Where Are the Female Mentors?

Most mentors in films are male. It’s different in real life. When will popular culture catch up?

Last year, when the BBC declared Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the 13th Doctor in the sci-fi show Doctor Who, there was a lot of hue and cry about the character being female. In the show’s run of 50-odd years, the titular role has always been played by a male, and several people were averse to this change.

For the uninitiated, the Doctor is an alien (of the Timelord species) from planet Gallifrey, who travels through space and time in a time machine called the TARDIS. The Timelords regenerate into a different form upon death. A running theme in this show is that of the Doctor taking on ‘companions’ to travel with him and experience various adventures. In the process, the Doctor acts like a mentor to them, gives them various important life lessons and experiences, and helps them get a perspective of their own lives in many ways. None of the Doctor’s abilities are contingent upon the character being male, so the backlash against this decision was surprising. The Doctor Who canon has previously established that a Timelord can regenerate into either a male or a female. The retaliation therefore seemed unwarranted.

The trailer for the show’s next season was released recently, and got me thinking about this issue again. Whenever a mentor or a teacher is represented in popular culture, this character is almost always a man. This is true even when the main protagonist is a female (Million Dollar Baby, Up in the Air). A plethora of movies have been made on student-teacher relationships. The students may differ in their attributes, but the writers tend to stick to either the ‘wise old man’ archetype (Obi-Wan Kenobi, John Keating, Master Shifu), or the ‘failed man who is turning his life via the success of his students’ trope (Mr Miyagi) while building these characters. There is also the occasional ‘methodical genius’ who seems to have questionable methods of honing his protégé’s skills, but in the end the stringent methods pay off in the form of pupils’ successes.

There is no reason why these characteristics cannot be embodied by female mentors, but there seems to be a subconscious bias that does not consider women accomplished enough to be in a position of disseminating knowledge. Particularly in contexts of educational systems, even when real-world statistics indicate a higher number of female teachers as compared to males, this fact does not translate into fiction. Similarly, despite a high number of female cooks in real life, more men become chefs, and this gets translated to on-screen portrayal of chefs in general. Stories are always being told about how certain individuals find ‘accidental mentors,’ who guide them about things outside of their daily routines (Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting). These stories almost always tend to be about a man/group of men being guided by another man. Even within such a typology, one would hardly find a male mentor who is a person of colour, or a minority group member – but that is a topic for another time.

There have been a few attempts at writing female characters who take up the role of a guide, but most of these works are based on pre-existing literary works. For instance, characters such as Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter, M in the James Bond series, and Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada all exhibit varied mentorship attributes. Doctor Strange went a step ahead and depicted The Ancient One as a female character who teaches Stephen Strange the ways of sorcery. However, when it comes to original screenplays, the effort in writing female mentor characters is sparse.

There seems to be the Pygmalion myth at play here, in which individuals end up writing alluring characters to appeal to the male gaze, but not ones with the agency to lead others. In this aspect, Princess Leia of Star Wars is the anomaly in that she not only exudes tremendous agency in her role as a politician and a rebel, but also takes on the role of a General (succeeded by Admiral Amilyn Holdo, also a woman) who essentially guides various fleets in operations of the Rebellion. She is portrayed as a fearless warrior and tactician, but at the same time as loyal and caring, a trope that is rare for female mentor characters. Traditionally, such characters have been portrayed as hell raisers, stone-cold aggressive women (like Miranda Priestly), or those with dysfunctional personal lives as a result of their career-orientedness.

When it comes to writing female mentors, TV shows have fared better than films. For instance, series such as Charmed (Piper and Phoebe training Paige, and Paige in turn becoming the headmistress at magic school), Parks and Recreation (Leslie Knope’s mentoring of April resulting in April taking herself seriously and re-evaluating her life), Girl Meets World (Topanga’s assertive advice, and Harper Burgess helping students learn better via her unconventional methods), Star Trek: Voyager (Commander Kathryn Janeway, who leads various operations of the starship), and Suits (Donna constantly giving out useful advice to her colleagues and subordinates) have all portrayed female characters who are not limited by a certain trope. Considering that films have a larger real-world impact, more such representation needs to come out via this medium.

When I asked my friends to name some student-mentor relationship movies which are not based on previous literary works, almost all suggestions featured a male mentor (perhaps with the exception of Mona Lisa Smile and Hichki). Even within Bollywood, successful student-mentor movies such as Chak De India, Black, Do Ankhen Barah Haat, and Taare Zameen Par (to name a few) have all had male mentors. None of the lists featuring impactful cinema in this domain featured movies with female mentors.

Superhero movies feature powerful individuals saving the world and actively trying to make the ‘right’ choices. These movies have often been criticized for lacking role models that young people from diverse cultures could look up to as role models. This is slowly changing with Black Panther and its wondrous integration of African cultures. The same argument can be extended in context of having good female mentor role models on screen, which will give young people a sense that such a position could belong to both men and women (such as Taraji Henson’s portrayal of a brilliant mathematician, and Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of a NASA supervisor in Hidden Figures) .

Research has indicated that female students in STEM had almost negligible college dropout rates when they were given female mentors, as opposed to when they had male mentors or no mentors at all. This was because female mentors brought about a sense of belongingness and confidence among the students. Such a sense of connection could prove imperative when young women see strong female role models on screen, and aspire to become like them. This would promote the belief that women too can hold positions of power and not get singled out into a specific trope, but can have it all.

The question of why there are not enough female mentor characters in cinema has been haunting me for quite a while. There is no real reason for this, apart from the pre-emptive biases that individuals hold regarding who is a capable mentor. The time has come to change that notion.