I was visiting with my friend Katie the other day. She asked me how reading Harry Potter to my eight year old boys was going, as I’d mentioned to her a month or more ago that they were growing weary of reading about the same characters night after night.
“Did you switch to something else after you finished the third book?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “It turns out that toward the end of the third book, when Sirius Black became a more prominent character, the boys became super involved with the story once again. So, we started the fourth book straight away. That Sirius Black character sure seems to be a thing that boys relate to – the teacher archetype. Not a dad, necessarily – a teacher.”
“Well sure,” Katie said. “Everybody wants his Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
“Sure,” I agreed, then paused. “I wonder what the equivalent of that for girls would be.”
What is the female equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Western culture? Where can we find the teacher-for-teaching’s sake woman in popular literature and media?
Katie and I talked about this idea a lot. The best we, two college graduates with degrees in English, could come up with was that young women get the whore, the virgin, or the mother. The goddess. Smart may offer a fourth type of female-as-role-model character, but even then you have The Apple and the fall of man. Prometheus Unbound. A smart woman is still wrapped up in the idea of sex – for Eve’s transgression with the fruit of knowledge in The Garden of Eden brought the shame of nudity upon her and Adam. And all that.
Another friend that I talked to about this offered the ideas of Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I, which are wonderful examples of strong women. But then, they don’t really hit on the point of my inquiry. I’m concentrating on literature and media because that’s where modern American children (my children) get their archetypes. So neither Elizabeth I nor Joan of Arc really fit.
What female role models are there in modern western literature/cinema? Who do little girls have? Bella from the Twilight series? The girl with nothing special about her who is carried everywhere? Are you fucking kidding me?
Nonetheless, Elizabeth I comes really close to fitting the Obi-Wan Kenobi mold, except that even she is a sexual creature. It is her chastity – which is just the absence of sex – that is highlighted in the telling of her story as ruler. I’d like to see an example where sex isn’t involved at all. Not that I want the literary female teacher of my dreams to be sexless; I just want to see that the teacher/student relationship isn’t influenced by sex or sexuality.
My friend, the second one I talked to about this, also pointed out, “Jedis are basically monks. And therefore chaste. Obi-Wan Kenobi never really talks about women. And part of Anakin’s failing is falling in love, really.”
This is a great point. What would it look like for little girls to have a female role model that isn’t about sex? More to the point, would we as a culture accept a woman teacher (in the Jedi sense) who doesn’t promote sex? And even discourages it? Would that cross moral and religious boundaries that people would reject?
It’s a non-issue, really. Sex and personal power/discipline are two separate arenas – or should be. And rather than sex influencing the arena of power, I think that personal power is better suited to inform the arena of sex. I would like to see an inversion of this relationship as it’s currently presented in literature and media.
I realized while discussing this with my friends that I never failed to identify with Obi-Wan Kenobi, even though he was a man. I largely rejected the examples of womanhood that were offered to me in books and on TV, and I looked to the men for instruction. It wasn’t until later that I found River from the television show Serenity, or La Femme Nikita, or The Bride from Kill Bill. What I realize, though, about all of these examples is that each of these women is taught by men. It’s this idea that if you want to learn the way of the warrior or have the type of teacher/student relationship I’m describing, you have to learn it from a man that is bothering me. It’s this idea that little girls have to look to men to find strength of character that I would like to see taught by women in popular western literature and cinema. And, while we’re at it, I would like to see the young women she teaches not have to be turned into killing machines!
What would she look like if I could imagine the perfect literary female teacher?
Honestly: my therapist. She’s smart, instructive, wise, and for the last six years she has regularly armed me with the tools I need to build strength of character and strength of will – all in the absence of sex.
The problem with this example, though, is I pay my therapist – she didn’t appear in my youth as a benevolent stranger desirous to teach me The Way. Also, you can’t find her in a book. Not yet. I am a writer, though. And in my book, she’ll teach me Kung Fu on weekends, too.