Why men don't have female heroes

An illustration of Gloria Steinham from <i>Amazing Babes</i>

An illustration of Gloria Steinham from Amazing Babes

My friend has always had unconventional taste in women. At high school, he eschewed the lickable life-size posters of Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth in favour of literary pin-ups like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and a rather severe-looking Donna Tartt.

For a long time, I assumed he'd made this his shtick in the hopes of one day meeting beautiful bookish girls in his gender studies course, but he assured me that this wasn't it. He just liked those writers' work and happened to bask in the company of female heroes. He finds them inspiring – most people seem to find it odd.

Though gender should not be a barrier in choosing whom to idolise, for men it often is. Barack Obama has legions of fans both male and female, but men are virtually non-existent among young Hillary Clinton supporters. As feminist blogger Charles Clymer observes, “If a young woman hangs up a poster of Barack Obama in her room, this is seen as acceptable … If a young man hangs up a poster of Hillary Clinton in his room, this is seen as odd.”

An illustration of Aung San Suu Kyi from <i>Amazing Babes</i>

An illustration of Aung San Suu Kyi from Amazing Babes

The same applies to other female public figures, such as Julia Gillard, Quentin Bryce, Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey. These women are trailblazers in their fields, yet how many boys would put up their hands and say they'd like to be like them one day?

While overt sexism has declined, dregs of negative female stereotypes remain. For some reason, we still seem to associate things like being daring, risk-taking, and brave as ‘masculine’ attributes. What’s more, according to Professor Christine Beasley from the University of Adelaide's Fay Gale Centre for Research on Gender, the heavily policed barriers around masculinity make it difficult for men to identify with female role models. “A man establishes his manhood by precisely saying 'no' to anything that is feminine,” she says. “That's a requirement because it's a more entitled and privileged position. Why would you choose to identify with what's seen as less prestigious?”

This is something that's learnt at an uncomfortably young age, claims Dr Fiona Kate Barlow, social psychologist from the University of Queensland's School of Psychology. “Boys have been socialised to not only hold negative stereotypes about women, but also to fear the teasing that may go along with it,” she says. Why, you just have to look at the slew of insults – 'pansy', 'Nancy', 'pussy', 'bitch' and 'girl' – designed to downgrade a man from masculine to feminine."

An illustration of Tavi Gevinson from <i>Amazing Babes</i>

An illustration of Tavi Gevinson from Amazing Babes

The lack of access to female role models, especially for children, sustains the cycle. As Professor Beasley recalls, “When I was young, there were no female role models that were easily available to me except for a few saints,” and not too much has changed since then. With male protagonists dominating children's literature – from Peter Rabbit to Curious George and The Cat In The Hat – we continue to send out the message that women and girls occupy a less important role in society than men and boys.

This is something that troubled Eliza Sarlos when reading bedtime stories to her 18-month-old son Arthur. “All the books had strong male role models, but there are so many amazing women out there that you just don't find out about unless you look for them,” she says.

With this in mind she got together with her friend, illustrator Grace Lee, to create an alternative vision. Their first book, Amazing Babes, is for children and adults, bringing female role models to the fore. There isn't just one type of beautiful, intelligent, amazing woman, but many from a whole gamut of fields – flicking through its pages you'll find musicians, writers, peacemakers and more than a few badasses. There's Emma Goldman, Gloria Steinem with her “We Shall Overcome” sign, Mum “Shirl” Smith, Aung San Suu Kyi, “Bandit Queen” Phoolan Devi, Audre Lorde, Tavi Gevinson and Sarlos' personal hero, Kathleen Hanna. “I just wanted Arthur to know about these incredible things these amazing women have done, I didn't want him growing up in a lopsided world when it came to who to respect and admire.”

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As Dr Barlow says, “One of the most effective ways to reduce stereotyping is through positive contact.” Growing up with strong female heroes – fictional or non-fictional – inevitably broadens your awareness of the world and impacts the way you view women throughout your life. Watching them and following in their footsteps, boys and girls grow up knowing that a strong female for a friend, partner or boss is normal and good. We are taught that there's more than one type of hero, just as there are many ways to be exceptional.

36 comments

  • "For some reason, we still seem to associate things like being daring, risk-taking, and brave as ‘masculine’ attributes." - I believe the science is settled on this topic and the "reasons" well and truly understood. Look them up.
    On another one of your typically vague points, some men want to be like other men hero figures, no different to some women want to develop similar attributes or skills to their female heroes. Plenty of men have heroes that are women starting with their mothers/grandmothers/siblings female friends etc, but most men still realize that they do not have a vagina. And same for women that may idolize or have male heroes. The sensible ones realize that they don't have a penis and never will!! It aint rocket science!

    Commenter
    eyeswideopen
    Location
    earth
    Date and time
    March 25, 2013, 10:59AM
    • Well I don't think I really have any heroes (does respect count?), but if I did I don't imagine that it'd make a whole lot of difference whether or not they had a penis. Do you really feel closer to heroes of the same gender? Why not pick heroes of the same eye colour or shoe-size? What's so important about gender in defining a hero?

      Humans weird me out. Honestly, I have no idea why people care about anyone else's gender or sexuality, unless they're thinking of making a pass at them.

      Commenter
      Magpie
      Date and time
      March 25, 2013, 12:45PM
    • Magpie - why should gender play a prominent role in a decision to make a pass at someone? You are either attracted to that person or not, regardless of their sex!
      Empathy is a word missing from the discussion. As I stated the term hero is sex independent. However for many to truly empathize with another there are elements that they may well consciously or unconsciously engage with, be it size, speed, skill, power, tenacity, sex etc. Often whom we as individuals would admire or verge on calling a hero of our is a reflection of what we respect and admire as a mirror to ourselves or our own self image. A self positive self reinforcement by association. This can also be simply with traits of an individual and certainly not the whole person. I admire greatly Monica Seles with her ability when faced with increasing pressure to simply turn the wick up still further and overcome all force thrown at her by Graf. Determination and tenacity etc. I would find it difficult to identify with or empathize directly and personally with her femininity however as I am male.

      Commenter
      eyeswideopen
      Location
      earth
      Date and time
      March 25, 2013, 1:41PM
  • Many men admire strong women. Kate Beckinsale from the Underworld movies. Lara Croft Tomb Raider fame, Charlie's Angels, Sara Connor from Terminator, Ripley, Signourny Weaver, Jodie Foster to name a few, Sarah Michelle Geller as Buffy. They all played pretty awesome roles. Men tend to be visual in that way and prefer women sharing in the kind of activities men enjoy.

    Commenter
    Dave
    Date and time
    March 25, 2013, 11:25AM
    • Yeah, as a male this article didn't really ring true for me either. I've never had a problem looking up to successful women. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler spring to mind, and I've always loved the stories of Grace O'Malley, 16th century Irish pirate queen.

      People will always idolise those who succeed in the fields they are interested in, which is why, generally, there is a slight gender bias. Also, people tend to look up to people they wish to be like. Is it any surprise that most men wish to be like succesful men, and most women wish to be like succesful women?

      Leslie Knope, one of the greatest fictional feminists in the world today, has exclusively female heros, but no-one suggests that that's a problem, because it clearly isn't.

      This wasn't an article, it was an advertisement for Amazing Babes.

      Commenter
      late1
      Date and time
      March 25, 2013, 1:16PM
    • These are all celebrities and fictional characters, Dave.

      Are there any real non-celebrity women you admire?

      Commenter
      A fictional character
      Date and time
      March 25, 2013, 2:27PM
    • what about Angela Merkel, arguably the most admirable, talented and brilliant politician in the world today. Her daily issues trying to lead the EU out of the proverbial, are eeenormous compared to almost every other country yet she is getting the job done.
      Thatcher was also a heroin style figure and even if you hated her policies or opinions one could not avoid to stand in awe of her brilliance as a strong politician. Those are two very real humans and both female.

      Commenter
      eyeswideopen
      Location
      earth
      Date and time
      March 25, 2013, 3:22PM
    • The male equivalent to a teenage girl 'hero' would be Katy Perry (or, in my day, Madonna. Yes, I had a madonna poster in my room).

      Only prats, whether male or female, put up authors or politicians when they are teens. Have some fun, be frivoulous. And, seriously, Sylvia Plath? Thats not something to be admired, its a phase when people start thinking they are deep and meaningful and older people start laughing at them, until they grow out of it. Put up the Klimt poster, have a Satre novel...

      I think, had the author spoken to men, that many men admire and respect many women. They just dont put up posters on them.

      And children's stories - try the Wizard of Oz books (not the movies - well, except the original). Anne of Green Gables. Little House. Nancy Drew. Pippi Longstocking - off the top of my head and showing my age

      Commenter
      asdf
      Date and time
      March 25, 2013, 3:24PM
  • This article resonates with me a lot, having had a big hand in raising my little brother who is 10 years my junior. From a young age he had always been fascinated by Indiana Jones, Star Wars and video games.. so very much the typical geek trajectory. As I've always enjoyed geekery, comic books and gaming myself I made it my task to educate him about female role models as well, and at age 10 I began exposing him to the 'Alien' trilogy with Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, Lara Croft, Aeon Flux and various other sci-fi/game-centric heroine personalities. I wanted to show him that women are just as powerful, cool, clever and gung-ho as the men out there and that they don't always have to be in the supporting/stabilising role. Along with exposing him to entertainment where women are central I also had a lot of stereotype-defying discussions with him about gender to try and broaden the somewhat inevitable conditioning this article addresses.

    In comparison to many of his peers, my little brother doesn't see women as unsolvable enigmas, conquests or simple objects of desire but as equals - which I'm going to go out on a limb and say isn't the most commonly held position of the male dominated gaming/geek world, or of the privileged white-male Reddit user. But if we can break these stereotypes early and try to create a more balanced world for both boys AND girls we can improve the future, so it's not so unusual to see a poster of a female politician on the bedroom wall of either gender.

    Commenter
    kpix
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 25, 2013, 11:31AM
    • Having equal behaviours, characteristics, attitudes and values wont make it better.Think about it.But having the intelligence to rerspect people equally despite their differences , their different strengths and weaknesses will.

      Commenter
      Kane
      Date and time
      March 25, 2013, 1:06PM

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