The First Impression

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Being a Role Model Isn’t Always a Choice

Celebrities need to take responsibility for their positions as role models

I always find myself peeved when in the aftermath of negative publicity, or “bad behavior,” celebrities offer the disclaimer that they never set out to be role models. For instance, in the aftermath of her provocative (pornographic?) VMA performance, Miley Cyrus has reportedly stated, “My job isn’t to tell your kids how to act or how not to act, because I am still figuring that out for myself” (as reported in OK Magazine). Similarly, Rihanna has posted on Instagram that, “’Role Model’ is not a position or title that I have ever campaigned for, so chill wit dat!” (Here’s hoping that nobody is modeling her grammar).

While it is true that neither female performer has necessarily set out to deliberately be a model for other girls, intention is only one of many factors that determine which figures are elevated to role model status in our culture. Who is following, and who is leading or setting the trends? It may not always be the people who want to be the leaders, or the individuals who are exhibiting the behaviors we would like to see modeled in the larger society. Guess what: The reality is that in today’s ubiquitous celebrity culture, public figures with a spotlight on them, whether for good behavior or bad, are the role models of the 21st century. To suggest otherwise is not only willfully ignorant, but also wildly irresponsible. 

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While it is well and good to assert that parents need to do the parenting, such a disclaimer fails to take into account the pervasiveness of the media, and digital media in particular, among our youth today. In fact, in the great irony of this century, it is our most impressionable individuals, adolescents, who are spending the most time on some form of digital media today. Recent estimates suggest that young people are consuming about 50 hours a week on some kind of screen time, which includes surfing the web and downloading the videos and following the Twitter feeds of celebrities like Miley and Rihanna. So whether or not we want it to be the case, public figures, and celebrity behavior in particular, is strongly influencing the descriptive norms (perceptions of how things actually are in a society) that our kids will be developing.

Moreover, the media is a significant socializing agent precisely because individuals underestimate how the images and narratives playing out on these screens are impacting their perceptions and behaviors. So the real insidiousness of distal role models like celebrities is that their influence may be subtle or unconscious for consumers of media. In particular, my fear for female celebrities behaving badly is that they don’t realize they serve as significant models of what it means to be feminine in our culture. So young girls who are still developing their gender identity (and adult women as well, we are by no means immune to these influences) are learning both explicitly and implicitly what it means to be a woman every time a new image or performance is publicized. 

So to all the Mileys out there, don’t play dumb, you are more media savvy than you let on: own up to the fact that you are a role model, and then decide if the behaviors you are displaying for the masses lives up to who you want to be. Being a role model isn’t a choice; we are all to a greater or lesser extent being observed by others and thus have the capacity to influence others’ choices. Celebrities just have a much wider audience and spotlight for this, and thus it is both a responsibility and a privilege that should not be dismissed.

Copyright 2013 Azadeh Aalai 

Azadeh Aalai, PhD, is a Tenure-Track, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Queensborough Community College in New York.

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