putting the men into mentor movies: why do women role models suck?

finding forrester
Finding Forrester

How about this for a fist in the air, celebrating our independence: mentor movies without the men? Or at least with a leading woman? Do they exist?

There are few things I love more than a good mentor movie. They’re right up there with crisp fries, Rosemary Clooney, and Infusium Leave-In Conditioner. Comedy or drama, either will do, so long as lives change–both that of the mentor and of his student. Yes, his. Because it’s always a his. What’s the last good female flick involving a female mentor and student?

FYI: "Dangerous Minds," "Mona Lisa Smile," and "Freedom Writers"… all kinda suck. They’re just never as inspiring as their male counterparts. But why?

Sure there’s a formula. A mentor and pupil embark on a journey, and both their lives are forever changed by knowing each other. Films like this inspire hope, instilling the belief that one person can change the world. The only problem is all movies of this particular sub-genre happen to suck it hard when the mentor is a dame. Prove me wrong. Name it. A single one. A good one.

Um, no, Jane Austen’s Emma does not count. Despite the fact that it’s a book turned movie, it’s a film about decorum, and let’s face it, it’s a romantic comedy. The central story, the "A story" is the relationship between Emma and Mr. Knightly. Not Emma and her "pupil" Miss harriet Smith.

I’m just so hard pressed to find a film where the mentor is female… where she’s not in white face upon a throne. AND THERE’S THE RUB. Want a good mentor film with a chick? You need to make her hard as nails, slightly softening at the end. Just slightly. "Devil Wears Prada" ring any bells? That, or she’s a hellraiser for a cause, which is NOT the same thing as forming a mentor/pupil relationship. It’s a genre of it’s own.

Which female mentor movies could be shelved with these favorites: "Scent of A Woman," "Finding Forrester," "Dead Poet’s Society," and "Good Will Hunting."

They’re all dramas, all men. Why is that? Why don’t any of these types of roles work with women? Have you seen any films like this that are successful in sticking to you? Ones you think of often, films you find yourself quoting? Not films about fighting the good fight, about rising up against the man, challenging bureaucracy, and ripping through red tape. Films about one woman inspiring change in a pupil, following her passions, taking an interest in a troubled or talented child.

And in this corner, we meet what’s out there, supposedly just as strong, except there’s tea being served in the corner, and patrons are starting to fidget. Is this all you’re serving up? If I’d known, I would’ve eaten beforehand. This is it?

screen mona lisa smile

"Mona Lisa Smile:" I wanted to like it, I really did. I absolutely loved the casting and admit to having a total girl crush on Maggie Gyllanhaal, but the film was dry, too serious, and terribly expected. Sure, all these films are expected; that is, we know the formula, but we’re hoping the writers make it worth our while, that they make us think, make us feel, despite knowing how it will all end. No one goes around quoting this film, or leaves the theater thinking of her own life differently. We want to laugh, to think, and to be changed by a film. Even in a small way. At least I do.


1995 Dangerous Minds 036

"Music of the Heart:" If anyone can pull it off, it’s Meryl Streep with her harried, breathless way, always flustered and exhausted; a struggling mother who you can’t help but root for. Of all the fems in this mentor genre, she does it best. But if this film were on a shelf, it would be flanked by "Mr. Holland’s Opus" and "August Rush." Abutting them, we’d find their brainier, less musical, cousins: "Stand & Deliver," "Lean on Me," and… oh God, "Dangerous Minds" (eek). Michelle Pfiefer as a marine. Enough said– though I did tear up at the end. But it didn’t even touch the heels of "Stand & Deliver."



I’m a sucker for all movies where the main characters are underdogs. Because you root for them. You can’t help it. Which brings us to the mentor "jock" flicks, of which there are many: "Karate Kid," "Coach Carter," and "Hoosiers," just to name a few.


role models greektragedy
Role Models

Even looking at the lighter side of things, examining mentor relationships in comedies where you take slackers forced into being role models, as we’ve seen in "School of Rock," "About a Boy," "Role Models," "Big Daddy," and even the ancient "Meatballs." Where the hell is the fem power?

What’s the last good (comedy or drama) you’ve seen where you’ve wished that wise woman on film were part of your life, one you want to make you a playlist, to get your back, to believe in you? The closest I’ve ever seen? The mother in Little Women. How sad. I feel like it’s my mission to write a comedy with heart with a female mentor, someone you want to quote, someone who changes lives.




  1. How about “The Prime of Miss Jean Brody”? I always get a real heart-pull for the teacher/stundent drama. It’s a wonderful movie to watch on a rainy afternoon. It’s from 1969 so you may not have seen it. Maggie Smith won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

  2. I’m in – heck, I’d do whatever needed to get this project going. I can’t even think of a recent film I absolutely loved that featured a strong, respectable woman in a LEAD role – not just as a side character or love interest.

  3. Mona Lisa Smile sucked because Julia Roberts ruins everything she’s in. A better actress could have done more.

    Stand and Deliver is so fantastic–maybe because the man himself, Jaime Escalante is really so fantastic. I had the pleasure to see him speak and meet him in person.

    Does Chocolat count, kind of?

    1. Maybe a little. Juliette B. does help to transform the life of the battered wife. It’s a wonderful movie, but not one I’d classify as a Mentor Film. It reminds me in a way of Under the Tuscan Sun. It’s more a story of self-discovery than lessons learned from a mentor.

      Look at An Affair to Remember with Katherine Hepburn… imagine there were a movie equivalent where we saw the mentorship of an ingenue? Maybe Fried Green Tomatoes… with Kathy Bates as the student. Sort of.

    1. Author

      You know, you happen to be right. Sister act was damn good. Singing, unlikely role model, changing the lives of others as she changes her own. Well done.

  4. I’m going to see Cheri tomorrow so I’ll let you know if it lives up to the strong female role model the trailer portrays.
    Do you have a problem with her being a courtesan?

  5. Author

    I thought of another one. Although it’s certainly not a mentor/pupil film, it goes there… at least a little bit: examining different styles of parenting/ being a role model: STEPMOM. Not exactly a feel good film, what with death and all. Still, an exceptional film.

  6. Author

    OKAY, I totally forgot to post this, but I was thinking it as I wrote this post. The only movie I can think of that really fits the bill?

    Oscar-nominated FRIED GREEN TOMATOES. Great film, and you definitely see how Kathy Bates changes her attitude upon hearing Jessica Tandy’s life story.

    Yes, there’s also “Anna & The King” aka The King and I, but again, it’s kinda Beautician & The Beast… more of a love story than a role model story.

  7. What about the movie version of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan’s work together? I can’t remember right this second what it’s called, but it is old, not at all recent, but so important and so stirring. Anyone agree?

  8. Madame Sousatzka with Shirley Maclaine, I believe dates from the 1980s. She plays a Russian piano teacher who not only teaches her most gifted students music, but how to live the genteel, cultured life in which she was raised.

  9. The Sound of Music. The reawakening of a family and a love story, of course.

  10. Though not the main focus of the story, I think Legally Blonde could fit the mentor-mentee mold with Elle being crushed by her female law professor at the beginning and then ending with the said professor challenging Elle to toughen up and live up to her potential.

    Also, I would add Devil Wears Prada. While the audience is supposed to demonize Streep’s scary boss character, I appreciated somewhat that it wasn’t all inspirational speeches and feel-good fuzzies. Instead, Streep’s Miranda Priestley was tough, intelligent and passionate about her field. She demanded excellence from her staff. And the movie displayed the realities of a woman at the top of her field who’s also juggling her home life, and perhaps not always succeeding at that.

    But mentor-mentee stories aside, how about just plain female-empowered, kick-ass stories? I bought some dvd’s recently of Thelma & Louise and 9 to 5… and was saddened thinking about how in 2009, there’s no equivalent story. The most female empowered vehicle recently has been the whole Sex & the City hoopla, and while I have enjoyed SATC, it’d be nice to see female characters who are not so materialistic, who can get dirty & gritty, and kick some ass.

    Please write this movie!

  11. The Turning Point- Anne Bancroft mentors Emma to become the prima ballerina at NY ballet. Sticks her in the cold shower when she shows up drunk to dance Swan Lake.

    And Laurel Canyon. Frances McDormand produces the record, has affair with 16-year-junior lead singer yet still manages to keep everyone straight, is nice to Kate Beckinsale.

  12. Entre Nous, which stars Miou-Miou and Isabelle Huppert. I suspect it was before your time, but if you can find it somewhere, you really should watch it. It’s a true story, I gather.

  13. Thelma & Louise. Incredibly moving, how Sarandon’s character steels Davis’ to live a life uncompromised, even as theirs is, literally.

  14. I haven’t seen The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but my cousin was recently in a play adaption (Or maybe the play came first? I don’t know)and my whole family couldn’t shut up about how great it was. I was sorry I had to miss it. So, I’d second that as a consideration, and might just go rent it myself this weekend.

  15. A League of Their Own…Geena Davis is great as a sort of mentor to the whole team. Or, Steel Magnolias.

    Although both of these are more female power movies, not one on one mentor/mentee relationships.

  16. I know it’s an oldie, but the fact that this TRUE story, so well depicted, is not on your list makes me sad for you. Even if it IS 50 years old.
    1962, The Miracle Worker with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.
    Won 2 Oscars. Another 8 wins & 9 nomination. Bancroft and Duke were amazing in this.

  17. I loved Fargo for many reasons, but it had a strong female lead and she got her man in the end. She didn’t worry about being underestimated. She stayed focused on her goal.

  18. SAY ANYTHING – All of Lloyd’s mentor characters are women from his sister to his closest friends.

    The movie even pokes fun at the futility of male mentors in the scene where Lloyd goes to the Gas N Sip to get advice from guys who in turn give him horrible advice.

    In fact, most Cameron Crowe movies possess strong female mentors. Whether it be Bonnie Hunt as the sister in Jerry Maguire or Kate Hudson & Frances McDormand in Almost Famous.

    It’s not that rare as you think to see a strong female mentor that helps the leading character along on their journey.

    Forrest Gump had Sally Field. Sleepless had Rosie and Rita Wilson.

    Effective mentors in most screenplays don’t have to be a major character or equal billing co-star.

    Most mentor characters are supporting characters.

  19. I have to agree completely that mentorship roles in films seem to be domintated by male actors. I did think of a cute one that no has yet mentioned. Wildcats with Goldie Hawn-cheesy, but very cute and definitely respectable!

  20. Women role models suck? Seriously? C’mon, women change lives every day. They call them mothers.


  21. What about Erin Brockovich? I loved this movie – no matter what people thought – she kept at it and believed in herself.

    1. Author

      I thought about Erin Brockovich, but again, not a mentor movie. That film, as I described, is about fighting for something you believe in, the cause, the red tape, the bullshit. But it’s not a traditional mentor film. The only ones that really come close to being equivalents to Finding Forrester, Dead Poet’s Society, etc. in terms of one on one mentorship are Fried Green Tomatoes (where really the inspiration for change comes from stories of the past), The Hellen Keller Story, and (this is a stretch) Sister Act II, where a girl with an amazing voice is inspired to sing and embrace her talents.

      The point is it’s not easy to find films with convincing kick-ass female mentorship role models as the MAIN story arc. The Secret Life of Bees has that component, but it’s not the main storyline, as it is with other mentor films.

  22. Ok, I have nothing there, because to me, what you’re talking about is all “chick flick” and I cannot stand chick flicks. I like to see women do something different, other than “mentor” or conquer dating & shopping.

    I do, however, love sci-fi and action and there are a LOT of fabulous action movies with female heroines. Killing Time (about a female Italian assassin named Maria) is the first that comes to mind. (Though also a very old movie and only available on VHS these days.) Milla Jovovich often plays some seriously kick-ass women in her movies (Yes, I am thinking Resident Evil, though avoid the last one because it was a stinker.) Kill Bill? Hello, The Bride hell bent on revenge.

    Kate Beckinsdale’s character in Underworld is also very strong, and very… well, again, kick-ass.

    I’m pulling from the big, recent ones that people might have actually heard of, but there are TONS of examples – many not so recent, nor as well-known.

    And that being said… I’d have to say that action and non-chick flicks are light years ahead of the chick flick in this department. Ironic, no?

    1. Author

      I guess I don’t know what you mean when you say what I’m talking about are all “chick flicks.” Because Scent of A Woman, Dead Poet’s Society, Finding Forrester aren’t chick flicks… that is to say, they aren’t romantic comedies… guy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl back. They aren’t When Harry Met Sally. They’re all examples of good one-on-one mentor films. And it’s very hard to find their equivalent when it comes to women role model/mentor relationship films. Had Akeelah & The Bee featured a woman in place of man as the mentor, it would have qualified… but again, the fact that it’s so hard to come up with good, current, quote-worthy films says something, no?

  23. Was googling for female mentor/student pairings for a reference I wanted to make in an article, and happened on this…what about the Secret Life of Bees?

  24. Mary Poppins is a great mentor movie with a strong woman lead. I have a student looking for mentor movies with women and this is one of the few I can think of. Mary teaches this patriarchal family how to know love and joy, then departs, as all mentors must. All of this is couched in the midst of the Edwardian suffrage movement in England. There are several mentor movies where girls serve as mentors – Bridge to Terabitha, My Girl – still I don’t know why there aren’t more.

  25. Thought about the movie Matilda by R Dahl. The teacher encourages the child to be herself and be the best she can be, whilst pointing out the rules the awful headmistress has set.

    I’m looking for at least 3 films made in early cinema (up to 1960s) where women mentor a child. It’s for a film script I’m working on and I want to use their quotes within this script. Trouble is, I can’t progress the script until I know which bits I can use! The child in this script goes through 7 mini adventures and acquires a handful of the best mentors in town!

    Answers and ideas please to james (at) delargy.tv – hopefully we can right some wrongs when we make this flick!

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