I just read this line in Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open, http://partners.nytimes.com/books/00/04/02/reviews/000402.002scottt.html a woman is speaking about what it was like to grow up in the 1950s: ”as we grew older we saw our mothers — our role mdoels, the women we were to become — thwarted in their efforts towards self-realization and expression.” For a daughter of that time, of nearly all periods of human history, the mother (grandmother, aunt) is the role model. Upclose, the girl sees who she is to become — how to function in a family, run a household, care for, nurture others. I was struck by the phrase because it is not how I, or most any males I know, would speak about themselves. Sure we watched our fathers (grandfathers, uncles) and tried out some of their behavior. But we were not looking upclose for a role model — our models were heroes — for me, Teddy Roosevelt, then Bill Russell (Boston Celtics), or JFK or MLK or Einstein or Bertrand Russell, or Freud — we wanted to gain the skills and courage to be great, to be big, to triumph.
Today of course we make many efforts to give girls heroic models, and to give boys a sense of the value and importance of family life. But reading that line and thinking about what it implied gave me an insight into our world, books for young readers. I really have never understood the repeated focus on role models (good or bad) in so much discussion of our literature. It always felt odd to me — like, why are you talking about that? And now I suspect it is because girls were (are?) trained to envision their own future through immediate role models, and so expect books to carry on the instruction — looking to them for inspiration, guidance, alternatives — almost like trying on different lives for size. This may be so natural that it becomes an assumption that books are aiming to show role models, and thus a significant question in evaluating them is how they handle this task.
If you notice a weird tone in my writing — as if I were examining a strange object — that really is how I feel. Yes I am aware of moral qualities (not just moral topics, but also the actual potential for enhancing moral depth in the reader, or for abusing the reader) in books for younger readers. But I suppose I just don’t expect a reader to pick up a book in order to find who he or she is “expected to become.” I do want to inspire readers with heroism. I can see how a character “gone wrong” can help a reader who is facing a choice to envision possible consequences. But I wonder if within the critical phrase “role model” there might be a particularly female mode and expectation of reading — a carryover from the days when daughters learned who they were to be by watching their mothers, while boys learned who they were to be by taking on tasks on the farm — or, for that matter, debating with the sages as they read the Torah.