Why can’t my male students identify with a single heroine?

(This is from a letter to some fellow faculty, but I’d be grateful to hear from anyone!)

This semester I’m teaching three sections of World Lit. I, which explore texts from the ancient world to 1750 (in addition to Comp. I: Rewriting America). We began the semester by reading & discussing the oldest selection in our anthology, “Descent of Inanna,” within the context of what anthropologists believe were agricultural, female-centered, goddess-worshipping communities that evolved into what is commonly referred to as the “cradle of civilization”—Mesopotamia, the area we know as Iraq. Of course, Mesopotamia’s fate was the fate of most of the world—the transition to patriarchy, empire building & a world literary history that reflects this in it’s abundance of narratives about male gods, kings, warriors, adventurers & other heroes. At the end of class, I presented the following questions based on the anthology’s discussion of the topic & its editors’ statement that “role models in religion & literature are important for girls as well as boys”:

1. Do you think that popular culture (comics, novels, cartoons, movies, song lyrics, video games, etc) has provided more or better female heroes?
2. Have you identified with any of them (regardless of your gender)?
3. Who are the heroic women—real or fictional—who have inspired you (as a child, youth & now)?

Students were particularly engaged & verbal during this discussion, which felt rather informal & lively with frequent laughter. Their complex & varied responses to the first question can be summed up as an overwhelming “no.” For the third question, they primarily named actual women. In response to the second question, many female students answered in the affirmative but no male students did. For my last section, I added the example of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as most students claimed to have read the book or seen the film (& I thought it might reduce some of the gender/sexuality issues). I asked if any of the male students could identify with Scout, the courageous tomboy who looked, spoke & probably smelled like a boy. Not a single male raised his hand. I asked if they could imagine being a kid & liking or playing with someone like Scout, getting in trouble, throwing rocks at windows & such. They couldn’t.

Perhaps I could have stated the question differently, spent more time defining what it means to “identify” with a heroic character, or used an example other than Scout, as it may be hard for a young man to connect with his perspective as a child—in front of a college class. However, I’ve never had male students who couldn’t talk about their childhood experiences in relation to other subjects & about half of my students are juniors & seniors, who are often a little less intimidated in discussions.

I am left with several questions: Do our students understand what it means to “identify” with a heroic character? To what degree do girls & women identify with male versus female heroes? To what degree do boys & men identify with male versus female heroes? How do these questions relate to those of us who identify as GLBT? How might my students respond to the same questions in writing, especially if they know I’m the only reader? To what degree might the notable abundance of male heroes & rarer heroines contribute to my male students claiming that they can’t identify with a single heroine from literature/film/popular culture? How do issues of class, race & ethnicity complicate things? How might such an ability/inability to relate & imagine (or even discuss the issue) affect us?

As I begin researching these initial questions (& many others popping up!) with hopes of supporting my students as they write & talk about their experiences of numerous heroes & a few heroines, your thoughts, experiences, resources &/or references would be greatly appreciated! Perhaps part of my challenge is that I have often identified with characters/heroes of both genders & apparently I tend to associate with others like myself. It never occurred to me that all of my male students would draw a blank on this.

I am acutely aware that there is a vast amount of scholarship on this topic & I’m specifically looking for resources that our students might find accessible & clear. Thanks in advance for any comments you can share!