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.

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GLORIA HARRISON is a writer whose work has been featured on The Nervous Breakdown, Fictionaut, and This American Life. Gloria was the lead editor for The Portland Red Guide: Sites & Stories of Our Radical Past by Michael Munk, which was published through Ooligan Press in 2007. She was also a contributing editor to Pete Anthony's book, Immaculate, for which she received a high five and a ten dollar gift card to Stumptown Coffee. Gloria graduated from Portland State University with her B.A. in English in 2006 and now focuses on her own writing. She had a work of flash fiction published in The Bear Deluxe Magazine (No. 26). You can follow her on Twitter here.

Gloria lives in Portland, Oregon with her school-age twin boys. She is currently working on both a memoir and her first novel. You can contact Gloria via her Facebook page.

155 responses to “Does the Seed of All Knowledge Lie in the Labia?”

  1. I just took a walk up to my bookcase and looked through everything, trying to answer your questions… Sadly, there’s nothing I can find. Most of the books were written by men – who probably believe women shouldn’t be educated, especially “for teaching’s sake” – and the ones by women tend to feature women who were simply intelligent without having ever been made intelligent. Of course, that’s without going into minor characters or anything. Just thinking primarily about protagonists.

    In reality I’ve always personally felt I’ve learned more from women, and I feel that most men do. Women are so often held as teachers in society, yet on screen such a position is dominated by men. I find women appear as mothers and teachers (by profession) and are then swept away. They are not deemed heroes for imparting wisdom. It’s more like an obligation; they’d be viewed as villains for not doing it.

    But maybe that’s just my personal collection. We’re all attracted to different kinds of literature and I wonder if someone else has a collection that’s filled with great examples of strong females taking these roles.

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      I get what you’re saying with your whole wonderfully sarcastic first paragraph. I’m certainly not implying that women come out of the chute needing teachers or that men think women are stupid. My point is: I think it would be beneficial to have this teacher character available more prominently. Duke’s mention of Annie Sullivan is brilliant. Ditto for Matilda from Anne of Green Gables. The Oracle and The Fairy Godmother-types are also really good and definitely more like OWK, even if the Godmother still blatantly fits into the mom archetype.

      • I wasn’t actually being sarcastic – I actually did go upstairs and look through my books. Your post made me genuinely wonder about it. Perhaps it’s just my limited scope of reading or memory, but I legitimately wondered about your question. Off the top of my head I was left without an answer, and then after a little research I still had nothing. I wasn’t trying to be an asshole.

        I agree about Duke’s suggestion: brilliant.

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          Oh. Sorry for assuming, David. It’s the 21st century – why don’t we have a sarcastic font yet? Also, I didn’t think you were being an asshole, I thought you were being ironic. Now I’m curious to have a look at your bookshelf! 🙂

        • It’s alright. I have so little time these days and so much to do that I frequently leave comments in a flash, then come back later and think, “Shit, that’s not what I meant to say… I sound like a total dick.”

          My bookshelf is filled with Beat Generation stuff, HST, literary criticism, crime fiction (the last two are leftovers from university) and a bunch of ancient leather-bound books I found in a warehouse. That’s my retirement fund.

          We definitely should have a sarcastic font.

  2. Ben Loory says:

    what about mrs. whatsit, mrs. who, and mrs. which in a wrinkle in time? i mean, basically what you’re talking about are spiritual warriors (people turned away from sexuality), which are going to read as witches in this culture if they’re women.

    the good witch in the wizard of oz, whatever the hell her name is. she’s basically obi wan.

    there’s also miss jean brodie, off the top of my head. for better or for worse.

    • Gloria says:

      The A Wrinkle in Time characters you mention are good ones, Ben. Thanks for that. AWIT was written nearly fifty years ago, though. Anne of Green Gables, mentioned below, was written over 100 years ago. Now I’m wondering about what’s been written in the last twenty or thirty years. I guess Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter comes close. But she’s an old maid, and when Becky and I were talking about this, she pointed out that Old Maids might as well be men, so I didn’t include it in my post. I think that was an oversight, though. Obviously she counts. And, actually, she goes along nicely with your assessment that “spiritual warriors (people turned away from sexuality)…are going to read as witches in this culture if they’re women.” Yes, perfect.

      I’m unfamiliar with Miss Jean Brodie. Thanks for the suggestion – I’ll look it up!

  3. Greg Olear says:

    Cinderella’s fairie godmother. Silly, but definitely in the mold (and the archetype of the Good Witch Ben alludes to).

    And Athena. Don’t forget her. Odysseus is fucked without Athena and her Athenian aid. And Wonder Woman is a riff on Athena.

    Also, Mary Ann on True Blood. (Oh, wait, it’s not supposed to be sexual…oh, never mind).

    And the nurses. Juliet’s nurse. Calpurnia.

    This is an interesting idea, though, that you’ve brought up. There certainly is a dearth of examples, while many abound on the male side.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Athena. Indeed. I’m on board with that.

      I’m just going to mention it again, though: I think we don’t have trouble finding men because we’re looking for men. Essentially.

      I mean, is it all that shocking that we wouldn’t find more women who are written like men? Should they be? Is that how they become worthy role models? By acting like dudes?

      That’s the kicker. And then if they are written like men, we can write them off for being asexed and unfeminine and not REALLY female.

      It’s a no win proposition. The whole question is doomed. Unless we accept that traditionally feminine qualities and personae aren’t necessarily shortcomings/weaknesses/disqualifiers. Then the whole game changes.

      • Gloria says:

        I’m not sure that I’m looking for women who are written like men. I think that’s implying that the only way to be a non-sexualized female is to be a man. And, again, I don’t really give a rip if the character has sex off screen. I just don’t see why she has to exude sexual power all over the place. I’m fine with traditionally female qualities and they’re not disqualifiers, but they don’t need to be written as the dominant traits either. Annie Sullivan is a great example. So is Marilla from Anne of Greene Gables. Professor McGonegall – though, as discussed, she’s the old maid. So then, I guess the question is: how can this imaginary character be both “Female” and not non-sexual at the same time? I don’t know. Or, if she does show her sexuality, where is the fine line? Hm…

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Right. That’s what I’m saying.

          Like I think it’s pretty easy to get turned around. To end up where you started. To start from the position that we object to the notion that women need men or male example to be powerful, so then we reject women whose power we perceive to be based in sexuality or childbearing or other things that are male-related or in someway dependent on males, so then we’re looking for a person with no acknowledged sexual relationship to men and whose childbearing status is of no particular consequence…

          I mean, aren’t we back at a dude at that point? Aren’t we then looking for a guy when we do that? Or at best, some kind of asexual, androngynous non-human human? I mean, most women ARE sexual and very few people are in fact androgynous. So this person, at least theoretically, is a sort of fantastic, mythical creature.

          And femininity does come with its own particular boons and powers, so why are we so averse to characters who take advantage of them? Is it just habit?

    • Gloria says:

      Great points, Greg. Athena and Calpurnia are great examples, if not contemporary. I’m hoping that these characters find their way into mainstream literature and cinema so that our daughters can find them before high school or college.

  4. Simone says:

    It’s quite a tough question you’ve posed to us, Gloria. One that I like, I might add because it’s making me inquisitive.

    “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?

    Perhaps Oprah? I feel she’s quite influencial and I certainly don’t think she’s the type to turn
    her students into ‘killing machines’.

    • Gloria says:

      Oprah is a really good example, Simone. Now let’s turn her into a main character in a wildly successful work of literature that is accessible to young women! You and me. Together. 🙂

  5. D.R. Haney says:

    Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher?

    • OK, this is weird. I was thinking about that too. I mentioned further down The Oracle in the Matrix series.

    • Gloria says:

      Annie Sullivan is a great example, Duke. Actually, I can’t believe I didn’t think of her right away – I was so inspired by that story when I was a kid. It had a profound impact on me. I guess I didn’t think of it straight away because it’s an older story about real characters and doesn’t quite fit. But Sullivan is a great go-to character that could easily be fictionalized. Thank you for the reminder.

  6. megan says:

    Twilight is all about sex as far as I can tell. I didn’t get the craze initially & ignored the book completely but watched the movie, at which point the appeal became obvious. Very operatic sexual tension. An obsession of having/not having sex, THE adolescent preoccupation.

    Edward seems miserable and mysterious and not quite human & somehow Bella’s love is going to save them both, I think is the subtext. This bothers me a lot.

    yes Athena, yes the fairy godmother, the White Queen, Matilda in Anne of Green Gables…maternal, slightly unconventional and overbearing but guiding and powerful…these are our Obi Wans. Oprah fits. Hillary fits.

    • Simone says:

      I love Matilda! Reading Anne of Green Gables at the moment… SSE??

      • megan says:

        Then you gotta do PEI some summer, Simone. You will love the Anne tour, the red sand beaches and seafood and the Japanese tourism will shock you.

        • Simone says:

          If and when I make it to that side of the world I’ll surely keep that in mind. The Anne tour sounds fab. Did you ever watch the TV series? I think I was around ten or twelve when I first read the book, then fell in love with the story all over again when it came on TV.

          Recently while out scouting for beads at the local bead shop, there were two ladies outside on the side walk selling second hand books for a charity. Naturally I got sucked into the temptation to browse through the books. Anne of Green Gables was the first book I picked up and bought. I was so excited!

        • megan says:

          Uh actually it’s Marilla, my bad. Yes, I saw the TV series, the movie, the stage play, all of it. It was a cultural phenomenon in Canada. We watched it/read it/loved it to death.

          I felt personally betrayed when Anne married Gilbert in the later series and he sort of convinced her to give up teaching to be a stay at home mom. I support anyone’s decision to do that but not Anne. Ok Diana, the unimaginative one, but not Anne Shirley.

          Lucy Maud Montgomery was a manic depressive who killed herself. Did you know that?

        • Gloria says:

          Wow, Megan – I didn’t know that about Lucy Maud Montgomery. That sort of taints or tilts or somehow changes my whole reading of AoGG. Fascinating.

          Anne’s character is really great – but she’s of a bygone era. And, as you pointed out, she eventually succumbs to her “role.” Which is whatever. A whole other discussion, I guess. It doesn’t have to be just one way or the other, I suppose.

      • Gloria Harrison says:

        I totally would have stopped at that used book booth as well. I love that kind of thing. Have you read Anne of Green Gables before or is this your first time?

        • Simone says:

          I’ve read it before. I was around ten or twelve when I first read it. I still remember pronouncing L.M. Montgomery’s surname totally wrong. 🙂

          I’m like a fat kid all over a cup cake when I see second hand book stores and sidewalk book sales.

    • Gloria says:

      I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of Twilight, Megan. Blech.

      Your female examples are really great. As mentioned to Ben, Anne of Green Gables was written over a hundred years ago. I’d like to know what’s come out in the last 30. Maybe there’s TONS and I just don’t have my finger on the pulse of it. If that’s the case, I’d love to know.

  7. Becky Palapala says:

    Just thought of an issue with The Bride.

    Beatrix Kiddo is, in large part, motivated by her status as a mother. I don’t remember the films too well, but even if she is not aware that her child is alive, a huge part of her revenge is, still, about having the child taken from her.

    I mean, the resolution of the story centers on two things: A mother reuniting with her child and, of course, killing Bill. So there you’ve got the mother/lover/wife archetype. I mean, she’s motivated, really, by very stereotypically feminine things.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think it’s that these role models don’t exist. I think that the strictures we impose on what’s valid will eventually end up disqualifying everyone we think of if we try hard enough. That’s in the application of the disqualification, though, in our haste to consider mother, nun, virgin, etc. archetypes somehow unworthy.

    As I mentioned before, I think there’s a problem inherent in looking for a specifically female role model or archetype–that is, emphasizing gender/sex difference–then expecting her to be essentially identical to a man.

    I mean…it’s impossible, right? We want her to be female, but not have qualities associated with femininity…like traditionally feminine qualities are a shortcoming? Why? Why do we think that?

    There’s some kind of catch-22 here. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it has to do, I think, with the assumption that those female archetypes are necessarily flawed or incorrect or bad. I’m not sure they are.

    I stand by Elizabeth. She’s historical, but has been fictionalized/mythologized and pop-culturalized enough to count (two or three movies about her in the last decade, I think). And she took up that virgin mother mantle very intentionally. I mean, she knew the archetype and she exploited it. Her exploitation of that role wasn’t a submission to sexism but a conquering of it. Using that which has traditionally disenfranchised women, the self-same imagery and stereotypes, to assert her power over, literally, thousands upon thousands of men.

    It was powerful BECAUSE of its femininity. Not in spite of it.

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      Okay, Becky, you’ve been replying all over this board, so I’ll try to address everything here – because you ask good questions. But also, I think I realized what part of all of this I wasn’t quite hitting on but was trying to get to, which is this: I think it comes down to how women – especially young women – learn how to treat one another. More than once, you and I (and others) have discussed here and in private the horrific way in which young girls treat each other during adolescence – which sometimes spills over into adulthood. The reason I’d like to see the teacher character be a woman is because I think it’s imperative to establish a paradigm of women supporting women that is embraced early on. Little girls are bitches, man. And I’d like to see this be less true. And the reason I’d like to see this teacher be something removed from sex is because I think a large part of the back-biting and in-fighting that happens with young women already revolves around sex. You bring up some good points, though – most of which come down to: if we defeminize women, we basically have men and then we’ve ended where we’ve started. And, honestly, I don’t have an answer for you about this except to say that Matt’s suggestion, below, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is nearly perfect.

      See? This is why I love TNB. I’m not trying to write a feminist treatise about the woman-as-teacher, but I am passionately interested in this dialogue.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Well, gosh darn it, I AM trying to write a treatise! Later I’m going to copy & paste all my comments from this post and submit it to the Gender, Women & Sexuality Grad. Dept. and get my PhD.

        Honestly, it’s just a major interest area of mine. As a woman, obviously, but also academically.

        I have the minor in Women’s studies, but even beyond that, I have heavy emphasis in women’s art and literature, women IN art in literature, women on, near, atop and/or about art & literature all over my B.A.

        So, you know. It’s not that I think I know all that much, but it’s a recipe for rambling. As if I weren’t prone to talking a lot to begin with.

        And I’m especially appreciative that it’s an invitation to discourse and not the sort of shrill and tedious “smash the patriarchy!” gender discourse that some people are prone to. I don’t get into that too much. So, you know. I’m just over here, happily chattering along.

        I’m not in attack mode. I hope it doesn’t seem that way. I’m in “I am enthusiastic about this discussion and gesticulating wildly and raising my voice in excitement” mode. I want to say something about everything. I am, believe it or not, holding back.

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          Wow, this is the second time in this post that a comment has been misinterpreted. The first was when I thought David Wills was being sarcastic (he wasn’t) and now when you thought i was attacking (?) you. It must be a thing. Damn it, where’s Olear? He could tell us if Saturn is in Mercury with Titan rising in the ninth house of the seventh son. Or whatever is causing it.

          No, man. It’s just discussing stuff with you is sort of like playing racket ball with one of those machines that launches a new ball every ten seconds. I was trying to hit all your balls with one swat. I clearly failed. 😉

          You don’t seem like you’re in attack mode. So, please! Let’s keep this dialogue going!

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Third time.

          I didn’t feel like you were attacking me.

          I said I didn’t want you to feel like my commenting a lot was an aggressive thing.

          or that’s not what I said exactly, but that’s what I meant.

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          I don’t feel like that at all.

          Part of why I’ve been commenting so much less lately is because I feel like my ability to interpret intent in writing is suddenly broken. Alas.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Oh. My only real objection to Buffy is that she doesn’t strike me as particularly sophisticated. Like, the elements are there, as you and Matt mention, but I don’t feel like she’s particularly helpful to adults–at least not in the way OWK is–as a character and spokesperson for a complex philosophy or a way of life.

        But, as you mention, adults aren’t really the target, so maybe my objection is misplaced.

        • Matt says:

          That it was aimed at the 15-25 demographic is a hinderance when applied to adults, for sure, but it was a much more sophisticated show than casual viewership will lead one to believe. Since it was a program about youth empowerment – specifically but not inclusively female (Joss Whedon has said that he created the show in part out of feeling bad for that poor blonde girl that gets killed in every horror movie) – part of Buffy’s operating thesis was that these adult spokespeople very often weren’t particularly all together themselves, and that ultimately a lot of that complexity has to be figured out for oneself.

          Adults in the Buffyverse (as we call it) are usually presented one of three ways: well-meaning but oblivious (Buffy’s mom, most of the town’s general adult population); intelligent but pompously self-congratulatory and ultimately ineffectual (the Watcher’s Council, the Initiative); or, most frequently, benign-seeming but in fact corrupt and evil (the Mayor – my favorite villain). Rare was the adult like Giles, but even he had demons from his past that – quite literally – came back to haunt the characters.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          You’re a Buffy scholar, man.

          That’s awesome.

          I’d say something about it if I could, but, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t watch it much. Kinda didn’t care for it. Never got too much into the sci-fi/fantasy stuff.

          Except Fringe.

          I love Agent Dunham. That’s another sci-fi show with curiously complex characters. I don’t know that she’s a teacher, really, but Sci-Fi/Fantasy seems to struggle less with the asexual, strong female role model.

          Comic books are a good example. Wonder Woman has been mentioned. Also Storm, from the X-Men movies…

        • Matt says:

          I dismissed it as silly frippery for the first season or two, but got hooked during the third. I’d expected it to be, well, stupid, and I was surprised by how smart the writing was, and how the scripts managed to balance both a tongue-in-cheek approach to the material and at times a deeply subversive streak. It was the only show I watched with any regularity during college and graduate school.

          You mention comic books, which are good examples, and this essay began by referencing Star Wars, and you mention the Dunham character from Fringe. This is one of the areas – for all of the tropes and weight of the genre – where sci-fi/fantasy has been leaps and bounds ahead of the curve: playing around with gender roles and identity. The things about it that cause mainstream “Literature” to dismiss it have given it a wide berth to experiment.

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          This is one of the areas – for all of the tropes and weight of the genre – where sci-fi/fantasy has been leaps and bounds ahead of the curve: playing around with gender roles and identity. You know, that’s true! Nice observation. Also, both the Sirius Black and Obi-Wan Kenobi characters are from that genre. Hrm… I wonder if it’s the main genre where these types of characters – for men and women both – can be found? Interesting.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I think Obi-Wan is problematic, in a way, because Star Wars was written with the expressed intent of capitalizing on archetypes. I mean, Lucas took those characters all but directly from The Hero With 1,000 Faces, to the best of my knowledge. Obi-Wan is an archetype because Lucas set out to fill a movie with archetypes under the assumption that if Joseph Campbell was right, the movie would make a shitton of money. And it did. So, you know. I mean Obi-Wan may be especially frustrating because he is a storytelling stereotype manifest. On purpose. From, like, 10,000 of human storytelling from all over the world.

          I think part of the reason for Sci/fi & Fantasy’s earlier and more regular forays into “topsy-turvy” gender characterizations is that both are essentially dependent on creating worlds that are noticeably different from the world we’re accustomed to. One way to create a world that is familiar, but just a bit off is to play with social norms and roles. So it makes sense that they would go there.

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          And you know, now that we’re going down this road, I have to say that Ursula K. Le Guin regularly plays with not only gender roles, but gender itself. And I’ve always admired her ability to do this. I haven’t read as much of her work as I’d like, but I should. For sure.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          The Left Hand of Darkness is still in print, and worth a read.

  8. The Oracle in the Matrix series.

    • Becky Palapala says:


      Good work.

      But, I think I can disqualify her.

      Old Maid.

      • Gloria Harrison says:

        Nick wasn’t privy to our conversation, friend number two who I talked to about this, so he doesn’t know what you mean. Nick – Becky brought up that there is another kind of sexless female teacher – the Old Maid. But then, as Becky pointed out, The Old Maid is essentially a man.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, I know, but I thought the Old Maid archetype was common knowledge. Maybe only in my head.

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          You know, I hadn’t thought about it before you said it – especially about The Old Maid being basically a man.

          But then, you know, I kind of challenge that idea because Dana, above, mentions Matilda from Anne of Green Gables and yes, at first she is man-like in the beginning, but she softens up quite a bit later in the story but still maintains the distance of teacher.

          I have to go to work. I can’t be in front of the computer anymore right now. So much more to say! Gah!

        • Crap.

          What about Bridget Jones? I hear a lot of people like those books. I never read them, but is she heroish. Damn. I don’t know. Maybe there’s a Disney cartoon I can sneak in here… :/

        • Gloria says:

          Bridget Jones isn’t a teacher so much. I mean, I get why people see her as a good female role model, but I don’t see her that way. I see her constant need to lose weight in order to “win a man” problematic. I mean, she’s not fat. Not in the clinical sense. She’s chubby, but so what? I don’t think anyone with body dysmorphia is someone I want to look to for inspiration.

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      The Oracle is a great example, Nick. I’d love to have seen her be a more prominent character. I’d also really love to see her be turned into a literary character that young women have access to and want to embrace.

  9. Ashley Menchaca (NOlady) says:

    “I wonder what the equivalent of that for girls would be.”

    I hit this line and thought…”OPRAH!”

    Ok, I’ll go back and continue to read.

    • Ashley Menchaca (NOlady) says:

      HAHAHAHA! Ok, so I’m not the only one who thought Oprah. I just read everyone’s responses and she’s come up a few times.

      • Gloria Harrison says:

        Oprah is a good example of a good, positive role model for woman. But she’s a real-world character, so she doesn’t quite fit. I’m curious about the literary/cinema examples. What are our young girls watching? I said it above to Becky, but I’ll say it here too: I love Matt’s example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

  10. Ashley Menchaca (NOlady) says:

    I will go back and read everyone else’s comments but I want to get this out before I am swayed.

    Why can’t we have it all?! I think women in general are sexy. Everything about them. To ignore that is almost….wrong. Why can’t we have that smart, strong, teacher woman who happens to be sexy? She doesn’t need to dress provacatively or even wear make-up but that doesn’t mean we should go that extra step to make unattrative. Why should a woman have to choose?

    And you’re right, people don’t write or portray women the way I think should but do we have to ignore sex appeal all together?

    I feel I’m not saying what I want to and my arguement is falling flat.

    I can’t think of a character exactly but a current, real life person that comes to mind is Angelina Jolie. Seriously. Think about it. The woman is sexy regardless of what she is wearing, no denying it but she is also strong. and fearless. and super mom. and intelligent. She is a fighter. I see her on tv in jeans, t-shirt, baseball hat and NO makeup and I can’t help but to think “wow” but it’s not so distracting that I don’t hear what she is saying about her constant battle to save refugees. Someone needs to write a character like that.

    I know she isn’t on the the level of your Obi-Wan Kenobe but it’s what came to mind.

    • Ashley Menchaca (NOlady) says:

      I feel like I’m the only one talking about sex so I had to go back and read so see why it weighed so heavily on my mind and I think it was this statement…

      “Nonetheless, Elizabeth I comes really close to fitting the Obi-Wan Kenobe 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.”

      That’s what hit the button for me.

      • Gloria Harrison says:

        I don’t really have a problem with the Teacher figure being sexual – I just don’t want to see it as a dominant trait, I guess. The defining characteristic. For a lengthy explanation of why, see my comment to Becky above. But I will add that in my post I sort of addressed this when I wrote: 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. Women can be sexy. Shit, women are sexy. But so, so much more as well. And, outside of sex, like I said to Becky, I’d love to see a culture of women supporting women. You know?

        • Jude says:

          You forget the Amazons. They were honorable, courageous, brave and represented rebellion against sexism.

          Which leads us to Xena – fantasy for sure, but nevertheless she imparts some very good teachings.

          And then there was/is Wonder Woman…

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          I never watched Xena, Jude. It was popular right around the time I mostly checked out of watching television. Since then, if I’ve gotten to know a show, it’s been through watching seasons at a time on DVD. I do remember Xena. It seemed really campy. Was it? Also, how do you think Xena stands up as a teacher? Is she woman friendly (as in non-catty)? I’m intrigued.

  11. Joe Daly says:

    Leigh-Cheri, the princess in Still Life With Woodpecker. She’s both empowered and teachable. She responds to change by adapting without sacrificing her authenticity. Plus she’s both smart and likes bad boys.

    Sorry- I’m a Tom Robbins freak. 🙂

    Great piece, Gloria! I didn’t realize how spoiled I was that my gender has such a rich history of Obis, but yeah, I totally see what you’re saying.

    Well done!

    • Gloria says:

      Oh, Joe! Tom Robbins is the PERFECT guy to write this female lead I’m pining for. The way he writes women is great. Bonanza Jellybean is also a close example of what I’m talking about. It’s just (and I’ll probably say this over and over in my replies to this discussion) I would really like to see this character in mainstream literature and accessible to young girls. Not that I would discourage a young woman from reading TR, but that most parents would and it’s not as light as YA. Great example, though. I love it.

      • Kimberly says:

        But! But! But! Bonanza Jellybean (and the Rubber Rose ranchers) are still overlorded by The Chink.

        (not arguing, just pointing out…)

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          True Dat. But she’s still a wicked-cool character. Well written. She’s not a teacher the way I envision, but she’s I like her character. I like many of the female characters Robbins writes – which is why I think he’d do this task justice.

  12. David says:

    OK, first I will comment, then I will read the other comments.

    That you pay your therapist does not necessarily preclude the archetype. Monks in the Eastern tradition, use to make their living by donation. They would periodically walk the towns collecting donations. It was also a tradition to bring an offering when you go seeking wisdom. They were paid, in the traditions of that time and place.

    Second thought, and I may get in trouble with this:
    Most men, by nature, to some degree, wish to nail everything with the proper equipment. We all have our preferences, and some rise above their nature and remain faithful, but we still sexualize ALL women to some degree. We can’t help it. As long as “the media” is made up of more than 50% men, the perspective can only change so much.

    OK, off to read the comments…

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      Wow. I did not know that about the Monks in the East. That’s fascinating. It makes sense, I suppose. Being a monk probably isn’t a very lucrative gig – and everyone needs to eat.

      Your point about the media being controlled by (rich, white) men is spot on – and something I hadn’t even thought about. Surprisingly. I’m always eager to blame the rich white dudes.

  13. David says:

    Another though occurred to me, and please bear with me as this is not properly thought out. Obi Wan is not the lead, but a supporting character (I am thinking of the Obi Wan in the original three). He is wise, nurturing, loving, patient, teacher, and is also strong, etc. How is this unlike the archetype of the strong mother? Perhaps part of the problem is that a female Obi Wan is so common as to disappear from the radar altogether. And to Becky’s point, can you be successful in your search for a female Obi Wan if you discount the motherly? After all, Obi Wan is not a drill sergeant. He is about as motherly as a man can be.

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      I think that I’m more trying to figure out what can exist outside of the Mom paradigm more than I’m trying to categorically reject it. I think it goes back to what I say to Becky, above. I would like to see a system of women supporting women become a thing. A trend. A way of being. And I think even the young girls who are awful to other young girls can still be nice to their moms – at least more often. So, establishing a Teacher character a young woman can relate to who is more a peer, or at least less a mom, would be great.

  14. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    Gloria! I love that you’ve raised this issue. I read this first thing in the morning today, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I haven’t read all comments, so going in blind … but, I can’t think of anyone in literature/film I regarded as my Obi-Wan. Like you, Obi-Wan was my Obi-Wan. And you know I love Nikita and Beatrix Kiddo — but you’re also right about this pair — they aren’t the same kind of representation.

    I glanced at a few examples early in the comment thread, and those weren’t figures I’d thought of in the same way I thought of Obi-Wan. The good witch in Wizard of Oz, for example, seemed to be on the periphery. Plus in the film she had that obnoxious, twittery, over-stated femininity that just didn’t appeal to me as a kid.

    Soooo. What are we to do? We must write this character ourselves and change the world!

  15. Matt says:

    First thought that came to mind reading this: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The series is all about an empowered female character’s development from student to, by the end of the series, a teacher/leader in her own right. Yes, she is initially taught by surrogate-father male Giles (and behind him, a masculine institution), but the series deals directly with the necessary struggle where the student must break from the teacher; there’s the point where the two are equals, and by the end of the series, Giles has become Buffy’s subordinate, an inversion of their original relationship.

    Also: the Lady Jessica Atreides from Dune. Successfully taught her son everything he needed to lead a galactic revolution and become a messiah. Yes, Paul is the Mua’dib, but he wouldn’t have been able to be so without years of Jessica’s teachings.

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      My lunch break is over, so I’ll have to address this comment fully later, but I just wanted to say yes! Buffy is a great example (as I’ve mentioned several times above). It’s contemporary, relevant, and totally accessible to young women. I watched that show – one of the only ones I’ve really invested in in my adult life – and I saw Buffy as a teacher figure in many episodes. And the community of women that I describe to Becky, above, is close to actualized. American girls need more Buffy!

  16. Mary Richert says:

    I love what you are asking here because these questions have occurred to me. I’ve also been curious as to why men’s coming of age stories (Cathcher in the Rye and Demian are my favorites) receive such powerful attention and revolve around coming to terms with the world and a belief system (or lack thereof?) while women’s coming of age stories are typically about getting married or getting divorced… i.e. being defined by their relationship to a man.

    I think the Good Witch from Oz is a start, actually, although she’s just not as culturally pervasive as the male archetype. Women can relate to Obi Wan, but I don’t see very many men looking up to any kind of fairy godmother. I also like the Oprah suggestion except that she, too, gets marginalized as a “woman’s” role model, not one for either gender.

    I think part of this problem is that for so long, the male view was oddly accepted as THE view. Anything identified as specifically female was somehow LESS: girly, whimpy, less intelligent and not as valuable.

    There are tons of comments already, and I’m trying to read them and compose my own response as well, so I need to just go read some!

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      Mary, your question about the differences between male and female coming of age stories is just great. I wonder if, like with the female-as-teacher character that we’ve been talking about, it’s a matter of digging a little deeper to find the coming of age stories for women? For instance, I’ve read The Red Tent and it’s tremendous. Again, this isn’t really a story for young women – though it could be. Also, it’s more of a lifelong saga than a traditional coming of age tale. But what about White Oleander? I feel like Astrid’s character in that book really explores the sex/marriage stuff, but in the end she’s a fully self-actualized unmarried character. Hmm…what else?

      No, men don’t look up to The Fairie Godmother. And Oprah’s not a fictional character. Neither is Angelina Jolie, whom Ashley mentions.

      Matt’s example of Buffy is a good one for the “LESS: girly, whimpy, less intelligent and not as valuable” character.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Cynthia Voigt’s two YA novels from long ago (seventies) could be called “coming of age,” and the main chararacter, Dicey, is a girl. “Homecoming,” and “Dicey’s Song” are excellent — I read them a few months ago.

      Dicey is a very strong character, as is the grandmother.

      • Mary Richert says:

        Well, it’s one thing to have a strong character, but it’s quite another to have that character rise to the level of real-world clout that many male characters have. Even negative characters like the Underground Man seem to have much more credibility as examples of real human psychology than their female counterparts. I’m sure there are countless examples of beautifully written, strong female characters that COULD fill that gap Gloria’s writing about, but the question for me is more in how they are perceived. The male characters in the long run just stand out, are remembered and are accepted by both genders while the female characters simply don’t reach that level for some reason. Is it for lack of really good options or something else?

        I’m thinking in particular of the characters Max Demian and Emil Sinclair in Demian. They take on some really dark subject matter, struggle both morally and intellectually, and are pretty stellar in my opinion. I have seen very few (if any… can’t think of them now) female characters go through any similar plot. I thought The Golden Notebook might be comparable, but I find it honestly unreadable due to too many words spent on periods and vaginal vs. clitoral orgasms… no kidding.)

        I do think there are current writers who are approaching correcting this. Anne Lamott and Aimee Bender come to mind.

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          Anne Lamott is lovely. She’s strong, but not overbearingly so. She has a lot to say about the human condition, not just the female condition. I would say bell hooks is another great example.

      • Gloria Harrison says:

        Thanks for the recommendations, Don. I’ve not heard of these, but I definitely want to check them out. I think this goes to Judy’s comment, below – which basically says that these characters are out there. They DO exist. We just need to figure out a way to bring them front and center.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          I don’t know your boys, but I think they might find “Homecoming” engaging. You can find plot summaries on the net, I’m sure — but it’s basically “mom abandons her kids in a parking lot and the oldest one (Dicey, the girl) manages to get them from Massachusetts to Maryland, mostly walking, intact.”

          It’s impossible not to greatly admire Dicey — learning what she does and how she leads the other children should be good for both boys and girls.

  17. Richard Cox says:

    I think your underlying premise is faulty in that you believe it’s possible a woman would be wise enough to instruct anyone about anything.

    Baaahahahahahahaha. Just kidding.

    Um…Mother Abigail?

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      You’re hilarious.

      Mother Abigail is close. Too bad she’s a sub-character tucked deep within a serial.

      • Richard Cox says:

        A serial? Was The Stand originally published as a bunch of short stories and I just don’t realize it?

        And she seems rather important in the story. Maybe we’re thinking of two different Mother Abigails?

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          I’m pretty sure you’re crazy.


          I got The Stand mixed up with the Dark Tower series. I read them both during my King phase and, as King is wont to cross pollinate his characters until you forget which book you’re reading (sometimes), I got them confused. Nonetheless, I knew what you were talking about.

          Obviously. Mother Abigail from The Stand.

  18. Zara Potts says:

    When I was growing up, I always liked Miss Clavel in the Madeline series. She seemed like a very sensible, very nice Nun. And absolutely sex free.

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      Madeline, the little French girl? I never read those, though my daughter did when she was younger.

      The sex free thing. Geez… I don’t think I made myself clear. I don’t care if this teacher character that I’m envisioning has multi-day sex orgies with elves and centaurs and buckets of baby oil. The point is, I’d like for this to happen off screen/off page. For the most part, anyway. Because I think that a student who is instructed in matters of the soul and the spirit – the character building shit – will just naturally roll those teachings over into the arena of sex – and every other part of life. You know?

  19. Kimberly says:

    HOly crap, I’m glad I checked in today!!

    Love this! I don’t have any answers or solutions, but good goddamn am I glad you are asking the questions!

  20. Brian says:

    My six year old daughter and I have read through Neil Gaiman’s CORALINE several times. She loves the book as do I.

    While I am not sure Coraline fits your requirements for teacher, she exhibits many of the traits I hope to see my little girl grow up to possess in her womanhood.

    Curiosity, courage, problem solving, compassion, inner strength, sense of humor, self-reliance, intelligence just to name a few.

    My daughter dressed as Coraline for Halloween when she was 5. I have never been so proud.

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      You know, I was going to read Coraline with the boys, but I thought that it might be too scary. The movie was way scary. Awesome that your daughter loves it; she’s made of tough stuff.

      And, hey- I am totally for role models. If Coraline is a good example of a young girl, then I say kudos! And here I will reveal my total inner dork and admit that I went through my Sandman phase. Death was one of my favorite characters ever written. Gaiman writes good women, too. Someone above mentions that gender roles aren’t as stringently adhered to in comic books and sci fi/fantasy, so it makes sense that we’d see Gaiman able to exhibit some freedom and creativity in this arena. (Well, not to mention he’s frickin’ brilliant.)

      Thanks for stopping by, Brian!

  21. Marni Grossman says:

    You’re right: there’s a definite dearth of female mentor-types. Which is probably why I- an out ‘n proud feminist- have always latched onto male teachers. It’s insidious, this.

  22. James D. Irwin says:

    these aren’t the female role models you’re looking for… *hypnotic wave*

    Elizabeth I probably wasn’t as chaste as people think. She had several high profile men who courted her, but she refused to marry any of them because she was ‘married to her country.’ That doesn’t mean that she— shock horror— didn’t abide by the ‘no sex before marriage rule’ because powerful and important English people at that time rarely did.

    For female role models in pop culture a couple of the companions/assisstants in the history of Doctor Who have been strong women who make good role models. Very few though.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Well, right. The actual woman is one thing, the legend is another. For my part, at least, since Gloria was talking about literature and pop culture, I was talking more about Elizabeth the icon/legend/fictionalized persona and less about Elizabeth the actual woman.

      • Gloria says:

        Becky, can you think of any contemporary examples of Elizabeth the icon/legend/fictionalized persona molded into a literary character? My problem is that I’m kind of out of touch with pop culture in general and especially young woman oriented literature, film, and television. I know what’s out there for little boys, though! I was pretty keyed into the female side of it for a long time because of my daughter, but she’s been out of my house for two and a half years. You have a niece though, yes? So maybe you know…

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      You know, Irwin, I’ve never seen a single episode of Doctor Who. I know, I know. I certainly hope you’ll still be my friend. 🙂

  23. Dana says:

    So late to this — but yesss to Buffy! (High fives Matt!) I didn’t even start watching until it had been canceled, but we gobbled it up. Terrific female characters throughout the show. Actually anything that Joss touches has some pretty awesome women, from Firefly to Angel to Dollhouse.

    I thought Nancy Drew was pretty kickass when I was a kid, and I love Tom Robbins’ books for female characters.

    Mother Abigail – good call Rich!

    I’ll nominate Veronica Mars and Kim Possible and how about Nancy Botwin? 😉

    I know there are more!

    • Gloria says:

      Yes, Dana, you’re so right. Joss Whedon is a great creator of female characters. Tom Robbins, too. If only they could combine their magical powers. On the other hand, and maybe I”m just being unnecessarily picky here, but I’d kind of like to see this iconic woman-teacher be created by a woman. But if it has to be created by a man – let it be Whedon or Robbins!

  24. jules says:

    Wow Gloria – good topic!

    The first really strong female archtype I remember growing up was Ripley in Aliens. Her character isn’t completely sexless – there was the panty scene – but all in all, her character was completely off the charts at the time. And yes, in Aliens she does take on a more maternal role saving Newt – but I think that just adds more depth. She’s the closest I can think of anyway that doesn’t fit into the other categories you mentioned of Old Maid, goddess and the others.

    Age is what makes the sexuality go away in most characters. There are a lot of great kids characters that fit into what you are talking about – but being kids they are androgynous – the hormones that separate the sexes haven’t kicked in yet. “Spirited Away’s”, Chihiro is a wonderful character. I don’t know that she could have had the same qualities had she been written as a teenage or adult character.

    Detective Claudette Wyms, of the Shield is a somewhat good example, but she fits into the old maid category – and that role was originally written for a man.

    As soon as I started reading the comments I had to google female archtypes images. It was really pretty depressing what came up. An image of a Brats doll came up at the top of the list – to which I mumbled “What the eff!?” I don’t know why Brats dolls bother me so – but I almost cringe when I go past them at the store, and just pray as I walk down the aisle with my six year old daughter that this is not what she is drawn to. So far – so good. I think there is a parallel between this and what you are wanting in your characters. We want more out of our characters than the literary version of a Brats doll.

    Thanks for bringing this topic to the table!

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      Thanks, Jules. I’m so glad you stopped by to read. (And not to turn my TNB post into an IM chat but – Hi! How are you?? I love you!!!)

      Ripley in Aliens is a wonderfully tough woman. And I suspect that her in her panties had more to do with 20th Century Fox wanting to make money than with Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay. You know, it’s been so long since I’ve seen that (have I even seen it all the way through?) that I can’t say much more about it. But I will say that Sigourney Weaver generally picks roles of strong, thoughtful women. You know who else does, too? Meryl Streep. I’ve always admired them.

      Your point about age is wonderful. I think that Hayao Miyazaki writes the most amazing characters – most of whom are children. And yes, they fall outside of so much politics. Also, though, Miyazaki comes from an Eastern sensibility. I’ve definitely shared his movies with the boys and Sierra. And, actually, I think it’s a great point that if you want to show your children something other than what’s available to you in your own pond, you should just go fish in another pond. Great point!

      I’m not familiar with Claudette Wyms of The Shield, but I am familiar with that actress. She seems to often play strong female leads. Nice. Too bad I don’t watch TV (or, really, sit long enough to watch DVDs.) I should check it out though. Thanks for the recommendation!

      You know why you hate Brats Dolls? Because they’re targeted to six year olds, they’re super-sexualized little girls made of plastic, they wear more makeup than JonBenét Ramsey, and they’re called Brats – which isn’t the time of adjective most parents want their little, sweet, innocent daughters to strive for. Makes perfect sense to me!

  25. dwoz says:

    The real question is “Does the Labia Lie About All Knowledge of Seed?”

    but I digress.

    Certainly, a second vote for Miss Clavel. How about Angela Lansbury as “Jessica Fletcher” in Murder, she wrote?

    Or Mary Poppins?

    Too tame?

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      Oh. Thanks, Dwoz! I wasn’t sure what the real question should be.

      Tame is fine. Too matronly?

      • dwoz says:

        oh, please don’t take offense! I just thought it was cute that the palindrome of your title was also a sort of opposite meaning.

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          I wasn’t offended, dwoz. I’ve just been so busy lately. It comes in waves for me. I’ve fallen off of being able to read many TNB posts, and by the time I can get around to commenting on my own post, it’s bedtime and I’ve been SO tired. School started again. You understand. 😉 (Do we really need to have half a dozen back to school events? Really?)

  26. Judy Prince says:

    Some thoughts, Gloria, to add to this wonderful piece of yours and the intense meaningful comments:

    1) Why do we have to neglect/omit/overlook/reject the SEXUALITY of the female wise one?

    She’s to be a Whole Person, right? She’s to “teach” us about our whole selves, right?

    2) Young females are as obnoxious to one another as young males are—-well, p’raps slightly less obnoxious than young males (e.g., young males routinely walk up to a buddy, punch him in the stomach and say something like: “Fat gut, you bastard. Put on some pounds, did you?”).

    3) I’m not into reading novels, never have been, so have no fiction to add to the mix here. However, biographies of wise leader’y females, past and recent, are all over the place.

    4) The large-hyped (i.e., film, DVD, tv media) “hero teachers” tend to be physical-action “leader-teachers”, even the actually non-active variety such as Yoda. And, more often, they are males rather than females. But that doesn’t mean that non-physical-action “leader-teachers” are less impressive, profound, capable, wise, whole, pragmatic and brilliant—-whether males or females. It also does not preclude the “leader-teacherism” of hundreds of females written up in the last few years in all imaginable fields and cultures.

    P’raps our work is to boot these females up, through our writing, noting, reminding, adverting, marketing, publishing and insisting.

    Thank you so much for beginning this Gloria-us subject!

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      You know, Judy. You ask some damn good questions. I appreciate the amount of thought you put into them. I’ll try to answer all of them. This may be long. 🙂

      1) Why do we have to neglect/omit/overlook/reject the SEXUALITY of the female wise one?

      I’ve given this question a lot of thought. I went in an scrubbed my bathroom (at 10:15 at night) just to give my monkey brain a task while I thought on it. And, first, I want to acknowledge that I get what you’re saying about the need for our teacher to be a whole person. And, actually, since you put it that way, I realize that overlooking this part would negligent.

      Here’s the thing: I can’t puzzle out how this should look. I mean, there’re all sorts of different sexualities and politics. The politics of straight relationships is in many ways different than the politics of gay relationships. And the “rules” about sexuality differ across cultures and religions and, and, and… I guess my big beef is that we live in a white anglo saxon hetero normative society, and I’ve just seen those rules played out so many times. My whole life. Everywhere I look. And, frankly, they bore me. I identify as straight and female but I don’t adhere to the gender politics that are foisted upon me. Out here in progressive Portland, I’m vanilla, but in the heartland of this country, men wouldn’t know what to do with me! My point is, once you bring sexuality into a popular work, a whole set of rules that I reject come into play. It’s like I wrote in my post: 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. Maybe it’s fine for the teacher/mentor to talk about sex, or to be sexual herself (but god, please, don’t let her have perky 38DD breasts and a 12 inch waist…) And I can see your point about there being a need for that. But, in my mind, this should be secondary to the other parts. The sexuality should be in service to the character building. Does that make sense?

      2. There’s a bullying epidemic with young females in this culture. You can find it over and over in the media. I’ve raised a daughter (18 in six days!) and now I’m raising two boys – and I can see the difference. No, boys don’t get off Scot-free. I do see bullying there, too. But boys are able to let things go a lot easier, I think. Whereas girls hold onto stuff and torture. I know I’m speaking in generalizations here. So, at the risk of digging a hole, I’ll go in another direction. My experience in my childhood was that girls were awful. My daughter’s experience (perception?) was the same. I’ve talked to many, many female friends throughout my adult life who have revealed the same experience in junior high and high school. Woman who decry that they would never return to those years for that reason. Maybe there are a whole slew of reasons for this. Like every other damned thing in life, I’m sure those reasons are many and nuanced. Nonetheless, I get the real sense that young women are, in general, not enculturated with a women-helping-women sensibility in this country. And some of us have to find this in adulthood, which I think is too late. I would like to see sisterhood as a paradigm that is set early on. And I think pop culture is the place to start.

      3. Yes! Biographies! Duke’s reminder about Annie Sullivan was great. I remember loving that story so much as a kid.

      4. This is a great point. I think of the movie Stand and Deliver with Edward James Olmos. I know, not a woman. But still a great example. Again, Annie Sullivan would be a good example of this.

      P’raps our work is to boot these females up, through our writing, noting, reminding, adverting, marketing, publishing and insisting. Yes! Yes, Judy! I agree. 🙂 Now, how do we do this?

      Thank you so much for reading (both my initial post and this, my essay-within-an-essay.) 🙂

      • Judy Prince says:

        Gloria, many of the things I love about dear Rodent are the same things you do: you listen/read attentively and THINK about what you’ve heard/read, staying completely open to an “opposing” opinion, and you actively accept many of them. How very rare that is. How splendid it is.

        1) SEXUALITY. Melissa Febos’s current post (Letters) makes excellent sense. I responded to her about the essentiality of exploring, through women’s analyses and experiences, the entire fabric of SEXUALITY because it lives in every bit of our lives: our families’, friends’, religions’, politics’, educations’—–every small and large bit of our lives. We need to open the subject for discussion as if our lives depended upon it…..because our lives DO depend upon it. We are confused about it, whether we’re males or females and whether we want to have sex with males or females or both. We feel our sexuality from birth, I believe, and that feeling doesn’t stop EVER. Throughout our lives we make thousands of choices, often seemingly unconnected to sexuality, which are based upon our sexuality—-and those choices profoundly affect others, as well as ourselves. What is natural, what is normal, what is preferred, what is hurtful, what is loving, what is ruinous, what is desperately wanted? How will we know the answers or even how to deal with the questions if we don’t explore the issues of SEXUALITY thoroughly and with the same candor as we explore other issues? If our female and male “teacher-leader-heroes” have a variety of sexual habits, identities and opinions, we will be better informed. My always-mantra: Few things are made worse by more information. More information nearly always is preferable to less information.

        2) I continue to be confounded and confused about bad treatment of women by women and what seems to be bad treatment of men by men (read “girls or boys”, as well). With the exception of dear Rodent, my best friends have always been girls and women. I feel sorry for males because they seldom seem to have what I’d consider good buddies with whom they can talk over everything, let it all hang out, get advice, get personal, get talked-out and emotioned-out. It has been said that women are men’s closest friends—-often their only friends—-and that it is a huge drain on the women. On another note, something that drives me nuts has been women’s (mine, too, obviously) judgementalism. My male relatives and friends seem to possess nada judgement about their male friends. You, drunk as hell, wanna drive my car? No prob—-here are the keys! That’s the attitude I’ve heard from men. Women? Forget it! We’d knock him upside the head, curse him and stomp on him for asking for the car keys. Count on it. Now, another point that drives me crazy: That whole female “make nice” and “don’t argue” thing. YARGHHHHH!!!!! I abandoned a list of mostly female poets because it became a tangle of “let’s all get along and be nice and apologise and say thank you blah blah blah.” It was such a relief to get back to the mostly male lists of poets who toss off some down-and-dirty stuff, wrangle and smack each other around unapologetically and then get on with the business at hand, including,,,,,,,nearly always,,,,,,being the greatest of buddies. I used to get worked up and try to get them to “be nice”—–but when I got outa their road, they ended up doing beautifully. Amazing. Women could use a huge dose of learning how to argue (meaning “debate”) everything! It’s not easy (though definitely learnable if practiced), not taught or exampled often, but vital to women’s emotional, mental, spiritual and intellectual health—-and often their physical health as well. We need to learn how to say what we want and need, how to state what we feel and think. We need to ruffle feathers in order to get the strokes we want and need. We need to ask for what we want, ask for what we need. Totally. Completely. Constantly. Always. Forever. No matter what. No matter with whom. There’s glory in it. And much to learn about ourselves and others in the bargain.

        3) and 4) I’m totally delighted that you feel this way and can’t wait to read more fantastic books about the lives of Real Women!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        Finally, you ask how we boot up these women? Dear Gloria, you’ve already begun, and my congratulations and blessings for your having jumpstarted the joy and the work.

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          Judy – I am so tired from the longest work week I’ve had in a really, really long time that I can’t intelligently comment on your reply right now. (Today was crazy, insane, run around with my hair on fire busy and I just spent ten minutes looking for my wallet, which was right in front of me the whole time; so I should go to bed.)

          But all day I’ve wanted to tell you about a book my acupuncturist recommended to me last night when she and I were discussing this post. It’s called Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back and it’s about a Los Angeles Times op-ed columnist named Norah Vincent who took on a male identity and navigated around in the male world as a male – and eventually went crazy. My acupuncturist said that Vincent’s observations about the male experience are fascinating. She, my acupuncturist, like you, is a masculinist (? is that a word?) in that she really tries to understand and defend the male experience. I’ve never read the book, so I can’t testify about it, but it sounds interesting and I thought you might want to check it out.

          The only other thing I’ll add is that I don’t have a single doubt that men get the short end in some ways. And I’m all for equal rights and for bringing the balance into equilibrium on both sides.

          But now… I sleep. I’ll try to read your comment further tomorrow and say something smarter about it. 🙂

        • Judy Prince says:

          Awesome, Gloria. I just ordered a hardcover copy of Norah Vincent’s _Self-Made Man_ at amazon.co.uk for 1 pence plus shipping. Really eager to read it! She went nuts being a man? That explains a lot about the men I know. 😉

          I hadn’t realised I was a masculinist, but I guess to be a true feminist you’d have to be a masculinist, too; otherwise you’d be an intellectual and emotional brainfart. Come to think of it, the opposite of both masculinist and feminist is called “sexist,” which conveniently goes both ways (so to speak).

          Get lots of sleep and rest, and don’t write so damned much in your comments, my dear. Be a man and write quick simple things; better yet, go the whole way and refuse to explain your brilliant aphoristic opinions. I once had a husband who refused to explain himself (which I discovered well after we’d married, unfortunately), and it rather entertained me to figure out what he meant, but it took too much time, so I divorced him.

          I’m retired so I can write lots and still sleep, too. I am soooooooooooooooooooooooooooo fortunate!!!!!!!

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          Let me know what you think of it, will you, Judy? You should have my email address in your multitude of email Inbox replies. I’ve a backlog of books to read, so I’ll wait for your thumbs up before adding one more to the pile. (Not that I don’t trust my acupuncturist. She’s lovely.)

        • Judy Prince says:

          Will do, Gloria, gladly.

      • Judy Prince says:

        I forgot to riff on your main issue, Gloria; to wit: “Maybe it’s fine for the teacher/mentor to talk about sex, or to be sexual herself (but god, please, don’t let her have perky 38DD breasts and a 12 inch waist…) And I can see your point about there being a need for that. But, in my mind, this should be secondary to the other parts. The sexuality should be in service to the character building.”

        Now please realise you’re reading someone (me) who routinely wrote into her young son’s books “s” in front of “he” and changed all the “him” words to “her”. I have no idea what happened to my kid’s brain upon hearing/reading those changes (except that at uni he took women’s studies courses—-in order, he said, to be the only male in a class of females). However, the amazing female he married reads his kid books to their twin boys, and she said that when she reads “she” instead of “he” it makes a huge difference in her psyche: Suddenly she herself is included, whereas otherwise, she would be a spectator to the book’s main character. Models are very very important to females of every age. Very important.

        Re sexuality being in service to the character-building (as you say in the quote atop this comment): Females are beautiful beings, physically beautiful. Despite most females condemning how they look, they are awesome attractive beings. That beauty, naturally, means SEXUAL/SENSUAL, as well as aesthetic. How could it be otherwise? A cow to a bull is beautiful. And vice versa. Obvious stuff here, nothing new or sensational. Attractiveness for a purpose. Duh.

        I emphasise it, though, because it is basic, fundamental, un-overlookable, in-your-face, obvious, never-gonna-go-away.

        And the inherent sexual/sensual beauty of females should not be hidden, ignored, suppressed, cut off from other aspects of the female herself. Some have mentioned weirded-out females who use their attractiveness for “gain” (fame, cash, attention, you name it), like a Lady Gaga (they say). Yet I find her attractive, can suss her “messages” and opinions, and don’t find her sexual attractiveness a drawback to her other aspects. If a sexy woman says something brilliant, I don’t leap back in shock. Matter of fact, just as many ultra-beautiful females are brilliant as are not-so-ultra-beautiful women. This idea is a no-brainer. In her day, Mae West was thought sexy, and she was a brilliant witty woman who invented plenty of great lines: “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” “A hard man is good to find.” “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

        So sexy and brainy-wise are not mutually exclusive. This is not new news. But it is often under siege. So we’ll simply un-siege it. Done. I feel much better now. 😉

        Sarah Palin is a (different) case in point, and she illustrates it remarkably. Most females understand that Palin is a woman who is formidably sexy (who of either gender wouldn’t want to look at her?) and, like many male (equally sexy) political folk, she is not burdened by heavy thinking. Dan Quayle leaps to mind here. Cute, but…..oh dear, what was he thinking (if he was thinking)? I’d fear for our lives if he or Sarah ever got close to that little red bomb-releasing button.

        Repeat: We are all attracted to beauty, to beautiful, sexual, sensual people. Does that mean we’re likely to put them in the US White House? Perhaps. Does that mean we ignore their wisdom or their lack of wisdom? Sometimes. But not that often. (Let’s face it; we seldom know what campaigning politicians think bcuz they’re layered over in the media with what their writers write for them and what their spin doctors manufacture about them.)

        So if a “teacher-leader” FEMALE (political or not) turns us on, does that mean we cannot figure out what we think about what she thinks? We cannot evaluate her brain and her wisdom? Her preferences for courses of action? Her motives and aims? Her ability to choose good stuff over bad stuff? Her pandering or her independence?

        Perhaps, but, if so, it is a limitation that we also draw around our assessments of MALE persons. I’m attracted to certain gorgeous male persons, oh yes—AND I still have the ability to assess their brains and wisdom. In PERSONAL relationships, it can be tricky, though. I’ll leave that delightful arena for debate to you, Gloria, or somebody else who wants to pick it up. I’m just lucky that dear Rodent is brilliant, wise, sweet, generous, tolerant—-AND GORGEOUS!

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          Wow, Judy. You’ve really been thinking about this! Awesome.

          First off – changing the pronouns in your son’s books is hilarious. What a clever thing. I get it, too. Here in America, our crosswalk lights show a picture of an androgynous human in motion when it’s time to walk. The boys grew up with me saying, “We have to wait for the lady in pants to come on before we can go, boys.” Because, you know, who says it’s not a woman?

          I’ve no argument about women being beautiful beings. I’ve no issue with women being sexual beings. I mean holy hell, woman – have you met me? Oh wait, no. You haven’t. But! Should that day ever occur, you’ll see that I am not some quiet, asexed human. I find sexuality a just dandy thing.

          And your Mae West example is a good one, for sure. You’re right – sexy and brainy-wise are not mutually exclusive. Not always. And so, sure. That’s one type of female teacher. Great. Wonderful. I’d rather my daughter learn about sex from a sexually self-actualized female than from her friends. (She learned from me during my long arc of self-actualization, so we’ll see how that works for her.) But it doesn’t have to be the only type of female teacher. What about Eleanor Roosevelt? “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.” “A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Nary a trace of sexuality in her appearance, her words, or her history (that we’ve been shown) – yet, she was married to a man, so it assumed that she had sex. She made it to the White House and THANK GODS she was no Sarah Palin.

          Your Lady Gaga defense is good too. Madonna in the 80s/90s also comes to mind. Madonna did tons for the liberation of the sexual female and I appreciate her for that. But Madonna’s depth was an inch deep and a mile wide. Time will tell if that is also true for LG.

          I want more. I demand more.

        • Judy Prince says:

          I really enjoyed your reply, Gloria—-loved your crosswalk quote to your boys! Glad you’re rested, hope you can play hooky from Back to School events as well as other school events (except the ones, natch, that your kids are in).

          Yes, it does not escape me that Gloria is a sexy female. And just maybe that her being a triple-timed mommy makes her one who has tried sexual activity a time or two. 😉 Sometimes I go on a bit, get carried away with my brainchildren, and this particular brainchild could’ve been aborted a couple comments ago (of mine).

          Good Eleanor Roosevelt quotes! “Speak your mind even when your voice shakes.” Nice, that.

          I quite agree with you about wanting such a female leader-teacher. Problem is, and this is conundrumming me, I’m confused about this thing of separating sex from leader-teachers. It’s run me ragged with analyses so far and seems to get glumpier the more I hack away at it.

          I’ll take a break, then, and read Carol Drinkwater’s marvelous Olive Farm memoir. She’s a fantastically sexy woman, probably best-known as the actor who played Helen, the James Herriott character’s wife, in the first 3 series of BBC’s production of _All Creatures Great and Small_. She has also written books for teenagers, including a first novel, The Haunted School, made into a television mini-series in Australia, and The Hunger in 2001, the fictional diary of 14-year-old Phyllis McCormack about living through the Irish potato famine.

  27. Jacqui says:

    Gloria, this is great. As the mother of two girls – now 13 and 10 – finding literature/cinema to celebrate with them is tough.

    But I remember when they were younger they found their own female role models/teachers. As little ones they both believed, quite separately, without question, that Dumbo was a girl. And loved her because she found her joy. As was the pigeon, from Don’t let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. They loved her too. Single-minded and tricky! The best kind of woman.

    I believe there will be more for them in the future. Thanks for posting discussions like this.

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      Dumbo was a girl? That made me squeal and smile. Kids are so great. I mean, sure, Lord of the Flies also makes a great point about awful kids can also be. But pre-adolescent kids? They really have it all figured out.

  28. Tawni says:

    I read this a few days ago, but haven’t been able to sit down and comment until now. But I’ve been thinking about it.

    I just asked my husband, and he immediately threw out Mother Abigail and The Oracle. He also mentioned Ripley, Sigourney Weaver’s character in the Alien movies. She’s a strong female, a fighter, and a leader.

    That’s all I’ve got. But thanks for making me think. And for putting the word “labia” into your title. That needs to happen more often. (:

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      Tawni, I’m so glad you showed up. I knew – KNEW that if anything would draw you out, it would be the word labia. 😀

      You’re totally welcome for the thinking thing. You’ve done it for me a load of times as well.

      I hope you’re well and your car situation is worked out and your son hasn’t gotten the school year crud yet and that you are healthy and that you stay that way and that David is well, too. **end personalized message to Tawni.**

      • Tawni says:

        Personalized Update: Car sitch sorted, son sick first, husband sick next, and me not sick, yet injured and hobbling around in an Aircast boot, trying to take care of them. But my positive perspective is firmly in place, never fear. (:

        I hope your world is holding steady, and life is beautiful, my sweet friend. I will text you something stupid very soon. xoxo.

        P.S. Labia.

  29. Ruth Thompson says:

    I’m late to this party — Don and I are traveling, currently in Wyoming, home of the cowboy version of the dominant male warrior/adolescent archetype. But this conversation has been very interesting, to someone who writes a lot about archetypes of the feminine, and the woman hero’s journey as different from the male hero’s.

    I am thinking, for example, of Inanna’s descent and return, and the transformative experience (for both men and women) of the Eleusian mysteries, as well as images from myth and folktales in many cultures. The books of Robin McKinley, for a current example.

    It seems to me, as an gross overgeneralization, that the archetypal woman’s journey is to meet herself in order to become whole, and the archetypal man’s journey is to meet challenges in order to have the right to power in the external world.

    (And all of this is to ignore the much more complex matter of gender, which is to say the whole spectrum of possibility within all humans. And to ignore the masculine archetype within the whole woman, and the feminine archetype within the whole man, etc etc.)

    But I realize you are talking about contemporary popular culture here, which I know little about (aged as I am), though it seems to me that popular culture is so dominated by adolescents whose desperate need is to prove themselves by imposing their will on others and who are terrified to look inside, that it is hopeless to look there for images of true power for our daughters OR our sons. Such images will not appear on television. Or, largely, in films.

    And the dominant Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions similarly impose (among other false dualities) the ideas of aggression and submission as the only way to understand “power.” Which is a perversion not only of sexuality but of all human interactions, among ourselves and with other species. And a total perversion of spiritual actuality, but that is another issue.

    I do believe that the wise, strong woman teacher is not asexual, the way male warrior teachers (monks) are. The woman hero takes her own inner power by acknowledging and integrating her whole self, which includes her own sexuality and the ways in which that sexuality has been perverted by religion, by culture at all levels, and how that perversion of integrity has played out in her own experience.

    Part of this becoming whole is rescuing her own sexuality from the dominant power structure and from all ideas of hierarchy. She takes ownership of it, and owns the power to act or refuse to act, to be nubile or motherly or grandmotherly – or, indeed, warriorly or fatherly, or whateverly, but that gets into another question, of the oneness beneath separation into “male” and “female.”

    So, long-windedly, I guess the bottom line is I don’t think we can expect truthful or helpful images of human behavior, including gender and sexuality, from the dominant (dying) culture. And that includes books, for the most part. I don’t know what the answer is, maybe models from real life?

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      I’m sorry for the delay in responding to you, Ruth. I’ve been so busy. But, first, let me get this out of the way:


      I try to evolve, Ruth. I really do.

      You write about archetypes of the feminine? Really? That’s so incredibly fascinating. Where can I read your writing? Why do you do it? What’s your background in? I have so many questions for you… (Man, I’ll bet you and Don together are a tour de force.)

      I’ve made a note to look up Robin McKinley books. Thanks for that suggestion.

      I started copying and pasting parts of your reply that I wanted to highlight or give a heartfelt yes! to, but quickly realized I would be copying the whole thing.

      Your gross overgeneralization? Yes! Your point about gender? Yes! (Which could be – and has been – it’s own separate essay/field of study. And rightfully so.)

      …popular culture is so dominated by adolescents whose desperate need is to prove themselves by imposing their will on others and who are terrified to look inside, that it is hopeless to look there for images of true power for our daughters OR our sons. Such images will not appear on television. Or, largely, in films. <—— This made me really sad. I think you’re right. But I don’t think this is a permanent state of being. I think, perhaps, we’re just passing from one phase to another right now. I see such a difference in the way my 18 year old daughter thinks, versus my 8 year old twin boys. And I don’t think it’s just a gender difference. I think it’s also a generational difference. I expect amazing things from my boys and their peers in their teens. I see the tide turning. Like you said, this dominant culture is dying. I’m crossing my fingers.

      For this paragraph: “I do believe that the wise, strong woman teacher is not asexual, the way male warrior teachers (monks) are. The woman hero takes her own inner power by acknowledging and integrating her whole self, which includes her own sexuality and the ways in which that sexuality has been perverted by religion, by culture at all levels, and how that perversion of integrity has played out in her own experience. ” Can you offer any specific examples, contemporary or otherwise? Judy and I are having this debate right now (above) and I think you’re making the same point she’s making. Which is a great one. But I’m still having such a hard time putting a face to this model.

      Thank you for this thoughtful reply, Ruth. I’ve been thinking about it for days and will likely continue to do so.

      Also, if you and Don ever pass through Portland, I would love to have a long, leisurely meal with the two of you. 🙂

      • Ruth Thompson says:

        Thank you so much, Gloria! I know my response was late and thought the conversation was over. And couldn’t check, because we’re staying with friends in the mountains of SD and internet (and cell service) is iffy. Three people are waiting to use this connection right now, so… this may have to wait till the weekend when we get home. I am really interested in your questions and will do some thinking about them (as I drag my crone self up the trail!)

    • Irene Zion says:


      It’s nice to meet you!
      I didn’t realize you were the Ruth that Don talks about.
      I like how you think.

  30. Well, judging by my daughter, at least for the moment, it’s Word Girl. And, I guess by extension, Captain Huggyface as well.

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      My boys loved Word Girl, too. That’s a great show. Also, Dora the Explorer, which kind of drove me crazy, but was okay. Also, Blue from Blue’s Clues was a girl – and they loved that show. But as I mention above, kids have this amazing ability to be all accepting. It’s adolescence, really, that screws up the works, I think. 😉

      Does your daughter like Between the Lions? Another super show. Arty Smarty Pants and his Smarty Pants Dance? So fun.

  31. angela says:

    gloria, your post really made me think.

    i love the suggestions in the comments of the three Mrs.’s from A Wrinkle in Time, Annie Sullivan, and Matilda from Anne of Green Gables.

    while i love River, Buffy, and Echo, to me they’re more along the lines of Spiderman – passive recipients of power. River and Echo are programmed, and Buffy is simply given her kick-ass abilities. then again, Echo and Buffy end up owning that power, instead of vice versa (maybe River too, but i can’t remember).

    but i totally digress! for some reason while i thought about your post, all the Judy Blume novels came to mind. i’m not thinking of a specific character but that voice behind the books. i think unconsciously that was my moral compass growing up, even more so than Madeleine L’Engle’s books, which could be rather goody-two-shoes.

    • Judy Prince says:

      angela, great to read/see you here—-I’ve missed your writings!

      These points of yours are thought-kicking: ” . . . while i love River, Buffy, and Echo, to me they’re more along the lines of Spiderman – passive recipients of power. River and Echo are programmed, and Buffy is simply given her kick-ass abilities. then again, Echo and Buffy end up owning that power, instead of vice versa (maybe River too, but i can’t remember).”

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      I, too, miss your writing, Angela. I hope you’re well.

      Your point about River, Buffy, and Echo being passive recipients of power was not one I’d thought of. Thanks for pointing that out. Judy Blume novels are great. They may not have the female-teacher exactly, but they’re such great books. They have great characters and they teach good values without being heavy handed and preachy. Blume really is a talent. I think that L’Engle’s books are so goody-two-shoes because of the era they were written in, so you can take it with a grain of salt. It’s obvious when you read them that they’re sort of old-timey, so I think one is more willing to make allowances. I’m thinking also of Mrs. Pigglewiggle, which Tolkien and Indigo love. They were written in the 1930s, and it’s obvious, but they’re also really great. Some of the context is obviously outdated (like little kids staying home alone), but it’s forgivable. But, again, the Wrinkle in Time series and Ms. Pigglewiggle were written so, so many years ago. Blume is at least more contemporary. Yet, I’m wondering, what’s been done lately, you know? What’s happening now? It looks like there is a niche to be filled, for sure. I’ll add it to my to-do list.

  32. dwoz says:

    This post has had a big effect on me today.

    My own first novel, which I’m currently at 62,000 words, in fact hits this exact point. It’s as if this piece were a lead-in to my book at a reading or something. My lead and supporting character are strong, iconic women.





    Mary (both Mother and Magdalene)

    The Succubus.


    but you’re right…the trail goes cold sometime around the reformation and/or the renaissance. At least in western works…

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      First off – 62,000 words? Way to go dwoz! Keep on going! 🙂

      Yes, the trail does go cold. And yes, in the west. Amber asks below why we have to stick to western literature/media and though I have an answer for that, it also makes the great, valid point that there’s good stuff happening in The East and elsewhere.

      Good luck with your novel!

  33. Amber says:

    As I’m sitting here with Nathaniel and reading all of this, he asks a good question: why are we limiting ourselves to North American/European literature? There is a plethora of folklore, mythology, and various of writing that we haven’t gotten in to. I know this discussion primarily concerns what we have been exposed to but perhaps we should expand our realm and find examples outside of our experience. Just a thought.

    As for my own experience, however, I will wholeheartedly endorse the Wrinkle in Time series. Aside from the aforementioned characters, Meg Murray becomes something of an Obi Wan Kenobi herself. She takes the knowledge she is given and imparts it to her brothers and triumphs in several novels. I adore those books.

    For other young-lady-friendly reading, I love all things Judy Blume (because her characters aren’t perfect and have a smack of realism to them) and Kate Chopin (because her women are complex and independent in their own ways). I also would like to mention Boudicca. A warrior queen who has entered into myth. She was a mother, yes, but she also led her army into battle. Pretty badass. Maybe not exactly what we’re looking for but a personal favorite of mine. Oooh, and Joan of Arc. And hail to Elizabeth I.

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      Amber! And Nathaniel! Hi, ya’ll. 🙂

      I’m sticking with North American/European literature and media for the sake of this question just to see what falls out when I shake that particular tree. (Since it is the tree with the lowest hanging fruit that our young people pick from.) You couldn’t be more correct, though, that there are possibly a ton more examples around the world. The East is the most obvious choice. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would easily fit. (Though, Chow Yun Fat definitely has a bit of a Western aesthetic in my opinion.) But where else? Africa, for sure. Iceland? Bjork is from Iceland, so there must be something going on in that volcanic water. The Celts. Etc. Great point.

      And Kate Chopin. Good call, lady. I love her.

  34. There was a time when Buffy and Xena were powerful heroes for girls. But now that they’re gone, yeah, you called it: Bella and her kin ain’t the same. Neither are the current role models, so-called, in alternative-mainstream culture — pornstar directors(!), Hollywood hoes, Lady Gaga — all of whom use sexuality to illustrate personal power rather than the other way around. I’m glad I don’t have daughters (or sons).

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      Thank you for this comment, jesús. Your site looks super interesting; I’ll have to check it out more thoroughly in a bit.

      I’d like to think the tides are turning. Ruth, above, mentions that our current culture is dying and to that, I say, “Have a peaceful journey to the other side.” I really hope it’s true.

      • Thanks for checking out the badness, Gloria. Not many role models in my novel, female or male. But it’s a relevant story, I think, and hopefully a good one. I’m also happy to say the book is now set for print-publishing release date of May 2011. Exciting times.

        Re: turning tides in the culture — maybe it’s up to us, as writers and artists. If we don’t see the heroes or heroines we want to see, all we have to do is dream them up and let them do their stuff, no? If I leaned toward YA fiction, I’d conjure a Buffy-powerful teen character who rather than battling the monsters without would take on the demons within. Her sword and stake? Zazen. Her peaceful transformation would set an example for all those around her and the world would be transformed into a paradise of acceptance, forgiveness and love…. The kids would really go for that, eh?

  35. Simon Smithson says:

    Ye Gods! What a post, Gloria! And what a discussion you’ve sparked off. I started thinking of strong female characters and suddenly realised that for every one I could think of, there were a half dozen guys I could think of.

    Ripley and Buffy came to my mind too.

    Damn it. I’m going to have to invest so much time in reading the comments to this piece. Look what you’ve done to me!

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      Do you know the number of hours I’ve lost to your posts and SSE? Turn about is fair play. 😉

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Simon.

  36. Erika Rae says:

    Rebecca in The Red Tent
    The Good Witch Glinda in Wizard of Oz
    Galadriel in Tolkien

    The last two are magical, though – maybe they don’t count?

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      They totally count. And, as noted in other parts of this impossibly lengthy dialogue, it seems that Science Fiction and Fantasy are two genres where you’re most likely to find these types of teachers.

      The Red Tent is amazing. I think it’s pretty much the go-to for all types of positive, thorough female characterizations. I’ve given that book as a gift probably a dozen times in the last decade. Great call.

  37. The characters/ figures I remember most from childhood reading were the women who, against all odds, helped others achieve something and asked for no recognition or payment or compensation. Invisible helpers along the underground railroad, who are now famous because of books written scores of years later. Laura Secord, who helped win a battle and avoid a massacre by running through dangerous forests alone to tell the men what was heading their way. Brave teachers and blind girls and poor pioneer girls and so on…hmmm…

    • Gloria says:

      Oh, Amanda! The Underground Railroad! What a great thing to bring up. Yes, those stories are amazing. Thank you for the suggestion.

  38. Irene Zion says:

    I would nominate the girl with dragon tattoo girl in all her books, but she tends to like sex a lot.
    So, how about Mother Theresa?
    I’m pretty sure she was not into sex.

    • Gloria says:

      Oh, Irene. I’ve got no problem with women who like sex. (Trust me. 🙂 ) I just don’t think it needs to be the defining characteristic.

      I’ve not read the girl with dragon tattoo, but it was suggested recently that I should. I’ll add it to my (ever growing) “to read” list.

  39. Bansidhe says:

    I know I am replying weeeeell out of time, but I figured if I stumbled across this just now, perhaps others will too.

    I offer a couple of strong female literary characters I’ve got on my booksholves, in books i have returned to read again and again. Granted, they are exclusively in fantasy/sci-fi novels, but I feel like I get a better truth from these fictional portayals of character than other genres…plus i just think they are fun!

    Vivianne – in Marion Zimmer-Bradley’s Mists of Avalon. A wise, powerful, sexual, female teacher: spot on!

    Belladonna – in Anne Bishop’s Ephemera books. Yes she was born with her power, but she is taught by her mother, and both she and her mother are sexual, romantic, and tough!

    Lila – Justin Robson’s Quantum Gravity books. A powerful, vulnerable, sexual, fucked-up-but-trying chick with cyber bits. Very cool.

    Meaghan – from Kate Forsyth’s Witches of Eileanan series. You’ve got her as well as the “FireMaker”, teaching the two young women who are the main protgaonists.

    • Gloria says:

      Bansidhe – I apologize for this extremely late response. I remember getting this comment from you and then not responding because I wanted to research some of the suggestions you offer here. And then I dropped the ball after being abducted by Martians…

      Yes to Vivianne in MoA. For sure.

      I’ve not read the other three books, but I am officially writing them down. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.


  40. Sue says:

    Just stumbled across this and I love it! What about Ramona from the Beverly Cleary series? I loved Ramona, she was one funny and sassy young lady. However, she is geared towards grade school children rather than YA readers. I don’t remember if I ever read any of Ms. Cleary’s ‘Young Love’ books, so I’m not sure how womyn are portrayed in those ones. What about Stavia from Sherri S. Tepper’s, The Gate to Women’s Country?

    • Gloria says:

      Hi Sue.

      I’m so sorry to be responding so many months after you left this great comment. Like I lied said to Bansidhe above, I was abducted by Martians. (Seriously, though – how can it already be late April?!)

      Thank you so much for these suggestions. I agree that Ramona is a great role model for girls. Cleary is a genius. I would say that Junie B. Jones and Eloise follow this example, too. It’s not exactly what I’m talking about in this essay, but, yes, it is something.

      Thank you for the other suggestions. I’ll check them out!

  41. […] that there for the political and philosophical picking.  I highly recommend Gloria Harrison’s “Does the Seed of All Knowledge Lie in the Labia?” as a companion piece for discussion, if people are so […]

  42. suzy pepper says:

    The content of this article – you’re right, of course, in every way, and as a woman (girl?), this makes me sad. But as a writer, your writing inspires me. You are a beautiful writer. I can’t wait to read your book.

    • Gloria says:


      Thank you so much for stopping by and reading this piece. I appreciate your very sweet comment.


  43. camille says:

    I’ve got an awesome female literary character for you, Anne from Anne of Green Gables. She is so amazing. Have you read Anne of Green Gables? I mean, have you read it since you were 10? I’ve been re-reading it and it’s really been fun. Anne is headstrong, smart, funny, ambitious, and best of all a dreamer. She’s amazing, everything a little girl should be. And she’s basically raised by this stern but loving woman, so there’s your Obi Wan. 🙂

    • Gloria says:

      Oh, man! For sure. I know there’s a lot of comments, but somewhere up above we all sort of agreed that Marilla comes about as close as you can get. Love that woman. Love that series. It was one of only a few things that really bonded me with my daughter. I’d never read it, but she obsessed over it and, eventually, got me on board. 🙂

  44. Website says:


    The Nervous Breakdown…

  45. JESSE DZIEDZIC says:

    This makes perfect sense to me.

  46. Plastic surgery…

    […]Gloria Harrison | Does the Seed of All Knowledge Lie in the Labia? | The Nervous Breakdown[…]…

  47. Starfish says:

    In my teenage years I found my female rolemodels in science fiction:
    Sam Carter and Janet Frasier from Stargate:SG1 – they are very different, but both smart and they assist each other in many ways; plus each of them has a younger female protegee at some point (highly intelligent cadet/adopted daughter).
    Beverly Crusher and Captain Kathryn Janeway from the StarTrek universe (TNG/Voyager). They are smart, brave, and down-to-earth. Janeway and one of her female crewmembers have some great interaction and geeking their hearts out here and there.
    While I wasn’t allowed to watch The X-Files back then I managed to sneak in some of the books and came to admire the strong lady Dana Scully.
    Yeah, and reading the Animorphs series was a positive influence as well – two of the main characters are female, very different from each other (peaceful animal lover vs beauty queen turning into a warrior).

    Maybe not suitable for young kids (mild swearing, and some episodes have blood/violence) but definitely interesting for teens and up is the TV-show “Lie to me”; it has three strong female characters in very different stages of life and portrays them as real human beings. When discussing sex and stuff it happens naturally without making their lives all about sexual relationships. I higly recommend looking into this series!

    I didn’t watch a lot of Disney and whatever as a kid, but adult me loved “Brave” and “Tangled”. These are not perfect, but the mother-daugther-relationships in these are really interesting. I wish these had been around when I was a kid!

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