Boys pick their role models, Victoria Robertson writes, based on what they do, not on who they are.
The UK riots have prompted many to question the modern personification of, or indeed lack of, male role models in some young men’s lives. London’s hoodie-wearing looters brought up by single mothers, it is claimed, are emulating a gangsta-style behavior portrayed by rap artists. Is this true and would things be any better if, like girls, they wanted to be Lady Gaga?
Growing up in Ireland as a lone girl amongst a rugby team of brothers and male cousins, I was jealous of the heroes that boys could have. I had to be content with emptying the entire contents of a can of hairspray on my head on a daily basis, in an attempt to look like Farrah Fawcet in Charlie’s Angels. They could just bung a helmet on their mullet, jump on their BMX bikes, and they became Evil Knievel.
Jealousy of my brothers’ male role models came from feeling that their heroes were more about ‘doing’ than they were about ‘being.’ They had pictures of the Apollo landing on the moon, not posters of astronaut Neil Armstrong on their wall. For them, it was all about their heroes’ actions and their hardware but not them as an individual.
They might have wanted to sling a gun like a cowboy, but they didn’t want to actually be one.
There I was cutting the ends off black lace gloves, squeezing into boob tubes, confusingly singing “Like a Virgin” while dressing like a slut, all in an uncanny attempt to ‘be’ Madonna; there they were with Ferrari Testarossas on their walls. It was all so much more straightforward.
While a generation of girls were growing up in the 1990’s wanting to ‘be’ Princess Diana, not a single sane male this side of Normalville would have quoted ‘Prince Charles’ as who they wanted to be when they grew up. Being a princess or a prince, indeed ‘being’ anyone, is too intangible for the male psyche. Do you want to be able to hit a ball like Derek Jeter? Yes. Do you want to actually ‘be’ Derek Jeter? I would argue, no.
This difference between where women and men seek their role models from is why we should be concerned about girls getting second-degree burns by putting fireworks in their training bras Lady Gaga style, but not why we should be blaming rappers for teenage male looters in Tottenham. Rap fans may want to have Jay Z’s flow and bling, but I don’t believe boys have the same direct copycat connection to their heroes as girls do. If they did, you would see thousands of boys dressed up like will.i.am and thankfully, you just don’t.
If male role models are more straightforward, tangible and connected, then who are they?
The answer is simple: other men within families and communities. The evidence is in the identikit sportswear worn by the male looters on the streets in London. They don’t want to look like pop stars or gangsters; they want to fit in by dressing like everybody else in their immediate vicinity.
What happens however when everyone blends in at gang level and there is no one around to step forward to inspire a more positive way of ‘doing?’
Recent studies show that the number and quality of male role models in their community and family directly affects boys. In January 2011, the Prince’s Trust published its annual Macquire Youth Index, which measures the emotional health of young people in the United Kingdom.
They found that young men without positive role models (in their family or community) are three times more likely to lack a sense of belonging and to suffer from depression. With an index that is at its lowest level since it was first published, for some young men, positive male role models close to home are hard to find.
I am sure there are studies out there that could prove the same level of effect that female role models on the cover of magazines have on young women’s levels of self-esteem. It all adds to the same point, men and women mainly look for their role models in different places: back yard versus public arena.
I decided to test this theory on my own children. My 9-year-old son gave British daredevil explorer Bear Grylls as his hero; my 7-year-old daughter gave Carly from iCarly as hers. While my forehead banged off the kitchen table in despair at the banality of my daughter’s choice, I recognized that my son had chosen someone simply because he once heard his Dad say he was ‘brilliant.’ Monkey see, monkey do.
I was lucky growing up in the middle of all those boys. Having the chance to wear black-lace, fingerless gloves while also learning how to do a bunny hop on a BMX, I could balance all the danger and adventure of male role models with my heroines.
I think of this as I put up articles about Ellen MacArthur, the British yachtswoman who broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe the year my daughter was born, on the wall next to the mind-numbing iCarly posters.
Do we need the same type of intervention for young boys? In the absence of good male role models on the ground, should we be sticking famous ones to their walls? Not a chance. Straightforward, tangible and connected role models are what young men respond to, and we just need to make them plentiful in their own back yards.