Charlotte Raven: 'Who'll be my role model?'

Our choice of heroine says a lot about us, whether it's Rihanna or Rebecca Adlington. But as she mourns the loss of the woman who most inspired her, Charlotte Raven argues that today's contenders offer little to look up to

We all need role models, apparently, but women need them more than men because, of course, we are more easily distracted and diverted. Picturing Karren Brady at Lord Sugar's right hand is meant to keep me focused on my medium- to long-term career goals. Though I suspect anyone who says Karren Brady is her role model is probably more concerned to appear focused to her peers and potential employers. In the modern age, your choice of role model says more about you than your choice of coat.

If someone asks, 'Who is your role model?' in an interview situation, you'd better not admit it's Rihanna. A career resource website gives the following advice: "To answer this question, think of people who embody the qualities you most admire and who would be most valued in the position you are applying for."

I'd say the swimmer Rebecca Adlington because of her 100 per cent dedication and willingness to stay late at the office/pool, rather than Poly Styrene.

The punk icon's death left me bereft. Poly embodied the qualities I most admire: shyness and cleverness. I've been looking around for a replacement, but no one quite makes the grade; potential candidates are either Wags or worthies. As much as I like Shami Chakrabarti, I can't rely on her to deliver witty critiques of consumer culture in an almost breaking operatic voice.

In a recent Guardian list of "inspirational women", Sarah Brown explained that her choice of Aung San Suu Kyi as her role model was motivated by Brownish reticence she detects in the Burmese leader's bearing. For her, Suu Kyi embodies "one of life's most important lessons: you don't have to be fierce to be strong".

It feels naff to take someone from the canon of female role models, like choosing the Dalai Lama as your fantasy dinner party guest. I'm not sure you can consciously select a role model – I can't induce the feelings I had for Poly by an effort of will. I'm suspicious of the various well-intentioned efforts to get young girls to think about female physicists rather than about Cheryl Cole.

The Pinkstinks website was set up in 2009 by mothers to "counteract the media obsession with women who are 'famous', 'thin', 'rich' or 'married to famous men' by celebrating those women that we see as inspirational, important, groundbreaking and motivating". Their role model of the month is Maggie Aderin-Pocock, an engineer who makes bespoke instrumentation for space missions. Were I to contemplate her achievements, the website says, I'd experience a measurable increase in my self-esteem.

In the modern age, the role model's role has altered significantly. Instead of inspiring wonder, they are meant to engender self-belief. Media accounts of their successes are morally as well as psychologically improving, like the lives of the saints. The tales of polar explorers and PR supremos winning through against the odds convey the reactionary message that nothing is impossible if you have a "can do" attitude. As another Pinkstinks poster girl, blind businesswoman Liz Jackson, puts it, "If you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right."

My first female role model was Emily Brontë. During the Seventies, my mother and I made regular pilgrimages to Haworth Parsonage in West Yorkshire. Contemplating the sofa on which my heroine died of consumption I felt awe, but no identification. In those days, it was appropriate to pick a role model with qualities you didn't possess. I longed to be fearless and heedless of physical discomfort like Emily was.

In school assemblies, we were advised to look up to Helen Keller. I balked at the idea of an official role model, especially one as annoyingly saintly as Keller. I could see why Mr Stewart and the rest of the teachers loved her. The parable of a deaf and blind girl who learns to communicate synchronised nicely with our school motto, "Strive and Persevere".

The official version of Keller's story upholds the myth of personal striving. If a deaf-blind woman could become a celebrated writer, then my friend Manuella could become a top lawyer. The poor girls in my class were encouraged to believe that they could make it, assuming they displayed a large measure of Kelleresque grit and determination.

Modern role models aren't romantic figures. We feel distinctly different about Ellen MacArthur than they did about Grace Darling in the Victorian age. There was no cult of Ellen. The sailor's Helly Hansen-clad admirers admit that her celebrated feat of endurance was conducted in her comfort zone. Ellen was probably more tested at the party to celebrate her successful circumnavigation of the globe.

Dot.com entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox appears on several "inspirational women" lists, yet none of her advocates can explain why we should look up to her, rather than envy her. When a privileged person has a good business idea it's not a breakthrough, but a reconfirmation of the natural order. Lastminute.com is a cliché rather than an accomplishment. For Westminster- and Oxford-educated Lane Fox, the path from consultant to dot.com millionaire was smoother than broadband.

It's easy to see why these modern contenders don't cut it as role models. Despite their promoters' best efforts, the public can see they've had it easy.

It's not strength that they lack, though that has been suggested, but mettle. A recent newspaper article on female role models bemoaned the lack of strong women in public life. But there are plenty of self-defined "strong women". It has recently become fashionable for female celebrities to boast endlessly about their ability to overcome the adversity they brought on themselves.

Pulling Myself Together by actress Denise Welch reveals a "can do" attitude to drug-taking and infidelity. The autobiographies of her fellow Loose Women presenters conform to the modern trend for warts-and-all exposés. Carol McGiffin et al assume that their bad behaviour won't result in a loss of respect. Their confidence seems justified when readers praise their honesty and refusal to apologise for who they are.

I think nostalgically back to the time when women were aware of the risks of self-disclosure. In the old days, public figures were self-censoring; concealing their indiscretions and minimising their use of swear-words. If they slipped up, they could be confident that the media would protect their image. Celebrity magazines were full of admirable figures with rewarding careers and supportive families.

By their own account, today's women are less admirable than men. Confessional culture has resulted in a diminution of feminine credibility, across the board. A tiny, non-tweeting minority has retained some dignity. Germaine Greer rarely gives press interviews, so we don't know how she felt about being included in any "inspirational women" lists. I looked up to her for a long time, even though the position of fan made me feel uncool.

Looking up to someone is an admission of inferiority. This was easier to accomplish in the Seventies, when our egos were less inflated. The fact that I no longer count Dr Greer as a role model may be to do with a refusal to accept that she's a better writer than me, or dismay at her willingness to adopt a succession of stereotyped female roles, from diva to menopausal moaner.

Watching Greer complain about crappy Christmas presents on Grumpy Old Women, I feel cheated. I wouldn't have chosen Jenny Eclair as my role model! As a moaning middle-aged woman myself, I'd select someone more aspirational.

Did Sarah Brown feel similarly let-down when she heard that Aung San Suu Kyi was a "guest director" of the Brighton Festival? Since her release, the Burmese leader has seemed increasingly marginal as a political force. She assumes that her failure to make a dent in the regime won't count against her as long as she's judged by her ability to inspire Suu Kyi-themed artworks.

"This [the 2011 Brighton Festival] is one of the most joyous occasions I have had the good fortune to address. We all think of the Brighton Festival as an occasion for festivity, for diversity, for creativity, for expression, for freedom of expression."

If I were Brown, I would feel cheated. Her heroine sounded like a commercial sponsor twittering unconvincingly about diversity.

A friend who'd met her told me Poly Styrene was a "macrobiotic bore". Role models often disappoint – the only way of avoiding disillusionment is to nominate yourself.

I bet a significant number of the women surveyed would do this if it didn't seem odd. It does, so those questioned for role-model surveys often chose proxies – "my mother" is a popular one. These proxies share our good qualities, but there is always a danger that they'll end up on Loose Women, boasting about their shopping addiction. In future, this taboo against self-nomination will be lifted. I won't be censured for taking Suu Kyi's lead and proposing myself as a moral exemplar and "lady of no fear".

In modern schoolbooks, Helen Keller is portrayed as a charity fundraiser with a kindly countenance. But I'm pleased to say this gross misrepresentation hasn't gone unchallenged. She wasn't at all pious, it turns out, and would have been more irritated than Suu Kyi to have her specific political message transformed into bland motivationalism. Far from being a testament to the efficacy of individual striving, Keller's true story shows her struggling impotently against patriarchal forces.

Her family dictated that the saintly, cerebral Keller shouldn't be sexual. When they learnt of her intention to marry her secretary, they dragged her back to Alabama and banished him at gunpoint from the family home.

In the preface to The World I Live In, Keller complains that editors will commission her to write only about herself, rather than the tariff or the Dreyfus case. It seems she was taken seriously only when her gaze was turned "inwards" in an acceptably feminine fashion.

As a socialist, Keller didn't believe that inspirational figures remotely affected the ability of the disadvantaged to overcome their circumstances. Now that I've got to know her better, I feel sure she'd agree that those championing positive role models are doing more harm than good.

"Many young women full of devotion and goodwill have been engaged in superficial charities. They have tried to feed the hungry without knowing the causes of poverty. They have tried to minister to the sick without understanding the cause of the disease. They have tried to raise up fallen sisters without understanding the brute arm of necessity that struck them down. We attempt social reforms when we need social transformations."

This brute arm still holds back the poor in that most divided of nations, especially black Americans. Black children are performing no better since Obama come to office: the achievement gap between black and white students appears to be unaltered from the Bush days. In a 2009 paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Stanford psychologist Joshua Aronson finds no evidence at all of the so-called "Obama effect". He concludes: "As much as I believe in the power of role models, I suspect that the greatest contribution Obama will make in narrowing the achievement gap will be his policies, not his persona."

I would go so far as to say that role models have a negative effect on the people they are meant to inspire. One disabled writer has said that contemplating the achievements of Helen Keller made her feel inadequate. This isn't surprising – the official accounts exaggerate Keller's achievements and "Tipp-Ex-out" her struggles and difficulties. The real Keller was exhausted by the effort of keeping up with her image as a deaf-blind genius who was rumoured to speak five languages.

Far from inspiring her, the Keller myth exacerbated Keller's perfectionism. Amazingly, she castigated herself for never quite succeeding to speak clearly enough for people to understand what she was saying.

Contemplating Obama's extraordinary achievements could make black children feel similarly inadequate. The president seen by Aronson to be "too innately talented" to serve as a role model to the African-American student. His abilities are so stellar that typical students can't identify with him." Stellar female role models may have a similarly alienating effect on young girls.

Role models are guilt-inducing. The assumption of a level playing field leads young girls to blame themselves when they don't find themselves holidaying in Cap Ferrat, like their role model.

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