Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle We Can Be Heroes

By Marion Winik

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  If you are an ordinary little turtle, and you plan to grow up to be an ordinary big turtle, you have no trouble finding role models. They are all around you. However, if you are an ordinary little turtle with hopes of becoming an extraordinary turtle, a turtle unlike any the world has ever known, you have to look a little harder around the pond. It is difficult to become what you cannot see, a creature wholly of your own imagining. And the power of those ordinary turtles on your psyche -- their plodding pace, their timid manner, their beady gaze -- is hard to escape. But if you look up at the soaring birds and down at the swimming fish, if you pay close attention to stories of Turtles Who Were Different, perhaps you can fashion some inspiration, some sense of who you are and who you can be.

The grown women of today are a generation of extraordinary turtles -- the first to make outstanding achievement possible for our gender in almost every area of endeavor. But back when the Laurie Andersons and Hillary Clintons and Dawn Steels were growing up, finding positive role models was not an easy project. While you might actually know one personally, it was more likely you'd find your models in history or literature: Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, and Susan B. Anthony put in some long hours in those days, joined in a pinch by Delilah, Jane Eyre, and Joan of Arc.

So you don't want to be Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Cinderella, no matter how much the prince will like you? So you're not particularly inspired about being perfectly virtuous and patient, kind and good? If you are going to be a Brave & Different Woman, the first role models you need are brave and different girls. For this reason, the first goddesses in my personal pantheon were not fairy-tale sugarplums, but Harriet the Spy and Jo March of Little Women. A stubborn girl who fit only awkwardly into the grade school social structure, I was inspired by these bright, passionate loners who had a calling beyond jumprope and Barbie. They were writers, and were taken seriously as such. Famous for their messiness and lack of vanity, they didn't care how they looked. Harriet had her notebook; Jo her writing cape and her garret. They had ambition.

Then puberty came along and wrecked my values. Being pretty and getting a boyfriend seemed more important than anything else. In the teenage novels I read, girls were outstanding because of their pert freckled noses or sparkling blue eyes. Cherry Ames, Student Nurse was famous more for her apple cheeks than her nursing skills. Even Nancy Drew had that stupid blond flip. I read idiotic books with titles like Senior Prom, Dream Date, and Junior Counselors at Camp Winnapee and absorbed the message of these dangerous stories into my soul. To be in love was to be whole. There was no pain like rejection, no joy like a kiss. The only redemption, the only cure, the only salvation for one's hopeless awfulness was the love of a boy, a handsome boy, or a funny boy, or a sensitive boy. Almost any boy could be the perfect boy. I fell for all this. I fell for Twiggy and Marcia Brady and Judy Jetson. I sent away for Susan Dey's beauty book.

Once I had been thoroughly deformed and disillusioned by this experience, by the painful journey we call female adolescence, I was out selecting role models of achievement again. As an older teenager and a young adult, I sought examples of creative women, women of achievement, power, and drama. I found Sylvia Plath, who died, and Anne Sexton, who died, and non-writers, Zelda Fitzgerald and Amelia Earhart, who died. There was Janis Joplin, who died, and Frida Kahlo, who died as well. To be a nonconforming woman of inner depth seemed to be a direct route to the funeral home. And I spent much of my 20s tracing their dark paths. Excess, self-abuse, and violent despair seemed to be essential characteristics of the female artist, and believe me, I did my best to excel.

illustration by Walt Holcolmb

The role models that pulled me through this, I believe, were closest to home, the first examples I saw of caring, of unconditional love, of the way families protect people from being alone. After all these years of rejecting my parents as boring bourgeois suburbanites, suddenly, for the first time, I wanted to become like them. I wanted to emulate my mother, by having children and raising them, and my father, by supporting them and showing them how to live in the world. My parents were my role models in their incredible caring for me, and I wanted that less self-centered way of living to be mine. And so I had babies, and those clear-eyed little Buddhas were my salvation as well.

Now I tend to look for very specific, practical role models: the people around me who have managed to cope with life in a way I aspire to. A friend at work who deals with the pressure without freaking out. A couple who gets through marital difficulties without breaking up. A person with a dream who quits their job to pursue it, and makes it happen. People who recover successfully from various nightmares and addictions. And of course, those in my own professions, including both writing and motherhood, whose outstanding achievements and talents I admire. Who make me jealous at the same time they show the way.

How we work, how we love, how we parent, how we live in our houses, how we dress, how we deal with money: Much of these aspects of our modern lives are unprecedented. I wish, in all the formative years of my life, I had ever known a wise, kind, and happy woman who was widowed young, worked full time, and raised two children on her own and had a love life and made it all work beautifully. Instead, I will have to become that role model myself, for the benefit of any young women who are looking on.

It's interesting that the role models who meant the most to me as a young girl in the Sixties and Seventies have recently starred in their own major motion pictures. I think we as women have enough of the Suicidal Drama Queen. Even as adults, we are re-discovering the Brave Little Girl inside us. The person whose definition of virtue is fulfilling her potential, not doing what others want. Who will cut off her hair for her family. Who will risk angering others to be honest. Who knows she can both be who she is and be loved. The challenge for us grown-up women is to fulfill that example as adults. And we are doing it. We are running as only turtles can run. Our role models are each other.

Marion Winik is a regular contributor for NPR's All Things Considered. Her most recent novel is The Lunchbox Chronicles (Pantheon Books).

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