Preface The power of female role models


Once upon a time, I walked the corridors of a hospital ward wearing my white nurse’s dress, trying to overcome my fear of failure by acting out the power and confidence of a captain of a starship. It was 1997 and I was twenty-four years old. If there had been a book like the one you’re holding in your hands right now, my imitation efforts certainly would have empowered my authentic self a long time ago.

Unfortunately, my attempts to copy the behavior of my fictional hero Kathryn Janeway, captain of a spaceship in the science fiction TV series Star Trek: Voyager, weren’t successful at the time. However, this experience inspired me to dive into the wondrous world of role models and to find out how they might positively influence our lives. Now, several years after I began this journey, I would like to introduce you to my theory, which will help you to learn and grow from looking at your role models.

I was working as a human resources- and career advisor in 2009, having escaped the nursing profession long before, when I came down with pneumonia and was confined to bed for a couple weeks. One morning, my boyfriend handed me a large package, containing a present with a little note saying I should be moving my focus away from reading for a while. I opened the package, and an image of a spaceship on a DVD box caught my eyes. I pressed the play button at eleven o’clock in the morning, and by the time I finally forced myself to turn off the DVD player, day had already turned into night. I tried to get rid of the thought that ran through my head over and over again: ‘If only I could be like Captain Janeway!’

As a village girl, I had been able to survive Holland’s capital city for years. I had successfully finished complicated trainings, had thrived in exhausting jobs, and was now able to advise people and organizations on complex matters. Why on earth did that childish desire emerge?

This sparked my curiosity regarding the American actress who played the role of Captain Janeway with such timeless vigor. After thoroughly researching on the Internet, I found that Kate Mulgrew’s acting resume is very extensive and impressive. I also discovered that this woman radiates even more power and love than the character I first admired.

Even in photographs of her as Cleopatra and Katherine Hepburn, her power was clearly visible. It was as if she beamed her light from the picture right in my heart. Whether she was playing Shakespearian, science fiction, absurdist or dramatic characters, or whether she was addressing thousands of her fans, I could see that amazing and unique energy always shining through. I had never felt so much admiration for someone I didn’t know in person. ‘If only I could be like Kate,’ I thought. Well, that sure did not clear up the fog; now I wanted to be like Captain Janeway and like Kate Mulgrew.

Thankfully, I saw a video clip on YouTube in which a fan says to Kate: ‘I wish I could be like you’. If Ms. Mulgrew hadn’t replied the way she did, this book would never have come into existence. She said: ‘But I wish you would wish to be yourself.’ At that very moment I had an epiphany: I finally understood the subtle characteristic that is needed for someone to be a fantastic role model, and what it takes to learn something from your role model.

Regardless of the situation or the character she was playing, I could always sense that spark of genuineness and authenticity in Kate Mulgrew. It was elusive and yet still very clear, it was like a silent invitation to others to unlock their own authenticity.

I noticed that both Captain Janeway and Kate Mulgrew appeared to be role models for many people. For instance, female scientists have drawn inspiration from the fact that Janeway was a female scientist that actually went into space. Being inspired by her, they chose fields of study and careers that were quite unusual for women at the time, and by doing so they managed to break the so-called glass ceiling. Kate was once even invited by Hillary Clinton to address a crowd of female scientists. If someone is capable of inspiring such admiration, I think that person must be much more than ‘just’ a good actress.

In an interview I heard Kate say that she’d adapted some of her own human qualities and talents in such a manner that they would fit the character of the Captain. This made me think.

She had translated her own qualities into a fiction character so that the character radiated authenticity and impacted other people. Therefore it was more than just Kate Mulgrew pretending to be Captain Janeway: Janeway had become an entity in her own right.

If that was possible, I reckoned, it should also be possible the other way around; you could incorporate qualities of a fictional character into yourself. From this it follows that it is also possible for you to integrate aspects of a real person into yourself, in a way that doesn’t violate your own personality and authenticity.

As soon as I realized this, it started dawning on me why my efforts to imitate had not worked before; I had actually missed quite a few essential steps. Behavior, the part of someone’s personality you see and try to imitate, has an underlying history and is not just behavior in itself. Once you understand these factors, you’ll need to translate them into your personality and adapt them to your own current circumstances. It is then, and only then, that a permanent change in your inner self can be brought about. This understanding opened many doors for me. I wanted to make sure that I would truly learn something from my role model, so I developed a methodology. In my case it worked in the following manner.

As a child, I used to be extraverted and full of confidence. My school results were excellent and I received a great deal of attention and appreciation from the people around me. My singing talent gave me all the leading parts in the school musicals in the small village school, and I wrote stories for other school plays. I grew up in a protected environment and so it was to be expected that it had to go wrong somehow. This happened when I ended up in a huge factory-like high school in a bigger town. From day one I was bullied because I was a nerd, and my ‘ridiculous’ looks and outfits didn’t help either. Becoming invisible was the best protection I could think of at the time. Thus within no time I changed from being extroverted and popular into being a lethargic wallflower. Years later, I would still only sing in my car in the dark, driving at a hundred and twenty kilometers an hour so no one could see or hear me. This might sound dramatic in a way but actually this is how many people lead their lives. They settle for second best, a life that is doable but in which there is no room for their talents and personality to appear. Often, somewhere along the line, these people have been given the message that they’re not good the way they are.

Something in Kate’s behavior and energy resonated with dormant traits in me, which wanted to express themselves again. I applied the theory that is described in this book, and to my astonishment it brought about a spectacular change within me and restored the qualities I had had as a child. Only now they were empowered by my maturity.

I decided I was too old for a singing career, but I still had this other hidden talent: writing. I had never stopped writing articles for staff magazines and in all my different jobs I had always looked for possibilities to put things on paper, even if it was ‘only’ a policy document or a piece about staff regulations. However, I could never find the courage to give writing a leading role in my life.

Ever since the moment I stopped idolizing my heroine and decided to really learn something from her, writing started to play a bigger role in my life. I finally finished writing my psychological thriller and since then writing ventures have never stopped popping up in my head. Now I have the confidence to go for it and work them out. Amazingly, other ‘lost’ talents were triggered as well and stopped playing hide-and-seek and surfaced again.

We are often afraid to show who we truly are, because we think we might come across as too vulnerable. Showing yourself, however, will give you much more strength than playing hide-and-seek with your talent. Moreover, by being yourself you implicitly invite others to be themselves as well.

Thanks to Kate Mulgrew, I found the courage to enter into a wonderful learning process that is still developing. For this I will always be grateful to her. My experience has inspired me to put my insights on paper, which I hope will inspire you.

 Manon Brinkman