Pop Culture
Feb 02, 2010, 06:04AM

Impossible Role Models

Female celebrities inevitably turn into role models for young women. What needs to change is our expectation that they be perfect.

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Giovanna M

As a young girl, I was a gymnast. For seven years I spent almost every weekday afternoon and all day Saturday in the gymnasium, learning to fly. I had chalk marks on my legs so often that school friends thought they were permanent. I spent more time wearing leotards than regular clothes. On more than one occasion, I accidentally addressed my coach Kerrie as “Mom.” For seven years I slept, ate and breathed gymnastics. And of course, as most young athletes do, I idolized the greats of my sport.

No one could compare to Shannon Miller. Miller is America’s most-decorated gymnast; she was a two-time world champion, took all-around silver at the Barcelona games and was a member of the Magnificent 7, the first American women’s team to win the team gold, in Atlanta.

A few years ago while cleaning out bookshelves, I found a book that contained profiles of famous gymnasts, one of whom was Miller. In her interview, Miller was asked about her status as a role model to younger gymnasts. She responded that the knowledge that she was always setting an example for other gymnasts, whether in the practice gym or on the competition floor, weighed heavily on her mind. Someone is always watching, she explained. You’re setting an example whether you realize it or not.

This month, the Disney Channel pop star Miley Cyrus is on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. Cyrus is 17; the same age Miller was when she won her second World Championship title. In her interview with the magazine, Cyrus speaks about the unwanted responsibility of serving as a role model to young women and girls.

“My job isn’t to tell your kids how to act or how not to act because I’m still figuring that out for myself … To take that away from me is a bit selfish,” Cyrus says, “Your kids are going to make mistakes whether I do or not. That’s just life.”

Cyrus has certainly made what some might consider mistakes. From the tattoo under her breast to a partially nude 2008 Vanity Fair cover shoot and her 2009 Teen Choice Awards performance, which included pole-dancing, Cyrus has caused a good deal of controversy for so young a performer. And every time she does, we question the wisdom of considering her a role model.

There is very little wisdom in it, but it’s a fact is that young women and girls do look up to Cyrus and there’s very little that she or any other celebrity can do about it. Shannon Miller was right: Whether you realize it or not, whether you like it or not, when you live in the public eye you are always setting an example for someone. We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture in which women like Cyrus are often the most visible and influential role models available for young women and girls. And in that culture, that status is not something one can simply opt out of whenever a mistake is made.

The lack of substantive role models for young women, and our tendency to recognize women for beauty and notoriety rather than intelligence, talent, wit or compassion, is disheartening. Miley Cyrus apparently feels that as a role model a pressure to never make mistakes has unfairly burdened her. And she’s right: We forget that she, just like us, is imperfect. A gymnast will occasionally fall; they all do.

Demanding perfection from our role models is a reflection of the demands we place on ordinary young women all the time. For teenaged girls, the pressure to be perfect is enormous. Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl, believes that young women are crippled by the pressure they feel from teachers, parents and society at large to be a Good Girl: “unerringly nice, polite, modest, and selfless,” not to mention high-achieving, intelligent and beautiful. This emphasis on perfection—which is, by definition, impossible to achieve—means that when they inevitably make mistakes, “they become paralyzed by self-criticism, stunting the growth of vital skills and habits.” And while positive role models aren’t a panacea for all that’s ailing young women, they’re certainly a start.

A role model who never fails is of little use to young women. What we need from them is not perfection, but rather, public examples of how to be imperfect without giving up, and without succumbing to self-hatred and misery. We need role models who demonstrate that it’s okay to fall, as long as you get up again. We need role models who can fail graciously, and who can get up off the mats—or in Cyrus’ case, off the admittedly ill-advised stripper pole—to try again.

  • Excellent points you make in this piece. It is often the very act of picking oneself up after a fall that is so inspirational to others, rather than unbroken "effortless perfection."

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  • Absolutely correct that you can't expect role models to be perfect. However, I think the focus on celebrities in this article just feeds into a celebrity-obsessed (as you say, Chloe) culture. My role model was my mother, whom I worshipped and still do. But I was stunned when, at 10, I saw her sneaking a cigarette after lecturing us about tobacco.

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  • Once again Chloe, you take a topic that applies to all and make it sexist by pretending it is a female issue. I agree with Alison777 that the real point should be that celebrities are not necessarily role models. How can one really be a role model if you have never met them? The real problem is parenting today and their lack of guidance to their children. As a child I idolized Jimi, Clapton and many other rock stars. However, my parents always pointed out that although they were great musicians, they had drug, family, and other issues which made them less than ideal as a role model. As for Miley, she is a train wreck waiting to happen and should quit her bitching and start acting like a decent human being. Sure, everyone makes mistakes, but that does not make them O.K. Learning from those mistakes is far more impressive.

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  • Texan, it isn't sexist to address, as you say, "a topic that applied to all," through the lens of women's issues. When we talk about poverty is it racist if the article is solely about rural whites or urban blacks? Ageist if we talk about the national debt and how it affects old people instead of young people? Now, if she wrote "celebrity role models create much bigger problems for women" or some such, then your ad hominem remark might have some merit. It doesn't. Now, reread Chloe's last paragraph and then reread your last two sentences. Perhaps it's safe to assume you didn't even read the entire article, and chose instead to half-ass a half-baked muttering.

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  • Andrew, perhaps you should reread the article and my previous comment rather than resorting to personal attacks and demands. There is nothing in this article that is unique to the female condition. Boys as well as girls, foolishly look to celebrities as role models. My point to Chloe is that she consistantly looks at issues solely through the lens of women. By doing so, she belittles the issue, belittles women, and misses the bigger point. By only focussing on the female side of the equation, she implies that this is a bigger problem for females than males. That somehow, women are in need of more guidance than males. From a feminist perspective, it is a sexist conclusion.

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  • You are projecting some strange animosity toward the author and the fact that she covers women's issues, much like other writers who devote most of their time to one or two issues. Your logic is patently false: since the author looks at issues of the day as they relate to women, she feels "women are in need of more guidance than males." How about making a point on the merits, instead of bringing your "feminist perspective" to bear. You ignored my hpotheticals in my first comment, so I'm not going to list them again, since you apparently don't read the articles you critique (in case you hadn't noticed, your original comment and the article make the exact same conclusion).

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  • Andrew, rather than schooling you on the various feminist theories including, but not limitied to, equity feminism, radical feminism and cultural feminism or on the writings of Moore, Smith, or Goldman I will try to explain in very simple terms the point you are either unwilling or unable to comprehend. When one takes an universal issue (in this case celebrities as role models, or as Chloe has in the past, street violence or movie characters as a reflection of current society) and applies them only to one subsect of society, that individual is belittling the issue and the subsect simultaneously. Celebrities as role models for the young is a universal issue. Does this only apply to women? How is this a uniquely feminine issue? Chloe does not say. Therefore, by discussing it as a "women's issues" subject, one must conclude that "women" must understand or deal with the issue in a manner that is unique to women as opposed to any other subsect. That by definition is sexist. You say that Chloe did not write "celebrity role models create much bigger problems for women" and on that point you are correct. However, by only acknowleding females, at the exclusion of any other group, suggests by it's specificity that it is a problem unique to females. Otherwise, why isolate women. As for your hypotheticals, they bear no relevance to my point and therefore deserve no mention. As for sharing the same conclusion, you are right. We share the same conclusion which further illustrates my point that this is a universal issue and not purely a female one.

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  • Er, it's called "equality feminism," actually. But thanks for sparing us the "schooling."

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  • Texan, do you actually believe that men and women *aren't* treated differently in any way? I don't think it's especially sexist, or even controversial, to argue that there are differences in the way men and women interact with our culture (men don't wear dresses very often, as just one for instance.) And, in fact, the basis of feminism as a critique is that men and women are treated differently in various ways. Think of it this way. Are young men likely to turn to Miley Cyrus as a role model? If not, what role models are they likely to choose? And if they're choosing different role models, doesn't that change the way they're interacting with celebrity culture, and with their own self-image? In short, is this really a universal issue, or is gender in our culture a category that is essential to the role models you pick, and how you interact with and think about them?

  • That was kind of convoluted. I'm in the camp of those who believe that far less young people, men or women, have role models that are celebrities. Maybe that's wishful thinking, but the idea that a girl looks up to Miley Cyrus, or a boy to, say, Elijah Wood or another actor, is just too repellent to think about. However, the fact that women still don't receive equal pay for equal work as their male counterparts is a national scandal.

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  • Texan, you should have told us you were a television expert: http://jezebel.com/5464116/samantha-bee-goes-deep-on-male-oppression

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  • Good points Noah. I agree that their are fundamental differences between the sexes. My point to the article however remains. If one were to change Shawn Miller to Michael Phelps and Miley to Shia, I don't think anything would be substantively different. However, if the article were about Miley's younger sister releasing a line of lingerie for pre-teens, I'd agree with you .

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