11/30/2012 11:21 am ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

FACE IT: A Role Model Is What? Who?

Flickr: Glen Bowman

So what exactly is a role model? Is it someone we relate to, someone we aspire to be, someone we just greatly admire?

I have been pondering the question since being interviewed (here, Live) on the kickoff topic of whether the world needs, or even wants, a third Bridget Jones project. Bridget clearly had her moment as an endearing and relatable young woman who was un-married, un-thin, un-glamorous. A lot of others obviously felt less isolated in watching her struggles -- and understandably more hopeful when she went off with Colin Firth. (After having lively sex with Hugh Grant. Wait -- why was she an underdog?) Whether we want to see what has become of her 15 years later, (juggling, not jiggling, one would hope) is another question and one well debated already.

So was she a role model? Is her reincarnated Brooklyn 2012 version, portrayed by Lena Dunham, a role model? Or are they simply characters that feel true to life and therefore make us feel less alone? Sure, we'd love to nab Colin, but did we really yearn to be Bridget? We'd love to get a $3 million book deal and be considered the voice of a generation. But in our heart of hearts, do we want to be like Lena or have demeaning sex with that awful boyfriend?

For me, a role model has been someone I could actually dream of emulating in some way.For much of my professional life, I wanted to be Nora Ephron -- until I discovered there already was one. I certainly wish I had the prolific playwriting chops of a Theresa Rebeck. Such envy either makes one work harder and faster, or dive under the covers and pray that her next play is a bust. I am somewhere in between. Role Model -- it does seem to connote someone who is doing what you do, only much better or more successfully. The goal to be on the same field is not a wholly unrealistic one.

Then there are those we would more accurately call heroines, whom we admire from afar, love for their flaws as well as their courage and class under scrutiny. Hillary Clinton -- particularly since she showed relatable vulnerability -- has gone on everyone's list. Maybe it's the sheer look of fatigue on the face, but more likely, it's the selfless desire to keep serving. Michelle Obama is on most scorecards these days. I prefer to think it's not the fact she gave up high powered law to be a wife, mom and advocate for issues like returning veterans and childhood obesity. But if it is, so be it. She is a remarkable presence and has done amazing things for the sleeveless dress.

Real heroines have to include a woman like Aung San Suu Kyi, who just spent 15 years in detainment in Myanmar, and won a Nobel Peace Prize for her stand on human rights. And all others living under repressive regimes, or those who don't but give their time and money to help others. Then there are the athletes who fight for equal pay and attention, the teachers who are paid way too little to make a real impact, every nurse or companion who cares for our elderly when we run out of patience.

Obviously, our role models, if we must call them that, change as we do. When I was 9, I wanted to be Scout. (Maybe some girls still do, though my daughter at that age wanted to be Jennifer Love Hewitt) When I was 16, it was Gidget, in my 20's, Gloria Steinem, and away we go. At least I think I still have them. I saw an interview with Dame Maggie Smith this week who said, "as we get older, we don't have many heroines."

Dame Maggie, clearly, is one for many in her field--and for those fans who cheer any woman these days who allows herself to age in front of everyone. Those of us passing the midlife mark similarly applaud Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren and Susan Sarandon for being women in their 60's who still have great appeal for both sexes. We can't expect to be them, or even relate to them. But we cheer the fact they are showing others what is still possible.