Who do you put up on a pedestal? Are your role models right for you? Do you aspire to be like the people who inspire you? These are questions I’ve been pondering today. You don’t know what you’ve been missing until the void is finally filled.
It was a grey, cloudy afternoon, typical Glaswegian weather. The sun which shone this morning had long since disappeared, yet I felt warm both inside and out. I danced down Sauchiehall street, listening to Dua Lipa, with a skip in my step and a smile upon my face. I felt filled in a place I hadn’t known was empty.
Five minutes prior to this, I had been in the Centre for Contemporary Arts, attending a “teachout”, organised by striking university lecturers as an environment where they could teach without showing affiliation to the universities they are striking against. The teachout was on the theme of women in film and television — it’s International Women’s Day today, after all! It was organised by one of my Film and Television Studies lecturers, who just happens to be my favourite lecturer I have ever had in my two years at university. She has been my hero since the day I met her. I remember sitting in the lecture theatre, back in January, listening to her announcing that the film history module she was teaching would be a feminist history of film. I spent the entire hour holding my hand over my heart and mouthing the words “yas queen”, trying hard not to shed literal tears of joy.
I realised it then, to a certain extent, but it wasn’t until today that the thought formed properly in my mind: I’m not used to my academic heroes being women.
I have literary heroines, TV heroines, writer heroines…but most of my real-life heroes have been male, particularly teachers. I have been studying film and media, in various forms, since I was sixteen. When I was in sixth form, I had four Media teachers over the course of two years. Two were male, two were female. And whilst I got on well with all of them, it was the male ones with whom I clicked the most. I was witty and talented and melodramatic, and whilst I had enough character flaws to stop me from completely being a model student, I was pretty close to it. They pushed me hard because they knew I worked hard, and they helped mold me into the ambitious young woman I was growing into. I was passionate about media studies, I was determined to get where I was going in life, and they believed in me at a time when it was hard to believe in myself.
University was a culture shock for me, because I was so used to having supportive teachers, role models I could look up to. During my final year of A Levels, my biggest class had twelve people, and my smallest had five. In my first year of university, my largest class had about 250 people, and my smallest had maybe 15 or 20. And this makes it hard to bond with my tutors. During first year I fell out of love with Film and Television Studies. I almost changed my degree course because I didn’t enjoy the subject. I felt like my lecturers had no passion, and I found it hard to connect with the material. For whatever reason, I didn’t change my degree. Not out of a particular love for it, but more that it was the lesser of two evils.
Second year has been different. Two things changed, right from the outset: the lecture material was interesting, and I had a great seminar tutor. My seminar tutor in first semester was kind of wacky, and I thought he was absolutely crazy at first, until I realised that he was just super intelligent, and *that* was why he would randomly stare into space as though his head was about to explode. Opinions on him were polarised, and I know there was some people in the class who weren’t keen on him. But I thought he was wonderful! He was eccentric, and eccentric male media teachers have a special place in my heart, because they provide the kind of environment I learn best in. I found myself asking questions in classes, saying whatever bizarre thoughts came into my head, because I felt safe to do so without being judged. It was like all the best parts of my A Level media classes. I had, once again, found myself a hero. A straight white cis male hero.
I am a feminist. I can rant for ages about films that don’t contain enough female characters, about films/tv shows/novels,etc, that don’t represent women in a positive light. I understand the importance of having female role models to aspire to, it is something I am greatly passionate about. Yet my real life heroes have so often been male.
Not exclusively. When I was in school I had plenty of female teachers who I loved and admired. But when it came to my interest in film and media, and the teachers I’ve had for that subject, it was always the men that I gelled with most. I could tell them about my career plans, my aspirations, and they didn’t have a doubt that I would one day make my dreams come true. I don’t know why I didn’t talk much with my female teachers about my hopes and dreams. Did I think they wouldn’t be as supportive? I don’t know.
Looking back on my relationships with women in the past, I wonder if I have some internalised misogyny lurking deep within me. I can think of quite a few occasions where I clashed with female co-workers at first, thought they were bitches because they were strong, and (god forbid!) bossy. I wonder, in retrospect, if I was intimidated by female authority. Or perhaps that I saw in them a mirror of myself, of who I would grow up to be, and I was intimidated by the latent authority which hid within myself.
At the beginning of this semester, I gained my Actual Real Life Female Role Model. At the end of the first Film and Television Studies lecture, my first thought was “I want to be her when I grow up.” And I saw what I’d been missing all along. This was a woman, teaching film studies, and she was everything I wanted to be. She was confident, she was intelligent, she had personality, she had stage presence. She had a voice, things to say, and she was able to say them.
I went up to her after the lecture and told her how much I loved what she’d done with the course, how inspired and validated I felt, how, as a woman studying film, it often feels like I’m being taught that only films made by the white male canon are good or Great. And how she was teaching the kind of course that I actually wanted to study.
As well as being the course convenor, she’s also been my seminar tutor this semester. At the end of every seminar I always have the urge to go up to her and tell her again how much I value and appreciate her, how much she inspires me, how I wish she could be my mentor. And I don’t, because my anxiety always gets in the way. But during the interval at the teachout today, I finally got the courage to go up and talk to her. She was friendly and nice, because she is a lovely person, and I realised I’d been silly to be scared.
But it made me wonder: was I intimidated by her? I had finally found a suitable female role model, and I’d been too scared to talk to her. Perhaps because I feel like I’m not smart enough, or something like that. I don’t know. But if I let myself be intimidated by the women I admire, I will miss out on so much in life. There is a lot I can learn from men, there is a lot I have learnt from all those straight white cis male eccentric film and media teachers, but that’s not how I want to go through life. There are things I can learn from women that I can’t learn from men. There are things I can learn from women that I don’t want to learn from men.
I am twenty years old, I’ve only just started referring to myself as a woman rather than a girl. I’m sparky and ambitious and slightly petrified of the world. I must surround myself with heroines, with a badass network of intelligent women who get things done and take no shit. I don’t want to be intimidated, because such women are not intimidating. They are entire universes contained inside human bodies. And I want to learn everything they have to teach me.
It’s important, when we look at our role models, that we ask ourselves if these are the people who can help us grow. We must also ask how they limit our growth. It’s easy to be blinded when we look up at the people we’ve placed on pedestals; we must remember to look with clear eyes. When I was in my final year of sixth form, I convinced my teacher to change the material he was teaching us, because 7/9 of the texts we were studying were male centric. By the time I’d talked him into changing some of the course, it was still far from a 50/50 split, but I’d convinced him to allow us to study a TV show which had a female lead. I, the seventeen-year-old girl, had to explain to the 42-year-old man that he was perpetuating the erasure of women’s stories in the media. I had to fight to learn what I wanted to learn.
Even your heroes can be wrong, and it’s important to learn from where they fall short. Because even heroes are human, after all. We must be selective when we choose who to look up to. We also must know ourselves, know how we want to grow, who we want to grow into. When I first met my film lecturer, I recognised in her the qualities that I felt I was lacking within myself. They are qualities that are within my reach, but I haven’t gained them yet. I’m not always confident, I don’t always allow myself to have a voice. When I look at her I see the kind of person I want to grow into. I don’t mean I want to become an exact replica of her. Not at all, I want to be myself, not somebody else. But I am someone who learns by imitation, by seeing how others do things. That’s why it’s so important to surround myself with strong women whom I can emulate, because they will become the mirrors through which I can learn about my own image.