Lessons from Childhood Part 2: The Role Model You Need

Last week I talked about a book that I read and re-read endlessly as a child, without mentioning the book as I didn’t want it to get in the way of the point that I was trying to make. Over the past few nights, in the ten minutes before bedtime, I have re-read that glorious book for the first time probably in fifteen years, and remembered why that book had such an impact on me.


Also, this week, Hannah has been exploring the theme of female role models over at Gingerbread Feminists.  She had asked me previously about my role models, to which my answer was the protagonist of this book, as well as a former lecturer of mine who has now sadly passed on. In a nod to the suffragettes, she also embroidered a list of female role models that she had gathered from different people. Isn’t it amazing? If you look hard enough, you will be able to see mine.

Yes, that’s right, the book is Matilda by Roald Dahl. As a friend has said, she doesn’t know a single smart little girl who hasn’t tried to move a pencil across a room with the powers of their mind in an attempt to be like Matilda.

Before I get on to the particularities of the book in tomorrow’s post, I wanted to talk a little bit about why I picked a fictional role model. As Hannah picked up in her post, the idea of ‘role model’ tends to get used at the moment when someone famous has done something a bit naughty. It seems that it is most often used in the media outcry, asking ‘does this person not know that they are a role model to young people?!’

In part, I think this idea of being let down by a role model gets at why I prefer my role models fictional or at least semi-mythical. The lecturer of mine who has sadly passed on was, even before her death, something of a larger than life character. She was an Argentinean feminist-liberationist who did a lot of pioneering work in her time, and was inspirational in her commitment and passion to marginalised people and their perspectives. There are a lot of different stories about her that are re-told and remembered with a smile. I didn’t know her at all, apart from as a lecturer and as a writer, and so in some ways I have never had the pleasure or the complexity of having to deal with her as a real person. I have really only ever had to deal with her as her ideas – ideas that can be engaged with, transformed – picked up when I need them, and adapted when they become unhelpful in the context I want to use them in. Which means that she cannot now disappoint me. She can’t fail an essay of mine, or say or do something that would offend me or let me down. Which is probably no way to remember someone, but is often what happens when someone creates incredibly powerful ideas and emotions in academia, in the arts, in politics – the real person is often eclipsed, and are portrayed however you need them to be – a saint or sinner, hero or disappointment.

This is probably why I chose Matilda as a role model as well. I’ll get into the exact details of why I love her and the book later, but as a fictional character, she can do very little to disappoint me. One of the strength’s of Roald Dahl’s writing, and why he made such an excellent storyteller, is that he creates vivid worlds and characters but does not over-tell their story. There is always enough room for your imagination to get into the book, and to do more. With Matilda, we only see the first six years of her life. We see nothing of how she grows up beyond that – what her teens are like, what she does after school, and how she adjusts in the wider world to being spectacularly and unusually smart. (The hint is that she will end up going to university at a very young age, and we know that she looses her telekinetic powers once she is being academically challenged.) So whilst the book has a neat ending to it, her story, her life does not, and when you are a geeky, over-imaginative little girl like me, you will make up the rest of that story for yourself. I’d imagine her growing up like I was, and I’d think about how she would react in similar situations to mine – except I could never live up to or live out the gutsy, adventurous way in which she sticks up for herself and others. Essentially, Matilda was the role model I needed her to be precisely because she was the role model that I wanted her to be.

I’m quite fascinated by this trait in my own thinking, the need for female role models that cannot disappoint me, who are much more fictional and fantastical than real and flawed and human.

I watched a segment on 10 O’Clock Live last week that discussed the problems with the over identification of footballers as role models. An interesting point was made that a role model shouldn’t be someone who is simply good at what they do or extremely well paid – especially when that’s football salaries – but when they are capable of learning from their mistakes, realising where they have been wrong and adjusting their behaviour accordingly. I’m not sure that this is a good definition of who or what a role model should be, but I find it an interesting counter to my need for role models so flawless that they are my own fiction.

            Perhaps the challenge, for me, is to see role models in real life, or at least to be able to identify attitudes and behaviours in other people that are worthy of praise, and are things that I want to emulate in my own life.  Perhaps this also needs to include the capacity for learning from mistakes and for growth, rather than being permanently flawless, in other words, allowing my role models to be deeply and properly human.


3 comments on “Lessons from Childhood Part 2: The Role Model You Need

  1. Following on from the theme of role models, “16 Guidelines for Living” takes 16 central words and then shows how one person particularly illustrates that ideal, and also gives a bit more information about how they got there. The chapter on patience uses the Dalai Lama, humility Helen Keller, honesty Mohamed Yunas, etc. Perhaps identifying a ideal then looking for it in the people around us can help us find how to live our beliefs.

  2. […] have a read of the Apocalypse Baker’s blog post responding to ‘how we treat out female role models’ that I posted earlier this week […]

  3. I think I now want to keep an embroidered list of female role models. That’s AMAZING.

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