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 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 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.”
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.