What makes a role model?

Kickboxing Geishas I’m reading Veronica Chambers’ Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nation, and I just came to a part where Chambers describes the unexpected reaction she got when asking young Japanese college women about their role models. Coming from the US, she had clearly been thinking of it as a very standard question, along the lines of “Where do you want to be in five years?,” and so on. But instead, she ended up writing this:

The most obvious question to ask, when you are reporting on women and their changing roles in society, is: Who are your role models? Even if the answer is pat – “my mother,” “Hillary Clinton,” “Maya Angelou” – it tells you something about the woman and how she thinks of herself. Perhaps because Japan is not, by nature, a country of individualists, the role model question gets a lot of blank stares. “I don’t have any role models,” a girl named Gaga tells me at Sacred Heart [University]. “My parents taught me when I was small, you can choose your own way.” Akiko, another student, says, “I think I don’t have a certain person, but an image: someone who’s independent, strong, and caring.” I wonder, too, if it is because the national culture is so private, that it is hard to develop the kind of admiration and deep-seated affiliation that one feels for a role model: be it a senior employee at your company or someone you see on TV.

I wonder how many women at [Canon executive] Masako Nara’s company know how important it was for her to be called by her maiden name and the deal she struck with a coworker to make it happen. How many of Satako’s female coworkers know how uncomfortable she was at the late night drinking parties that were once part of her job, and how relieved she was to get more international clients who prefer lunch to dinner for work-related socializing? My sense, again and again, was that women told me stories they did not share with their colleagues, or even sometimes with their friends. It occurs to me that in order for someone to be a role model, they must reveal not only their strengths, but their vulnerabilities. It’s in the interplay between the two, and how they overcome the latter, that we find something worthy of admiring.

-Chambers, 84

It’s true, I think, that in all the role model stories I can think of, there is that element of “So-and-so overcame difficulties to get where s/he is, so you can, too.” Albert Einstein didn’t get good grades in school. Michael Jordan was passed over for the basketball team in high school. Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin. Pretty much every famous woman is seen as somehow “overcoming” being a woman, and may also have been poor, or of color, or single/divorced in an age when it was scandalous, and so on. An interesting point, and one I hadn’t thought about until now.

For myself, I think I identify most with the student who said she doesn’t really have any particular role model, but an image instead. There are things I want to do and qualities I want to have, but there’s never really been any particular person I felt I should strive to be like. In some ways, I was surprised that Chambers seemed to think that these girls should have role models. The responses from the women who said they were raised to think they could be who they wanted to be seemed like better, more independent responses to me. But maybe Chambers is trying to point out that these young women are without much guidance from women who have gone before, or perhaps sees their lack of role models as an indication that there aren’t enough women to serve that function yet, leaving Japanese women without support.

Any thoughts? Have you ever had a role model? Do you think it’s important to see the vulnerabilities as well as the strengths?

-posted by Dana


8 Responses to What makes a role model?

  1. seaswell says:

    interesting post.

    my question is, even if you have an image in your head of how you want to be, how was that image created? the answer has to be, i think, that the image you have is made up of the actions and traits of women you admire, whether you realize it or not. even if it wasn’t just one person (which is rare, i would think, and which probably confused the japanese students) you have to learn from someone.

    role models are, as you said, a hopeful thing. when you’re young, you need to see that someone else (someone who is a woman like you, black like you, poor like you) has overcome the problems he or she faced. no one cares if a perfect person makes it big – that makes perfect sense. everyone wants to know that someone *like them* made it big.

  2. Dana says:

    That’s a good point, Sarah, and one I was thinking about when I went to karate right after I posted this. One of the middle school girls in the class before mine saw me getting ready for the next class and said, “Wow, there’s really black belts in this class?” At that point I realized that part of the reason I don’t feel the need to choose any one particular person as a role model is because there are so many to choose from. I don’t need to choose, because there’s probably already a woman in any field I’d want to go into, if I could end up figuring that out.

    That said, I’m still not really sure why Chambers thinks that the “I have an idea of a what I want to be” is a bad answer, and why she seems so taken aback when people can’t answer the question with a one-person answer. But then, I’ve never liked the question.

  3. ThaGnat says:

    I don’t really like her interpretation of why these women don’t have even a pat answer for her. To truck it up to Japanese society being “not a country of individualists” is playing to the standard stereotype of Japan. And I agree that no one *needs* have a role model. I never had one. I really like the answer the first woman gives that “you can choose your own way”. Her parents probably didn’t tell her that because she was a girl either. Most people I knew in Japan felt that if you were going to be different or special from anyone else, you had to do it yourself in your own way, or it wouldn’t work.

  4. Dana says:

    Gnat: Yeah, I wasn’t really sure what to make of that comment either. For the most part, her book does a good job of looking beyond the stereotypes of Japan, but that whole section on role models seemed a little strange. Fortunately, it is a very small part of the book.

  5. Mary says:

    In Richard Nisbett’s book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, he gives examples that seem to suggest that environments and interactions are emphasized more than individuals. For example, when looking at a fish in a fish tank, Japanese people would emphasize the environment more than they would the fish (on which Americans concentrated.) Another example was playing with a toy. American mothers would concentrate more on demonstrating the truck and its functions, whereas the Japanese mothers concentrated on the interaction of sharing the toy. This explains the role model question to me in terms of the concept of individuality. I prefer the question, “Who has influenced you?” to “Who are your role models?” If we are individualistic, we don’t want to be “like” anybody, but rather choose a variety of traits that we admire. I still think we look for those in the people by whom we are surrounded and to whom we are exposed.

    When I read that book, I was interested that in one of the exercises, I chose the answer that most Koreans chose rather than the one most Americans did. I spend most of my working life with people who are primarily Korean, so perhaps I have been influenced by that culture (as you, Dana, would have been influenced by Japan). Or maybe I am ended up doing what I do because I already think that way. I think there’s something about Chamber’s explanation for the blank stares that is not wrong, but incomplete or superficial. (Of course, I haven’t read the book yet.)

  6. Mary says:

    To answer one of your actual questions, Dana, I think the vulnerabilities are essential to being able to benefit from a role model. At least for me they are, because I’m inclined to find excuses. Those types of role models can also explain to others who have had fewer or different vulnerabilties what the other folks are up against. (I’m thinking of someone like John Edwards; he has acheived amazing things, but there have probably beeen more sacrifices involved than there might have been for some others.)

  7. Dana says:

    Nice link to The Geography of Thought there, Mary. That was an excellent book. It’s been a while since I read it, so I don’t know if I can remember enough of the environment/interaction stuff to put my thoughts about the role model issue into that context very well. I should probably reread it. (But I have so many books! How will I ever finish them all?)

    I think your comment that Chambers’ explanation for the reason behind the blank looks is perhaps just incomplete or superficial definitely has something to it. Let me know if you do get around to reading the book.

  8. […] with a Japanese woman about women in the modern workplace, the subject circles back around to what appears to be one of Chambers’ favored topics: role models. The woman she is talking to expresses some dissatisfaction with the famous Japanese […]

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