Where Are All The Female Mentor Characters?


Think of 30 Rock, first season, third episode. Jack the-Great-and-Powerful Donaghy is setting up Liz No-I-Don’t-Need-Any-of-Your-Help-Especially-Not-with-Dating-which-I-Don’t-Have-Time-for-because-I’m-All-About-My-Career-Thanks-a-Lot Lemon with his friend from out of town. Jack catches her in the hall and tells her the name of the fancy restaurant where he’s set up the blind date. A pause. He takes in her typically casual attire [i.e. unglamorous sweatshirt and jeans]. “What are you going to wear?” he asks (as though he doesn’t know). Exasperated with his overbearing behavior, Liz insists “I don’t have time to change.” Jack shakes his head gravely, “That won’t do.” He hands her cash and tells her to go to a women’s clothing store during her lunch break. Liz grudgingly accepts and turns up looking elegant for a change.

My first thought on seeing this sequence of events was, “He was right to do that (albeit their work relationship –- as per sit-com logic –- isn’t spectacularly appropriate).” Then my second thought was, “It’s kind of sad that Liz needs a man to mentor her, especially when it comes to her appearance and dating. Couldn’t they have written her a female mentor?” Jack Donaghy is obviously a gleaming showcase for Alec Baldwin, but it got me thinking, where are all the female mentor characters?

What? You say you can name countless examples? Allow me to complicate things. In all of the films, shows, and books I can think of, the woman’s mentor is normally a male, either gay or a potential love-interest. If a woman happens to give the heroine some mentoring, it’s limited to certain advice-giving incidents, which are often questionable and sometimes destructive.

The Devil Wears Prada and Miss Congeniality provide adorable and hilarious examples of the gay male mentor. These guys get the heroine into glamorous clothing and force her to stop whining about how unfair their life is. Dangerous Liaisons, in contrast, has the wickedest pair of faux-mentors (older female and male) that a young impressionable girl could ever have. In Gigi, the far less sinister incarnation Aunt Alicia gives her niece lessons on how to be a dazzling courtesan, but the film makes it evident that all of her advice is superficial and useless.

Though he’s neither her gay pal nor a potential love interest, George Clooney schools Anna Kendrick on how to do business in Up in the Air. The film makes it plain early on that there is zero romantic tension between George and Anna’s characters so if the point was that gender is irrelevant when it comes to what he has to teach her, then point taken. Then again, couldn’t they have just as easily given George a male coworker and given Anna as a foil to Vera Farmiga, George’s parallel female exec and love-interest? Since Vera turns out to be hiding a relationship-ending secret, then never really gets the opportunity to explain herself and soften the unfortunate implications, the filmmakers set up George as a model for Anna to follow if she wants to succeed, whether they intended to or not.

On Mad Men, though Joan (dear Joan) does try to give Peggy advice from time to time, Don is her model for success. Liz Lemon may not try to model herself on Jack Donaghy, but as the series progresses and he actively tries to mentor her (usually against her will), she relies more and more on his particular problem-solving methods. Also, though it pains me to say it, there’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Again, he’s not gay or a love-interest (Buffy/Giles ‘shippers forgive me), but Giles is Buffy’s Watcher and main source of guidance. Her mother Joyce is loving, but either oblivious to the dangers Buffy faces or simply not there. Potential female mentoring figures –- her psychology professor Maggie Walsh and Gwendolyn Post (maybe the only female Watcher ever) –- turn out to be evil.

Literature isn’t much more encouraging. In Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, four young women try to make it in New York during the 1950s and much heartbreak –- personal and professional –- ensues. More importantly, there isn’t a female mentor in sight. The only potential one, Caroline’s boss Miss Farrow, is the grandmother of Miranda Priestly. To be fair, the men don’t particularly try to mentor any of the women (other types of relationship are on their minds), but the one possible female mentor is a shining example of everything Caroline doesn’t want to become.

Even in Jane Austen’s novels the mentoring female figures aren’t really around when they’re needed (if they exist at all) or they’re somehow neglectful. Rather, it’s the natural good sense of the protagonist that ends up saving her. That, and a good hard metaphorical slap in the face from a male character. Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t exactly listen to her aunt or her sister’s cautions about Wickham –- it’s the confrontation with Mr. Darcy that sets her right. Emma Woodhouse listens to no one –- until Mr. Knightley scolds her for being selfish and cruel.

It’s not that I think a man isn’t an appropriate mentor for a woman. I’m certainly not suggesting that women collectively hate each other. And I’m not accusing Jane Austen or anyone elseof trying to push an agenda,* but this seems to be a dominant pattern in storytelling. I’d say it’s the result of a combination of factors.

First there’s the strength of the Pygmalion myth (and its Broadway cousin), wherein a man creates his ideal woman and falls in love with her, the modern riff being the gay stylist who enables the woman to get the man of her dreams. Second, the heroine often needs to be parentless/lacking a mentor in order for the story to unfold (or the conflict has to be with the parenting figure). If the statistics of film, television, and literature held true in the real world, the percentage of orphans would be astronomical.

Although female mentors might not be plentiful, heroines sometimes get help from best friend/sister figures, whether it’s the wisecracking Dorothy to Lorelei’s dumb blonde in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Mameha and Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha. What’s more, the males are hardly perfect. Don Draper is not the poster boy for contentment and Prof. Henry Higgins is not Prince-Charming-in-a-Cardigan. Fitzwilliam Darcy (yes I’m going to criticize him) is cold and insensitive. More than that, many of these males need their female counterparts to give them a good reality check. Peggy is often there to remind Don he’s not nearly as clever or successful as he thinks. Eliza Doolittle is probably the first and only female to stand up to Higgins. Darcy needs Elizabeth to accuse him of being less than a gentleman in order to properly thaw out.

All this notwithstanding: more female mentors please. There seems to be a shortage.

*I don’t think I’d accuse Jane Austen of anything ever.

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