Lately I’ve read a number of books in which the most endearing characters were eccentric, elderly men. And it’s got me to thinking.
In literary and/or psychological terms, these characters serve a role known as the mentor archetype. Their purpose, as with other archetypal characters, is to help create universal emotion and understanding so that, no matter where a story takes place or what the issues are, the reader/viewer will understand and be moved by it. Specifically, a mentor’s role is to motivate, inspire, train and offer wisdom to the main character. Mentors can be comic or wizardly. They can be dark or fallen heroes in their own rights. They can even shapeshift.
There are plenty of male mentors in contemporary film and literature
You probably thought right away about Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Mr. Miyagi, each of whom carried significant roles in the stories of Frodo, Harry, and Daniel, respectively. But sometimes the mentors’ roles can be smaller in terms of word count or stage time while still having monumental impact on both the hero/heroine and the reader/viewer. Some of my personal favorites are:
Alfred Thaddeus Crane Pennyworth – Bruce Wayne’s butler in various Batman series
Arthur Abbott – the neighbor in The Holiday
Dr. Jack Finch – Scout Finch’s uncle in Go Set A Watchman
Lyle St. John – the grandfather in The Possibilities
Marty Crane – Frasier’s father in Frasier
Great Uncle Etienne – Marie-Laure’s uncle in All the Light We Cannot See
Q – James Bond’s gadget guru, especially when played by Desmond Llewelyn from 1963 to 1999.
These characters share several traits:
- They’re each a bit quirky, or wacky, bringing comic relief to the stories while still offering stability and helping the protagonist move forward on his/her journey.
- They are each also flawed, which is what makes them so endearing.
- They’re all older men.
So what’s the deal with that? Why are so many eccentric mentors old and male?
I have some theories on why we love these guys:
- Men have historically assumed leadership roles in western societies, so the mentorship would naturally be assigned to a man.
- These men are past mating age so there’s no longer (generally) the bravado that attaches to younger men and they can thus serve a more gender-neutral and less sexually-charged role.
- Our society is more accepting of a man’s physical aging than a woman’s, so a wrinkled old man isn’t as frightening or offensive as a wrinkled old woman.
Of course, whether or not I’m right doesn’t really matter here. And I know I haven’t done an exhaustive search for women mentors in film and literature. But the fact is this: there’s an overwhelming preponderance of males in this role.
And there are two problems with this: a) women can be just as effective in mentoring younger heroes and heroines–perhaps even better, and b) the message we are sending to our younger generation is not a good one.
Joseph Campbell referred to the mentor archetype as “Wise Old Man” or “Wise Old Woman” for a reason. And film and literature don’t just mirror our societies–they (for better or worse) tend to inform and influence the future. What this all means is that we need to make a conscious effort to create and celebrate more female mentors in our writing and other creative endeavors (while being careful not to devolve into fairy godmother and good witch stereotypes).
So there you have it. I’m on a mission now to be on the lookout for female mentors, of the archetypal type, in film and literature. Meanwhile, if you have some favorite female mentors in film and literature, please let me know!