we share characteristics. Even if the characteristics are only skin deep, it seems to matter. Black authors will usually have a higher following of black fans, gay entertainers often never get off the LGBT circuit because of their highly supportive fanbase.

As normal as this is, I bet that if you stopped a woman on the street and asked her who she found inspiring, a good proportion of those you asked would pick men. OK, so they might pick the usual; Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Einstein, Jesus. To quote Adaptation: “Everybody says Jesus and Einstein!” Yes, these answers have the flavour of being too perfect; pre-packaged answers for a loaded question. For it is a loaded question. We expect people to pick men and, whilst many if not all of those men were rather extraordinary, a mention of equally inspiring women would tend to raise an eyebrow. It might even make people accuse you, if you are a woman, of being the F word. Nasty feminists, blerh!

The school of thought is not at all out of place here. You might be forgiven for thinking, as I once did, that women’s absence from this list is due to women’s absence from historical achievement, through no fault of their own; after all, how can one achieve in the face of all that oppression? But it turns out even this is incorrect. The real reason for female absence is because of a systematic wipe from history; sometimes intentional, sometimes not.

DNA is one of the greatest recent discoveries in science and we largely have Rosalind Franklin to thank for it, but few people know who she is. If you remember who Oskar Schindler was, you probably do so because he was depicted in the blockbuster hit Schindler’s List. You might think that, having saved 1,200 Jewish lives, he was the top humanitarian during the holocaust. Not so. Irena Sendler actually saved twice as many – something I only found out while watching The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, a straight-to-TV production from CBS.  Her story did not lack dramatic interest and could easily have been given to Spielberg, but it wasn’t.

Then only too recently, I found out that the announced “first British astronaut to go into space”, Tim Peake, is not any such thing; the first was a woman by the name of Helen Sharman, in 1989. The reason she was not cited as such is because of a bureaucratic technicality I do not fully understand about the nature of the first “official” British astronaut to go into space… I don’t know about you, but for me actually going up into space is pretty fucking official. It may not be intentional sexism, but in a world where women in the sciences are still shrugged off and marginalised, I would take every opportunity to celebrate the top female role models we have.


Big names in the media often get asked who their role models are and female celebrities tend to fall back on the old expected trend of naming members of the same sex. It wouldn’t be interesting for them to mention the top names in social justice, since it would simply be a given that the celebrities in question would think of them approvingly, and listeners / readers of the interview would be looking for a more personal flavour, not a pre-packaged response.

It may only be my perception, but I’m sure that when female celebrities talk about their female role models, they justify their choices more, using phrases like “She’s such a strong woman.” I’m with Meryl Streep on this one; it’s odd we feel the need to specially qualify that women are strong, rather than just assuming that they are, as we do with men. I don’t think there has ever been a time when women weren’t “strong”, depending on your definition of the word; I feel pretty certain Streep and all those other celebs weren’t referring to body builders. They were talking about people who speak their mind, take what they need and sort themselves out.

Throughout history we have all had to do that, including women; the era of complete male dominance is a fallacy. Women always found ways of achieving their independence, even if they were comparatively small victories compared to today. In this world, individuals will be individuals and some will appear stronger than others, some will have more facility to show their strength, and some will be strong in ways we never thought of. As a person who has never experienced acute grief, I would say that a person who lives through this is “strong”, even if they don’t just happen to become Prime Minister while they’re at it. In short, when someone says a “strong woman” they’re talking about actions which indicate a natural state that has always existed, without realising that they are doing so.

What would happen if a man was specifically asked to pick a female role model? Even in this age of super-powered successful female authors who write internationally famous books popular across all genders, I think your average man would hesitate. It may be the general nature of the question (there are so many) or it may be the unexpected nature (we are so used to giving role models of the same sex, it might throw us for a loop) or it may be that the answer is more controversial than he feels comfortable sharing (Margaret Thatcher? You monster!) – an issue in its own right, since if only the controversial figures should be on the forefront of his mind, it suggests that to get noticed women have to really ruffle feathers. However, I think it is most likely that your average man has simply never thought of the answer to the question. There is no reason to. Or so you might think.

The fact is, you have to go out of your way to find female role models whilst it’s pretty easy to pick male ones. Women would not have trouble citing males as inspirations (in the mouths of men, women tend to get shunted into the “muse” category), particularly in their specific fields of interest; an art student could pick a male artist, an opera fanatic could pick a bass vocalist. At first it seems that the reason for this is that there are simply fewer successful, leading women. This is true only in terms of exposure; there are fewer successful, leading women in the public eye. If you want to see them, you have to go digging for them, and once you start digging, you realise that there is no shortage. This begs the interesting question of why you have to dig in the first place.

The internet is filled with blogs, articles, vlogs and podcasts from highly intelligent, articulate, politically active, interesting women of all ages, backgrounds, colours and nationalities but television shows little to no sign of this. Go to your TV and channel flip. Unless you’re in for the long haul, the snippets you see will not show you women in action, in that old war poster sense of the word. If you go for a serial or drama series, you may see something worth watching. If you skim the surface, you will see: male presenters, male comedians, male scientists, male historians, male journalists, male politicians, male wildlife presenters – unless you are watching children’s television.

Despite being ubiquitous, female members of these professions still feel like a gimmick or curiosity on TV. A sort of “Look, we’ve got women! Actual living, breathing women!” It should not be a cause for congratulations, and yet social media is full of praise for the presence of Mary Beard, as if someone managed to find The One True Genuine Female Professor who can actually present. Usually they go with a child prodigy turned supermodel and back again.

On the other side, you have women as newsreaders and weather reporters, but you’d have to be pretty hard up for role models to be a die-hard fan of a (purported) meteorologist who insists on referring to sunshine as “a nice day”. I’ll be the judge of that, if you don’t mind. Alas, you are also only ever an accidental button-press away from The Real Housewives of New Jersey and all its many, many variations (as if it makes a difference what part of the world you’re in when filming people that monumentally vapid).

In unisex situations like a political debate, heated discussions often drown out the voices of women. I’m not convinced much has changed since the days Margaret Thatcher when was required to change her voice so she wouldn’t put all the male voters off with her “screeching”. Every time I hear a woman getting passionate on a subject, she is accused of the same in that odious area universally known as the comment section. Brash comedies, like panel shows, also mute women; the final broadcast gives you the impression that a good proportion of the female guests made one joke that was barely heard and then sat there in complete silence for the next few hours.

They didn’t. Their comments fell on deaf ears and we will never know if they were worth hearing because someone in the cutting room decided they weren’t. Women are left on the cutting room floor. Worse still, we will never know who was in that cutting room and as a result which personal preferences and prejudices we may have been subjected to without our knowledge. It’s one of many types of (hopefully) unintentional manipulation that skews our idea of what’s normal or even possible.

Then there are fictional representations. Once again, while women writers have written tremendously successful male characters, men tend to stick to writing main characters of the same sex, or children of either sex. I attribute this to a problem in the way that we see women that may not on the surface appear to be negative; men feel unqualified to write about women because of some lingering idea about the mysterious nature of women. The myth is that they are unknowable or more complex than men. Obviously this does a disservice to men too, and if women are unknowable, it is only because the day-to-day nature of their lives and bodies is being concealed from us – if only born of a fear of what we might uncover. Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!

This Victorian-esqe eulogising of women’s nature distracts from their reality and is nothing but over-tentative at best (considering the boldness of modern fiction) and condescension at worst; it’s the chivalrous idea of women being “special”, or in other words, delicate and in need of protecting. The irony of this is that female characters are simply exposed to violent elements by becoming quintessential victims, rather than as heroes with the power to choose and change their own destiny, for better or for worse.

Some may argue that the absence of female representation is due to our prior mainstream preference. I keep noticing that in your average film synopsis, it always seems to be the male actors who are mentioned – the “biggest” names, regardless of the amount of screen time. “Biggest” perhaps simply for being male; though I have made fun of the separation of male and female achievement at awards like the Oscars, I have the bad feeling that if it wasn’t for the separate female category we would see as big a discrepancy between the popularity and success of male and female actors as we do male and female directors.

Just the other day I had to tell a (female) friend who decided that all female directors are rubbish that several of our joint favourite films were, in fact, directed by women. The interesting question is why she assumed they were male. She did express briefly the stereotypical view that female directed films are too “womany”. It is not as though she has never watched films that focussed on women’s issues, some of which are male directed, so that can’t be the whole story; I expect she meant aggressively feministic and lacking in direction as a result.

I have seen very few of these films. While they are not exactly prime examples of film making, the sad fact is that most films are just average – that’s kind of what average means. Our best films are made by men I suspect because men are already the big names, make the big budget films, write the subject matter that appeals most to the male dominated media… And so the cycle continues.

There is a flaw in the line of logic that talks about preference like it is something that simply is and has weight of its own. The preference is a construction, since there is no “natural” preference when it comes to media; nature rarely dictates our television habits, what with TV being something we made up, and all. It can only be decided by media itself (and societal changes, also not “natural”, in the pagan sense of the word), so if you can roundly disregard an entire format, genre or representative group, the likelihood is you have been exposed to poor or few examples of it. We have a tendency to judge our preferences based on prior experience that came a long time ago and then seek examples of our pre-existing views. Once, a female comedian* was performing a stand-up on the TV and a friend of mine (female) commented that female comedians just weren’t that funny.

I can see what she was saying; this particular one wasn’t that funny and neither are many that I have seen. I wonder if perhaps this is more noticeable simply because there are fewer of them; of the hundreds of male stand-ups we see, it would be ridiculous to claim that all male stand-ups are unfunny based on the dozen or so we dislike. Quite apart from anything else, we don’t generalise like that with men; more likely, we will say we don’t like stand-up, rather than make any specific judgement on the nature of men, even if it really is the masculine nature of the subject matter that is putting us off. This highlights a fundamental tendency to judge all women’s achievements in the context of their being women.

If you live in the social world, you know women who are funny. It may be a characteristic you find particularly attractive, if you are attracted to women. It may be something you seek out, because you know that you will find it. It does not make sense to suggest that, even though there are funny women in the world, there are no funny women on the stage. What could possibly be happening – the moment a women stands on a stage, all the talent drops out of her and sinks through the floor? Imagine that this is somehow the case. The first thing we have to do is look for a reason. It could be that the nature of the setup is such that it is naturally unfriendly to women.

Consider the way society is and always has been; it is like an old university campus, where the old buildings that are crumbling get knocked down and new ones put up in their place, making the ones in the middle the oldest. In society we knock down old institutions, only to find that the ones we thought were fine are suddenly the worst examples of antiquated ideals. What if comedy as a profession, or indeed a culture, was like that? It’s difficult to break into because it’s built with male ideas in mind. It’s difficult to be successful because the analysis of what works and what doesn’t comes from a male-orientated textbook which both sexes are expected to live by.

Think about the world of work and the job-hunting process. One of the characteristics they almost always look for is confidence and assertiveness; programs like The Apprentice (another fine example of manipulative editing, though in the opposite direction) take this to its logical extreme, towards outright conceit. If – and this is a big “if” – assertiveness is a naturally masculine trait, women are already on the backfoot. It’s always struck me as unfair to judge women’s performance by male institutions; every bad joke about the poor performance of women drivers, however incorrect, also fails to take note that roads were built by men, for men, to suit a male brain. We just don’t know how different our physical world would be if it had been designed by women. To me, the comparison is a bit like making fun of the dyslexic child for coming 2nd in the spelling bee.

Yes, I think the comparison to disability is relevant and inoffensive here; if you look closely at disability, the difficulties caused by it are largely a problem of living on the able-bodied and able-minded landscape. Wheelchair users have trouble with stairs because able-bodied people use stairs and able-bodied people are mostly responsible for designing buildings. Dyslexics have trouble with work and school because we live in a written-word-reliant society. Similarly, women are disadvantaged because they have not been allowed the same freedom to put their stamp on the landscape and make it as much their own as men’s.

Equality isn’t about treating people equally and ignoring any natural differences that may occur. However, adjusting this is a slow process. Just like not every old building will magically grow wheelchair ramps overnight, not every company or organisation will learn to see female characteristics as positive overnight. Patriarchy is so old that, in order to live, women have little choice than to emulate men, which only ends up giving more credence to the idea that masculine characteristics are preferable.

Leading us to the present day, where female entertainers have a choice of whether to a) aim for a female / very specific (e.g., LGBT) audience or b) aim for a male audience by adopting current male styles. The problem with the first is that in the wrong hands (most hands) option a) is alienating to a majority audience and doesn’t tend to lead to large-scale success. Also, in our current climate, the popularity of option a) is reliant on how intentionally offensive it is to the institution that is deciding the comedian’s fate, i.e., the male institution – which of course is an absolute non-starter, since who wants to hear themselves be insulted?

Yet, that brings us onto option b), current male styles. Current male styles are often offensive. They vary as to which groups of people / individuals they offend and differ in the degree of offensiveness, but are nonetheless based on offensive humour. However much we are encouraged to think of it as “controversial”, the fact remains that offensive humour is a safe option, because there is not a single person who doesn’t find some brand of offensive humour uproariously funny.

This archetype, however, does not work on women. Our most popular female entertainers are not offensive at all, since if they were, their aggressiveness would be once again considered alienating. Despite our wish for assertiveness we have no line to draw between it and aggression when it comes to women. Somewhere in the back of our mind lurks the flowery fairy tale of a calm and docile woman. To be fair, no one really likes anger, but in the safety of media we let men show their aggression in the form of offence and ranting. For women, this is more likely to be seen as some kind of political challenge against The System, and we can’t have that.

What we end up with is an awkward hedge-bet. Not wanting any female comedian who is too offensive means that we get that shining minority of refreshing comedians who are good at non-offensive jokes. In addition, we get a couple of rather awkward, “quirky” comedians with an unfocused style of Marmite humour which works just about as well when used by men, i.e., mostly not at all. In the former category, I think of Sarah Millican and Ellen DeGeneres, but even they are not without their marketable quirks; rarely a mention of DeGeneres occurs without reference to her sexual orientation, and Millican, her accent. Yet, a comedian whom I like very much known as Sarah Silverman is absent from the television channels here. Her humour is offensive, no two ways about it. It is, however, more wittily offensive that what I have come to expect from your average offensive comedian – male or female, though I must say my experience of offensive female comedians is slight.

To check the spelling of Silverman’s name, I quickly Googled her, and lo and behold the 2nd item on the drop-down list was “Sarah Silverman hot”. You know there is a problem when a funny female comedian who many people identify as attractive is still somehow not an international phenomenon – or at least, not in the same way that other male (not very attractive) comedians are, even ones from less affluent and populous countries than America, where Sarah Silervan hails from. This is despite them being worse comedians whose subject matter is in the same vein. I mean, attractiveness is usually a prerequisite for female success, but offensiveness in women is apparently so off-putting that even that is not enough.

Now, maybe at this point you’re thinking “I know who Sarah Silverman is. Duh.” Maybe I’m the one who’s been living in a box, but I didn’t find this particular comedian on the TV – it was a female friend who drew my attention to her. If I were a different kind of guy, I would have been unlikely to take seriously this recommendation, figuring that as a female comedian, she probably wouldn’t be to my taste. I find the likelihood that another man would have made the same recommendation small, too; rather, I would have been directed to her nearest male equivalent, not because of some conscious avoidance on the part of the man in question, but because of a simple rift between male influences and female influences.

This has nothing to do with taste. I see not one iota of evidence that women’s sense of humour differs from men’s in the slightest. In fact, I’d say out of everything, it was one of the most universal parts of human nature; by and large, we find the same shit funny. Rather, it’s an unconscious selection process. When we see that, say, female bosses are hiring mainly female staff, some of us are keen to cry a conscious selection bias.

That’s not it. It’s a natural preference. Like I covered at the start, picking people you feel you have things in common with is not a prejudice. Women do not need their employees to display masculine characteristics, so they do not go out of their way to hire people who display them, nor do they naturally take to it. If it seems odd to us that someone would have majority female staff, it only suggests that we can’t understand why anyone would want majority female staff, which is a sure-fire indication of a faulty attitude.

Women do not have to make any conscious effort to hire women, but perhaps men should, particularly in the media. Recognising that you have a bias towards your own sex is not the same as adhering to it and in men’s case, it would be better not to adhere to it. An equal society is dependent on an equal portion of each group working in jobs that deal with wide scale representation; if women had more jobs as directors in films, as casters, as people who decide who is hired and which ideas should be portrayed, the social landscape would gradually change in a huge way. We would become accustomed to thinking of women on their own individual terms, not merely as like an alternative group. Before this can even start, a couple of people need to make a conscious effort to make sure women reach the top spots, which will not happen if every pore of each institution seeps discomfort towards women and femininity.

I remember once on Youtube, I was watching a clip of the comedian Margaret Cho doing her thing. Somehow, she was managing to make a funny joke out of a very serious medical problem she’d once had with her kidneys. Skip over this if you’re squeamish, but it had caused her to bleed out of her urethra. That’s her urethra. Not her vagina. But that didn’t stop one of the commenters complaining that all female comedians ever talk about is periods. Casting my mind back, I can’t remember the last time I heard a comedian make a joke about her own period, to the extent where I wonder if I ever have. I assumed I had, but it’s just possible that it is only the perception that female comedians automatically will mention their periods that has given me that impression, since I can think of no specific examples. And I am a seasoned fan of comedy, in case you hadn’t guessed.

Another interesting question is why it would have been such a problem even if periods had been the point of the joke. It is a sweet irony that the irate comment about periods-not-being-funny refutes its own point; menstruation may not be especially funny in itself (in the same sense that all the banal things comedians choose to talk about are not inherently funny), but people’s reaction to it sure as hell is. It’s part a continuous fight we’ve got going on with female genital organs.

Oh, you can make all the jokes you like about penises because they’re naturally funny (they really are), you can make jokes about ejaculation and male masturbation, but don’t you be going near the V. Even the great Miriam Margolyes, who mooned one of her co-stars during rehearsal, in an interview claimed that while bottoms where naturally funny, “front-bottoms” were a bit too much. Still, this is the woman who thinks that everyone is anti-Semitic by default; sadly it seems that she, like many of us, has been culturally encouraged to dislike her own attributes and assume that everyone else does too. Personally, I find them to be inoffensive. By which I meant vaginas, but y’know, Jews too.

It is a growing concern amongst egalitarians that women’s increased success diminishes men’s, but at the moment, male icons and role models still dominate the media in a huge way, and the only worry in relation to boys’ influences is not the quantity of male role models compared to female ones, but rather the quality of them. This, I might add, is as much a women’s concern as a men’s one; bad male role models, fictional and non, usually display: aggression, often towards women; disrespect towards and manipulation of one’s partner, usually a woman (not least because of the bubbling lava stream of homophobia than runs underneath our heteronormative media); possessiveness and obsession, usually over women; and sexual violence, assault, abuse or harassment, usually towards women. It is in no one’s best interest to have these be the major features of our male role models on-screen and in print.

You could potentially drown out the voices of these bad role models by having more good female ones. There does seem to be this unwritten rule that no woman can be a role model to a man / boy and vice versa. I am not convinced that this is the natural order of things – when I talk about what’s “natural”, I refer to what currently is, not what always shall be and certainly not what “should” be. Nature makes a lot of mistakes we must rectify; one may well be our tendency of looking at gender in binary and men and women as fundamentally different.

I see all the gendered adverts and television programs, sickly sweet pink with sugary women’s voices for girls, ultra-macho give-yourself-a-hernia-doing-squat-thrusts-while-shouting voices for boys. We will not know until we try what effect it would have to present all games, toys, likes dislikes and tendencies in a gender neutral fashion. It could only help children’s sense of identity not to force our ideas of gender down their throats; at the moment, kids get such mixed messages around individuality and self expression versus strict and stringently controlled gender roles. It becomes more clear every year that our constructs do not give children stability so much as make them inhibited in some areas of their lives, without them ever really understanding why some parts of them are so much less acceptable than others.

Exactly what we think of as being related to gender is incredibly hard to describe and justify. All it takes is one contrary example, and time, to throw the whole idea out the window, or else completely reverse it. This is why concentrated effort is put into these inversions by some individuals. In the long run, however, this could still potentially one day manifest as pressure. If we simply didn’t have a concept of gender as adults, what would our children make of male and female? Attraction, and reproductive compatibility are the only reasons to identify sex. There aren’t any useful reasons to identify gender, not when it is so variable and uncertain.

On their own, children might well automatically identify most not with “the boy” or “the girl” but with the scientist, the children’s art show host, the-kid-playing-with-lego. These are role models, some more important than others; they tell us who we are right now and who we would like to be in the future. Gender roles cannot tell you this because of their restrictions. Like all the restrictions that occur when working from a badly drawn schematic, gender roles tell you that two things fit together when they don’t; you like the toy guns, so you must like the toy cars, even though they have nothing to do with each other. This was not true for me and it is not true for many people.

I have been unfair, on my evaluation of role models, in thinking that it is childish to insist that the only people for whom you will feel admiration and respect should be the same sex as you. Actually, those guilty are blameless because we are all experiencing arrested development. In our adulthood, we are still seeing men and automatically thinking of boys in lego adverts, seeing women and automatically thinking of syrupy-sweet motherly presenters showing girls how to make daisy chains, when what we should be seeing is doctors, scientists and entertainers on their own merits.

*I will never refer to a female comedian as a comedienne, even if my way is clunkier. I believe the distinction is largely unnecessary and implies a difference that does not exist. The construction of it is entirely arbitrary anyway – you don’t refer to an author as an authoress (though my spell-checker tells me the word exists, I have never heard it spoken). It is only the antiquated institutions that genderise, either from habit or to use sex as an asset; actresses were significant because you could guarantee a bit of sexiness whenever an actress was involved. Now female actors are permitted to have actual three-dimensional characters and stuff. So, I’d say making that distinction buys into a notion both offensive and long made irrelevant. Plus, in speech you can’t hear the difference between comedian and comedienne without pronouncing it like a twat.

From → Gender Politics

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