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Role Models

Today’s post on Role Models comes from Hannah, who is an artist & maker living in the  Scottish Borders.  She blogs regularly for Cameo Curio.




Welcome to ‘Role Models Week’ on Gingerbread Feminists.

The idea for role models week arose while watching E4’s Sorority Girls.  One of the girls was asked by a panel who her female role models are, and she struggled to think of a single one.  It set me thinking about why we have role models and what functions they perform, and whether we’ve outgrown the need for them.

I thought I’d kick of the week by doing a little celebrating, a little brainstorming, and posing some questions.

So let’s start by celebrating.

In a grateful nod to the suffragettes, who embroidered the names of their female role models onto their banners, I decided to do some not-very-scientific research and collect names of women – famous, fictional and familial – that my peers (both male and female) call their role models for one reason or another.  I’ve embroidered these onto a panel as my way of celebrating inspiring women.


While researching my collection of names for the embroidery, I was also able to form a gallery of words – some complementary, some contradictory – which might give us clues as to what a role model is.  The dictionary definition is ‘any person who serves as an example , whose behaviour is emulated by others’, or anyone who occupies the social role to which the individual aspires.

This collection of words is my no means definitive or complete.  I’d be interested in which words ring true and which words you’d add to the collage.  I’d also be interested in whether you think gender is important?

Studies have found that there is a correlation between role models and higher levels of civic engagement in young people.  Positive role models are also linked to self-efficacy, and the ability to believe in ourselves.  A role model is not necessarily the person you’d like to be, but an example of a person who has a clear sense of what is important, lives their values in the world, and shows how success is possible.  [see the Changing People blog for more info]

I also wanted to embroider the names as a way of reclaiming the term ‘role model’ for women as a liberating & celebratory term, rather than a shackle of responsibility or a matronly cloak.   I’ve read several articles recently questioning the suitability of certain women to be role models for young girls.  There are many things young women in the media spotlight can do to invite criticism of their suitability: too skinny, too sexual, not wearing pants, drunken behaviour, not being talented enough, etc etc.   I also saw Beyoncé criticized for wanting babies as well as a career (and therefore being labelled as a ‘faux feminist’) [see here].  In one article (I think November’s Vogue) Rihanna complained that she had never asked for the role model label, and did not wish to live her life as one : has the term ‘role model’ become one more way for society to judge the behaviour of young women in the media spotlight?

I definitely find value in recognising the role of the women we encounter – in ordinary life or through the media – in forming our worldview, values and aspirations.  And there is also value in asking questions about how famous women will influence young girls.  But I wonder if the term ‘role model’ has become a little musty and dusty and dull.  How can we brighten it up a little bit?

Some links: an article about why we need female role models in the run up to the Olympics

A blog post about whether gender is important

an article about Rihanna’s crotch-grabbing

an article about whether young female pop stars have a responsibility to their audience

Beyonce: villain or role model? – the Campaign for Real Role Models

One response »

  1. I just read this article:
    on the same subject. (though I found yours more interesting!)

    I agree about the connotations of the word ‘role model’, it sounds like something we ‘ought to have’, but I definitely don’t find it particularly useful or inspiring.
    There are people with character traits that I find inspiring, or who have attempted and achieved things that I really respect, but they tend to people I know personally.. Everyone in the media ends up being a cartoon, either very cynically portrayed, or puffed up for superficial reasons. We can be valuably inspired by semi-mythical personas, but I don’t really trust the media to present these in a helpful way. (we might as well pick characters from stories?).


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