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Role models for men
[ interview ]

Peter Baker from the men's health magazine ZM interviewed me (David Gauntlett) about role models for men in December 1999. Since we did it by e-mail, I thought I'd post it here.

PB: Is it useful for a man to have a role model (or role models)? Why?

DG: On an individual level, I don't think there's any harm in men having role models. It would vary from individual to individual; I wouldn't prescribe it for everybody. A role model (or set of role models) can give a person an idea of how they'd like to be. It would probably be based in some dissatisfaction with an aspect of oneself, and the role model would provide a way of 'turning around' the person's thinking, so that they can say 'I've got to be more like x' and feel positive about it.

On a broader social level, having a range of role models is likely to be good for men. It's often said that the male identity is less clear-cut these days, partly because the range of available role models has broadened and is no longer so firmly centred around one traditional idea of masculinity. But I think that diversification is good. It provides a (still limited, but broader) set of choices for men.

Is it perhaps better for men to focus on 'becoming themselves' rather than trying to be someone else?

That's true. But the point of 'role models' is not usually that you want to become the same as that person, just that aspects of a role model's perceived identity are seen as positive and worth incorporating, in some way, into your own sense of identity. 'Becoming yourself' is notoriously difficult anyway. What does it mean? Is it a myth? And what if your 'true self' isn't really a very nice person? Borrowing bits of identities presented in the mass media in order to construct your own original identity might seem preferable!

Is having a role model setting oneself up for disappointment or a sense of failure because one can never really become like the role model?

Possibly, but I think that is to misunderstand the nature of role models. They offer values or images to aspire to (values which society may or may not share), but I don't think most people expect to become exactly like their role models.

How should a man choose his role model(s)?

Er... If a potential role model doesn't 'speak' to you already, I don't think you should necessarily go shopping for one. I would expect a role model to be someone you had encountered, in real life or media culture; some aspects of them would be very appealing to you, and then you may (consciously or not) adopt them as a bit of a role model.

But wandering round media culture looking for a role model might be a bad idea, unless you feel a real need to. But, I would say, choose cautiously! Evangelical religious types, for example, prey on people who are wandering round looking for a bit of meaning in their lives.

Can a woman be a role model for a man? If so, how?

Of course a woman can be a role model for a man. It would seem idiotic to find that surprising. Even if you believe there are substantial differences between women and men, for whatever reason, you'd probably accept that they are 80 or 90 per cent similar. Women or men who are successful or challenging or 'cool' can be inspirational to other women and men. Men who think that they can't be inspired by women (in a non-sexual sense) aren't very impressive specimens, are they?

Do you think that, say, 30-50 years ago there were clear role models for men (e.g. John Wayne) because men's roles were much more clearly defined and constrained? Now that men's roles are changing, are there far fewer obvious role models?

People say that it was easier for men when we just had a few, rather monolithic, John Wayne-type role models. But I don't think that's true. Most men were not John Wayne, and no doubt many of them didn't particularly want to be, so perhaps the pressures were worse in the past.

Nowadays there's a somewhat broader range of potential role models, including camp and gay ones, funny ones, and that 'traditionally masculine but sensitive at the same time' one which many film actors do these days.

Who do you think might be good role models for modern young men? It seems that, to survive in the modern workplace and sexual marketplace, 'Millennial Man' needs to combine both traditionally 'masculine' and 'feminine' qualities (resilience and sensitivity, for example). Which well-known figures (real or fictional) actually do that?

Most male film leads do that to some extent these days -- within the context of fictional films -- although the sensitivity tends to come in bracketed-off interludes, whereas resilience, and violence, often follow in much large quantities. So that's traditional masculinity with a few more 'feminine' bits tacked on.

I think young men are increasingly aware that, as you say, modern man needs to combine both traditionally 'masculine' and 'feminine' qualities. The top-selling magazine for men, FHM, often thought of as a 'lad's mag', contains some prominent, traditional 'men's interest' elements -- most notably the pictures of women with not many clothes on -- but also a number of elements which do not correspond with the traditional understanding of masculinity: perfectly serious cooking articles, health advice, and fashion and 'grooming' features. And there are articles on how to satisfy women -- which may themselves conform to certain stereotypes, but in the past, men would not be seen to need guidance in this department (as if men don't instinctively know how to satisfy women!).

What is the process by which role models have an influence on people?

I don't think this is really understood as yet. There are certainly accounts and studies of this, produced by psychologists, but they aim to produce a scientific model of something which can't really be scientifically modelled. People sneer at 'pure' theorists, such as Foucault and his followers (see resources), because their approaches are not based on empirical studies -- studies of the real world as it is experienced by people. But you look at the empirical studies and you find they are completely rubbish, and seem to miss the whole point in amazing ways. Whereas the theorists are at least taking a much more imaginative approach to the question. Ultimately it would be nice to combine the insights of some empirical research (but not the existing horrible research) with those developed by theorists.


David Gauntlett is Lecturer in Social Communications at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, and is the author of several books including Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction (Routledge, forthcoming).