Against Role Models

Whenever a famous person does something of which the general public disapproves, much is often made of that person’s status as a “role model” and how it influences the public’s judgment of their behavior, and whether or not it is time to revoke that status.

It seems that celebrities cannot escape being seen as “role models” no matter what made them famous. We expect an athlete or a singer or an actor to be good at not just sports or singing or acting, but at upstanding, ethical behavior, too. The assumption is that children should look up to these figures not just because they represent talent and achievement that (supposedly) comes from lots of hard work and sacrifice, but because their behavior in the rest of their lives is something to emulate, too.

This makes sense to an extent. We know that children learn by modeling the behavior of adults, and we want them to have adults whose behavior they can model. While a parent is normally the one expected to serve that function, most parents hope for their children to achieve more than they (the parents) have been able to in their own lives. Choosing and fixating upon a random successful but unknown doctor or lawyer or scientist or writer seems odd, but famous people already serve the role of entertaining the public simply by existing. So, perhaps some parents hope that celebrities can be good role models for their children and inspire them to both professional and personal success.

In fact, there is absolutely no reason why someone’s success at sports or music should be taken to mean that that person’s treatment of others is just as admirable. There’s no reason why being a great actor means you keep your promises to your partners and respect the law. There’s no reason why being in a famous band means you are very careful about your health and avoid dangerous drugs. Expecting celebrities to be able to model these types of “good behavior” makes no sense.

And even when we try to see someone as a role model in a specific domain only, it never seems to quite work. We fall victim to black-and-white thinking–people are either “good” or “bad,” and if a talented, successful athlete cheats on his wife, he goes from “good” to “bad” very quickly. Even though many people cheat, and even though occasional bad behavior doesn’t necessarily mean someone is a “bad person.”

The expectation of being a role model places undue pressures on celebrities, especially women. Tracy Moore writes:

Critiquing famous (or any) women’s behavior in terms of whether what they do is good for the girls or not is a sticky trap. It prevents them from being complicated, actual people working themselves out — you know, individuals? The thing we want women to be seen as? It keeps us in an endless loop of chasing after this One Correct Way for Women to Conduct Themselves. It’s exhausting, and I refuse to buy into it, and I don’t want to help christen it.

I also think it insults girls, who are more individual, and already far more developed as people than we give them credit for by treating them like blank slates who will copy and absorb every thing they ever see on command. That may be true for fashion, and I’m not disputing that teens copy famous people’s behavior too (and yes I’m staring down a princess phase with a toddler), but that doesn’t mean they instantly absorb the values and ideology of everyone they admire.

What I want is for women to be seen as human, which means, flawed, misguided, shitty, awesome, talented, cool, all of the above. In order to be treated like equal people, we have to have the latitude to have the same range of profound greatness and disturbing awfulness as men. We have to be ordinary, boring, fascinating, idiotic and brilliant.

Moore notes that female celebrities seem to bear a greater burden for Making Sure Our Children Turn Out Okay than male ones do, and male celebrities do seem to have an easier time recovering from Scandals with their popularity mostly intact (see: Bill Clinton, Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, R. Kelly).

And what about non-celebrities? What happens when they’re expected to be role models?

I don’t know how this plays out in other professions or contexts, but within social work and mental healthcare, there is an immense amount of pressure put on professionals to be role models. We’ve talked about this in my social work classes.

People look to social workers and mental health professionals for more than just “help me fix my brain bugs.” They also look to them as examples of how to live well, and they often expect them to be wearing the same professional “face” even if they encounter them randomly outside of the office.

Our professors ask us what we would do if we encountered a client, say, at a bar or on public transit or even at a party. How would we manage their expectations of us with our desire to behave as we usually would at a bar or on the subway or at a party? Would it harm our relationships with our clients if they saw us acting like, well, normal people?

It’s true that if our clients think that we’re always the way we are in a session–calm, empathic, curious, mature, “wise”–it might disturb them to see us drinking at a bar or kissing a significant other in public or dancing at a party. They might wonder if we’re “faking” when we’re in a session with them. They might wonder who we “really” are.

For some professionals, this seems to be enough of a reason to significantly alter their behavior if they see a client out in public, or leave a bar or party where a client happens to be. They might even consider whether or not doing things like going to bars and parties after hours is even compatible with who they are as professionals.

When we discussed this in class, I was glad that most of my classmates reacted with minor indignation. Why should we be expected to be professional 24/7? Why does everyone else get to take off their work persona when they leave the office, but we don’t? Why is it our fault if our clients judge us as immature or irresponsible just because we go to bars on the weekends?

I think there are two reasons why expecting therapists to act like therapists 24/7 is harmful. One is that, on the individual level, it’s stressful and takes a toll on one’s mental health and freedom to live life the way they want to. Deciding to be a therapist should not be a life sentence to never behave like a normal person outside of work again. That’s too much of a burden for someone whose work is already very stressful and difficult.

Second, part of our role as mental health professionals is encouraging clients to think rationally, accurately, and adaptively about other people and their relationships with them. “This person is drinking at a bar therefore they are immature and I can’t trust them as my therapist” is not a rational, accurate, or adaptive thought. (Well, it could be accurate, but you’d need more evidence to come to that conclusion.) Neither is, “This person is behaving differently after hours than they are at work, and therefore the way they behave at work is totally fake and they’re just lying to me.”

But speaking as someone who’s been on both sides of that relationship, I have to say that we are really, really patronizing our clients if we think that they are incapable of realizing that we have selves outside of the office. We are treating them like children if we presume that they need to be carefully prevented from seeing any part of our non-therapist persona, including kissing a partner in public or getting tipsy at a bar.

But it’s possible that some clients might be confused or bothered by seeing a therapist acting non-therapisty out in public. I think that the best course of action then is to discuss that in therapy, not laboriously alter one’s public behavior so that such an issue never comes up to begin with.

Because our classes are mostly discussion-based and there’s little in the social work code of ethics about situations like this (dual relationships, though, are a different matter), my professor never gave a definitive answer on whether or not we should endeavor to be role models to our clients no matter where we encounter them. His intent, I think, was mostly to spark discussion and let us know that this is something to consider.

The examples of celebrities and mental health professionals are two very different examples, but my conclusion is largely the same for each: being expected to be a “role model” in every context, at work and outside of it, in one’s chosen domain (be it sports or entertaining or counseling) and in every other domain in which it’s possible to judge a person’s behavior, is too much.

A final reason holding people up as “role models” is harmful: the criteria by which we judge them are largely based on social norms, which can be a very poor barometer for determining how ethical an action is. That’s why, when Miley Cyrus was vilified for her performance at the VMAs and reprimanded by many commentators for not being a good enough “role model,” the focus of most of the criticism was not the racism inherent in her performance, but the fact that she dressed revealingly and shook her ass. And she shook it…at a married man! How dare she. The married man, by the way, made a clear show of enjoying it, and he’s the one who’s married. And the one who sings a song about “blurred lines.”

It’s also why, when Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson (to whom she was not married) with Rupert Sanders (who is married), it was Stewart on whom the majority of the public opprobrium fell, and who was finally compelled to publicly apologize. (A hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: I think breaking a promise to a partner is wrong, but I also wish people didn’t make promises they couldn’t keep in the first place, and I don’t think cheating is the worst thing a person could do and I don’t think a person who cheats owes an apology to anyone but the person they cheated on.)

And women of color in particular are held to impossibly high standards as “role models,” as public reactions to Beyonce and Rihanna attest.

Sometimes the intersections between the expectation of role model behavior and various types of prejudice affect people’s livelihoods in really crappy ways. To return to the example of therapists, I’ve been reading this blog by a woman who is studying to be a therapist and also works as a stripper. The faculty of her program are pressuring her to either quit sex work or leave the program, because doing both is necessarily an ethical violation. They also told her that being a stripper “contributes to further injustice in the world,”  and is therefore incompatible with her other role as a therapist.

That’s a slightly different type of role model that she’s being expected to perform, but that demand that therapists be perfect in every aspect of their lives is still there. The role of therapist is supposed to take precedence over everything else she may want to do in her life, including making enough money to get by and finish her education. And in this case, these expectations are intersecting with stigma and prejudice against sex workers.

So, whether you’re a celebrity or just a regular person trying to make the world better, it’s rarely a neutral expectation that one be a “role model.” Like all social expectations do, it comes along with lots of baggage. And it’s incredible how often, for women, being a “role model” means having no sexuality.

Children may need adults to look up to and clients may need therapists to learn from, but that’s not a good enough reason, in my opinion, to expect or demand perfection from people.

I think a more realistic view is that almost everyone can teach us something, and almost everyone has done things we probably shouldn’t emulate*.


*And to be clear, wearing revealing clothing and/or being a sex worker are not the sorts of things I’m particularly desperate to discourage.

Against Role Models

20 thoughts on “Against Role Models

      1. Perhaps because we deliberately hire teachers to be role models in the narrow way you describe? Because the role of the teacher, our relationship with the teacher, is the paradigm for non-parental role models in general? I think it ties in with our relationship with our parents, who we can’t, when we are very small, think of as beings with any other important responsibilities than being our parents. Is that what “role models” are, really–parental stand-ins?

        1. Boy, I completely disagree that part of a teacher’s job is to be a role model outside the classroom. As a parent with young children in school (pre-K and 1st grade), I wouldn’t want my children’s teachers’ jobs to be jeopardized by their legal activities outside the classroom. I honestly have zero fucks to give about whether their teachers are faithful to their spouses/partners, or like to go to the bars on Friday night, or whatever. As long as it doesn’t impact their classroom work, it’s not my concern.

          Back on topic with the blurred lines between personal and professional time: I have a friend who, when she worked as a public defender, worked in a county over an hour’s drive away from where she lived specifically for this reason. She didn’t want to run into clients when she was out and about on her own time. I know it’s not really the point of the post, but a little geographic distance can help enforce those boundaries, if it’s something you’re concerned about when you begin your practice.

          1. Demanding that teachers live G rated lives since *THINK OF THE CHILDREN!* is totally unreasonable, and it’s also infantalizing, as if teaching children makes you a child as well where other people have a right to restrict your access to *mature behaviors.*

          2. This reminds me of a sore point growing up. I’m not sure it is relevant to my point, but my mother was a (mostly former) teacher, and my father a professor of pedagogic.

            And I fairly often heard him tell her (not in these exact words) that as a parent, she had to be perfect and wasn’t allowed to show her humanity – endless patience, never tired, and stuff like that.

            And I always thought that this makes for a bad role model. It raises unrealistic expectations; you get into contact with other adults, and get burned expecting them to behave like this. People are not perfect, and that is something you need to learn growing up.

  1. 2

    Great post! I recall a bunch of situations from my childhood. Parents are supposed to be good people. When you find out they do bad stuff, the ‘role model’ image shatters. It’s the same for siblings.
    What I’ve learned after so many years, like you mentioned, we need to appreciate someone’s attributes. Not their entire life and behaviors.
    While I was reading this post I was thinking “people make mistakes, they’ll learn from them”. The people who don’t learn and still do horrible stuff are psychopaths. What was tough for me was “how do I deal with a parent who perpetually does bad stuff?”. I don’t know.
    I can make a difference in my life. And I can teach my future children about “making bad decisions is ok, as long as you are sympathetic with the people you might have hurt or treated unjustly”.

  2. 3

    On the social work student who was told she couldn’t work as a stripper, I’m not surprised that the department decided that somehow, that type of sex work is *always* exploitation and always problematic – I think it often is, but not always, but I also think that it shows a callousness towards potential clients who might be sex workers who don’t want their therapists telling them that they *need* to change professions because it’s contributing to further injustice, or patronizing them as victims. I mean, therapists are expected to be non-judgmental in plenty of other instances where the behavior of a client *might* be take to be furthering injustice. Would they say “we found out that you own stock in Wal-Mart and are furthering injustice, you can’t be in the program?”

  3. 4

    Unlike the case therapists (and teachers), there is some rational support for the idea that celebrities should try to control their public image to a reasonable degree. Your statement that “there is absolutely no reason why someone’s success at sports or music should be taken to mean that that person’s treatment of others is just as admirable” is, of course, true, but I don’t think that’s why celebrities get called role models (or rather, that’s not why I view them as role models for much of society). I view celebrities as effective role models because they have the power to influence our descriptive norms.

    Like it or not, everyone is a role model though descriptive norms, and the people with the most exposure are the biggest role models. In other words, people learn what is acceptable to do just by watching other people do, regardless of whether they are told to emulate those people. Celebrity puts someone in a unique position of being able to influence the behavior or large groups of people just because they have so many eyes on them. A celebrity engaging in antisocial behavior does a lot more damage than a non-celebrity because more people see that behavior. Likewise, a celebrity publicly modeling prosocial behavior does much more good than a non-celebrity doing the same behavior.

    My main problem with media coverage of celebrity ethics is that the proposed code of ethics is so terrible! The racism in Miley Cyrus’ performance was a BIG PROBLEM, and I think she was rightly criticized for it. It did way more damage than someone doing the same performance in a local venue with an audience of 200. But, as you pointed out, that’s not what most of the criticism was about. It was about her display of sexuality, which reveals the awful ethics of those doing the criticizing. I would welcome criticism if it was actually based on a decent ethical system. Not only would it be valid, but if it was public enough, it might help undo some of the damage done by the public antisocial act.

    This is also not fair, especially if we’re talking about someone who didn’t seek celebrity. As you aptly pointed out, celebrities are just people, and should not be expected to be perfect. We should be adjusting our expectations so that we expect ethical failures from celebrities. Also – people really ought to stay out of celebrities’ personal lives. I would welcome a world in which celebrities could be any way they wanted and nobody would notice, because nobody cares. However, that’s not the world that we live in. In our current world, celebrity means that very large amounts of people care about all the intricate details of your private life. In that situation, it makes sense from a utilitarian societal perspective to encourage prosocial behaviors and discourage antisocial behaviors. I would also encourage people to have empathy and understanding for antisocial behaviors, and to rigorously examine the reasonableness of their criticism before publicizing it, but not to shy away from public criticism of actual bad behavior (with the usual caveat about criticizing the act and not the person).

    In sum, I don’t think it makes sense to hold celebrities to a lower standard (which is what it seems that you are advocating). They have a lot of influence, and I think they should use that influence responsibly. However, I think they should be held to a better, less patriarchal, less oppressive standard.

    1. 4.1

      I don’t think it makes sense to hold celebrities to a lower standard (which is what it seems that you are advocating)

      That’s not what I’m advocating. I think they should be held to the same standard as everyone else, not a lower one. Do ordinary people have to publicly apologize for cheating on their partners who whom they’re not married? Do they have to apologize for doing drugs or getting drunk?

      I understand everything you said about norms, believe me. And I acknowledged that it’s helpful for children to have role models. I’m just uncomfortable with using any of that as a justification for policing people’s private behavior.

      1. Sorry, I was unclear. I meant “…to a lower standard than the standard to which they are currently held….” I wasn’t trying to suggest that you were advocating that people be held to a lower standard than non-celebrities.

        I understand your discomfort, and I partially share it. I guess, to me, I’m ok with calling out bad behavior wherever I see it, even if it’s a non-celebrity. Like, if someone I know is dishonest or makes a poor decision, I think it’s ok to express disapproval to other people who know about the behavior. From that perspective, celebrities just have a much larger social circle, so I think the appropriateness of the criticism “scales up,” so to speak.

        1. I think calling out bad behavior is different from expecting someone to be a “role model,” though. When you put someone in the “role model” category, any instance of bad behavior becomes not just a mistake or bad decision, but a betrayal of trust and a sign that the person doesn’t “deserve” their celebrity status or the rewards that they’ve gotten from it. Calling someone a “role model” is saying, “This person is a Good Person and you should strive to be like them.” I don’t think we should hold up celebrities that way, because we’re bound to get disappointed and put celebrities under even more pressure than they’re already under.

          1. Oh, yeah, that’s dumb. It’s like the just world fallacy and the halo effect combine into a perfect storm of bullshit. I would certainly agree that any deliberate decision to designate someone as a “role model” is foolish and unhelpful. My comment was largely about how people are unconscious role models whether we say so or not. But yeah, I’m totally with you about not intentionally putting people in the “role model” category.

    1. 5.1

      No, I remember him saying “I am not a role model” and the subsequent ad campaign. It was actually pretty striking (and I remember old time sports fans were sputtering a bit at this, those who remembered their “golden boys” like Mickey Mantle — the adulterous alcoholic who was often missing from his children’s lives.

      There’s also a Catch-22 present for celebrities when there is also massive criticism for being too “polished” or “fake” in their personas when attempting to measure up to public scrutiny. If they don’t manage to make role-modeling appear effortless and seeming to spring from their innate purity, they are then still mocked and reviled. I wouldn’t know how that works in other professions outside of the celeb zone, but there is this aspect that anyone considered to be a “role model” must be all things at all times…the real, average human being that is also eternally flawless and non-threatening, minorities and women exponentially so. If we could all just be Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, I guess no one would ever criticize anyone again!

  4. 6

    Thanks for including my story in your post. 🙂 I think you did a fabulous job of talking about the tension surrounding public personas, role models, and the need for privacy and lives outside of the professional arena. I appreciated reading about this issue from another future social service/mental health worker’s perspective- so helpful to me in gaining some clarity around my own struggle!

  5. 8

    Even further, Politicians, Soldiers, and Law Enforcement.

    I must say I find it incredibly strange that women are expected to have no sex drive. It’s just bizarre. It’s prudish to the point of laughable.

    Though I also find it strange that men don’t abuse this double standard and act way more overtly sexual in their work. It just seems like the obvious thing to do imo. But I guess male celebrities tend to focus more on objectifying women than objectifying themselves.

  6. 9

    There’s also doctors–there was a hospital in Texas that wanted to only hire doctors with a BMI of less than 35, and I think sometimes people express similar sentiments about nutritionists/dieticians–that if they’re fat they’re obviously not competent. I wouldn’t be surprised to see people expressing similar views about doctors who smoke, though I’m not sure I’ve actually encountered that. I think that the idea of doctors as role models mostly only applies to health behaviors specifically, though.

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