Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Sometimes, though, it’s … well, not.
In fact, much of the time life sort of goes along in a way that could almost be considered typical. Stereotypical, even, odd as that sounds.
When I first read a recent piece on Jezebel lamenting the lack of strong female mentor characters, I was totally on board. The fact that fictional mentors for young women are frequently power-hungry super bitches, arrogant (and, naturally, handsome) men, or “real characters” that often happen to be flamboyantly homosexual is inarguable.
That being said, though … so the hell what?
I am a voracious reader. Sometimes, in fact, I think I need a 12-step program for my addiction to literature. I also love movies.
Because it allows me to escape from my own life, to gain perspective, to think about other things.
If somebody made a movie about my life, it’d be pretty freaking boring. And I have female mentors, several of them in fact. Furthermore, they are real characters.
- One of my teaching mentors has an obsession with Def Leppard that has led to tattoos in odd locations and guitar picks displayed in glass boxes on the mantle.
- One of my life mentors recently sent me a picture of a shell she found on the beach shaped like a penis in a desperate attempt to get me to fly to North Carolina for Thanksgiving.
- One of my writing mentors is … well, the inimitable Sarah Taylor-Spangenberg, which speaks for itself.
- One of my motherhood mentors told me once that plastic Solo cups are the best way to keep your kids from knowing what you’re drinking.
And so on.
These are, all four and many more that I’m not bringing up, incredibly strong woman that I …
… admire greatly with every ounce of my being.
So why the hell would I be pondering “Where Are All the Female Mentors”?
In all of the films, shows, and books I can think of, the woman’s mentor is normally a male, either gay or a potential love-interest. If a woman happens to give the heroine some mentoring, it’s limited to certain advice-giving incidents, which are often questionable and sometimes destructive.
The Devil Wears Prada and Miss Congeniality provide adorable and hilarious examples of the gay male mentor. These guys get the heroine into glamorous clothing and force her to stop whining about how unfair their life is. Dangerous Liaisons, in contrast, has the wickedest pair of faux-mentors (older female and male) that a young impressionable girl could ever have. In Gigi, the far less sinister incarnation Aunt Alicia gives her niece lessons on how to be a dazzling courtesan, but the film makes it evident that all of her advice is superficial and useless.
Yup … but it’s entertaining as hell.
Literature isn’t much more encouraging. In Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, four young women try to make it in New York during the 1950s and much heartbreak –- personal and professional –- ensues. More importantly, there isn’t a female mentor in sight. The only potential one, Caroline’s boss Miss Farrow, is the grandmother of Miranda Priestly. To be fair, the men don’t particularly try to mentor any of the women (other types of relationship are on their minds), but the one possible female mentor is a shining example of everything Caroline doesn’t want to become.
Um … let me reiterate that The Best of Everything took place in the ‘50s. That’s more than half a century ago. Furthermore, the piece itself shows how a mentor can, like everything else in life, be a positive role model by sucking.
I say to my students all the time, “I probably learned more from my bad teachers than from my good ones”, and it’s the absolute truth. The people you deal with, the experiences you have, those are the things that shape your own personal mindset, morals, and values.
To think that some glowing fictional female knightess in shining armor is going to pave the way for women to aspire to greatness is just … well, kind of ridiculous.
If women are that easily influenced by TV and books, then after the soap operas and romance novels of the sixties and seventies, there should have been millions of women having torrid affairs.
Not to worry, though … the Jezebel piece does address the very real possibility that men can in fact serve as mentors to women.
It’s not that I think a man isn’t an appropriate mentor for a woman. I’m certainly not suggesting that women collectively hate each other. And I’m not accusing Jane Austen or anyone else of trying to push an agenda, but this seems to be a dominant pattern in storytelling. I’d say it’s the result of a combination of factors.
First there’s the strength of the Pygmalion myth (and its Broadway cousin), wherein a man creates his ideal woman and falls in love with her, the modern riff being the gay stylist who enables the woman to get the man of her dreams. Second, the heroine often needs to be parentless/lacking a mentor in order for the story to unfold (or the conflict has to be with the parenting figure). If the statistics of film, television, and literature held true in the real world, the percentage of orphans would be astronomical.
I mean, it seems like the writer’s subtext is that women will be brainwashed into thinking only men have something to teach them. To me, that’s a pretty chauvinistic premise.
Look, I am very proud of being a feminist, but even more so, I am a humanist. I believe in equality for everybody.
I get annoyed as hell when people slam on those of us who identify ourselves as feminists for trying to turn everything into a gender issue when, in my opinion, those are the minority.
That being said, I also get annoyed as hell when women make mountains out of molehills in the name of feminism, which is what I’m seeing in this piece.
Am I way off base here?