Celebrity Role Models?
In his semi-regular column in Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris recently wrote an essay on Rihanna. For those of you who haven't turned on a television, opened a newspaper, or turned on a radio recently, she is the pop star who was (allegedly) severely beaten by her pop star boyfriend. What has been making the news most recently, though, is that following this event, she appears to have reconciled with her boyfriend.
Many in the media are up in arms about this, noting what a horrible message it sends to young women. They are correct. It is a horrible message to send and one that may reinforce unhealthy behaviors in abusive relationships. But there is also a deeper, if somewhat tangential, issue at play here that Mark Harris identifies. Essentially the question he raises is: why do we automatically assume that Rihanna is or should be a role model for young women in the first place?
This is a vital question for anyone interested in the intersection of media and culture. From where do we get the idea that simply because a person (whether actor, singer, or athlete) is known by a lot of people, that he or she should consequently be a role model? Is it because they live in nice houses and make a lot of money so we conclude they owe us something back? Is it an extension of the Peter Parker Syndrome -- that with great power comes great responsibility? Perhaps, if we understand fame as a kind of power, then we can conclude that someone who possesses fame should use that power to edify society rather than degrade it?
Be that as it may, it still does not answer the question of why we in the general public make the choice to view celebrities as role models to be imitated. It can't be simply because we see them on a regular basis (on film, televison, in magazines, etc) because there are plenty of people in my daily life that I see on a regular basis that I would never consider treating as a role model for my life. It can't be simply because we admire their skill at their craft. I greatly admire the musical talent of Elvis Presley, but I don't want to imitate his lifestyle. And yet we tend to assume that skill in one area somehow translates into virtue in all areas. Just because a person plays a mean guitar or can pretend to be someone else really well is a silly reason for thinking our children should look to them for guidance in life.
Mark Harris writes, "If we really think that being famous now automatically qualifies you as someone whose example should be imitated and followed by young people, then that can only mean we now believe fame in itself represents a form of moral superiority." If that is the case, then God help us all. Maybe instead of attacking celebrities for not living up to the moral standards we set for them, we should look at ourselves and ask why we need them to be a paragon of virtue in the first place.