Geena Davis and the importance of individual role-model narratives

CNN.com - Quotes from the Golden Globes - Jan 16, 2006
"As I was coming in, I felt a little tug at my skirt. And I looked, and there was a little girl maybe 8 or 10 in her first party dress, and she said, 'Because of you I want to be president someday.' And I just -- well, that didn't actually happen. Awwww, but it could have." Geena Davis, best actress in a TV drama for "Commander in Chief."

This snipet from Ms Davis' acceptance speech stands out (or at least stood out to me) as interesting and funny for two cognitive/feminist/narrative reasons. First, is related to the expectations placed on gender roles. Actresses are expected to give acceptance speeches that are emotional and teary-eyed and male actors are supposed to be stoic and wryly humourous (unless they otherwise fulfill expectations for acceptable public emotions - for instance by having a particular history of public behavior or belonging to a group that has different expectations placed on it - for instance, black or gay). That is not to say that many women awardees have not made funny and 'stoic' acceptance speeches, but the (implicit) expectation is still there. So Geena Davis' starting out her speech in conformity with her role and breaking that role could cause cognitive dissonance which can cause either discomfort or a humorous reaction.

But Davis, was also (maybe consciously, maybe not) reflecting on the importance of role-model narratives in our culture (by our I mean broadly Western, US-influenced). When she says 'it didn't happen, but it could have', she is making a statement about the importance of her role as an actor depicting a female US president in a mythopoeic narrative. There is an expectation that this portrayal will inspire your girls and women to aspire to political office. How successful it can actually be without concomitant changes in other parts of the symbolic system is an open question (two decades of integration narratives - 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon - have done little to contribute to actual inegration). :"(But it is interesting to note that roles of women in popular culture are slowly changing. Leaving Buffy aside, I found the remake of the Battlestar Gallactica series interesting for its replacing two key characters president and ace pilot by women.)": But telling the stories of empowerment through role-models is essential to our understanding of this rather nebulous macro-process. We're assuming a particular social mechanism to be in place operating on the society as a whole but to understand it we need to tell stories of individuals exemplifying this trend. This relies on the folk theory (which is also an, often implicit, academic theory) that changes in groups occur cumulatively. But the key challenge to social sciences (and in fact to natural science as well) is to come up with a cognitively and narratively realistic (meaning, such that we can cognize and talk about) way to describe phenomena at the level of groups (or dynamic systems, in the verbiage of complexity or chaos theory).