The term role model generally means any “person who serves as an example, whose behavior is emulated by others”.
The term first appeared in Robert K. Merton‘s socialization research of medical students. Merton hypothesized that individuals compare themselves with reference groups of people who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires.
“I ain’t no role model.” – A famous rap artist
“She literally has millions of young people following her. I thought and still do think, that it would be very responsible of her to be a part of this film, To have the young people that look up to her, see her in a film that is about, what happens in life when you make the wrong choices. Whether you’re aware of it or not, to be honest with you I wasn’t, millions of young people adore her and are following her every move.”
– A famous directors written defense to cast a reality show star in his movie after her questionable public behavior.
Depending on their race and social background, people that young teenagers considered to be their role models 50-70 years ago included Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight D Eisenhower, Mary Church Terell, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and W.E.B DuBuois. Today reality show stars and other entertainers who emulate behavior that is at times self-destructive towards themselves and others are the images that children are following in the footsteps of I am sad to say. Jersey Shore “Star” Snooki was paid more for her commencement speech at the invitation of a respected university than Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison for hers. What has the world come to when a celebrated author is not as highly esteemed as a young girl whose popularity is acquired by being drunk, throwing up, and fighting on national television?
It seems to me that a lot of famous people in this day and time seem to despise the implication that their behavior when it is negative carries great influence on the people (especially young children) that follow them. They state that their private lives are their own, they don’t want to be branded with the responsibility of being a role model, but they want the perks of being one because after all , who else would buy the music, buy the books, watch their reality shows, go see their movies, and buy the products they are promoting except those they heavily influence?
While I do not let these people off the hook, I present the question, how much power do we sign over to people we are fascinated by with our support even if the behavior is poor? Do we co-sign with this famous directors decision to cast a woman whose claim to fame was a sex tape because she has millions of followers on Twitter? A fire only grows when you feed it. The reason these type of role models seem to be more popular these days is because we create the demand for them and in like our children imitate our choices. We tune in to watch women pull each others hair, call each other terrible names, we watch young adults get intoxicated, get into fights and throw up, then we act “surprised” when our children imitate what they see and post it on You Tube! Are we creating a demand for more positive images for our children to look up to besides us or do we consider those people “weird” as we continue to enjoy watching people self-destruct before our very eyes? We laugh and tease that it is all in good fun and it is just entertainment, but is it?
A century or even 50 years ago people understood that even the “appearance” of questionable behavior could have far reaching effects and people guarded their reputations very carefully. This is not to say that poor behavior did not exist, but people kept such behavior behind closed doors and under wraps. Such behavior was seen as something to be ashamed and not to be repeated or imitated. While there were tabloid and scandal magazines of the day floating around, as a whole people were not rewarded for poor behavior with book deals, lucrative endorsements, and magazine layouts. People certainly were not looking for their autograph, if anything people were shunning them. A woman who slept with an influential married man kept it a secret and if there was the threat of exposure, she disappeared and went away, now she gets invited to give an “exclusive interview” on a talk show and gets rewarded with all kinds of publicity. They clearly understood that if they wanted to keep their private lives private, they had to avoid or keep a tight lid on behavior that could go “public”.
We have a responsibility to how we behave and carry ourselves whether we like it or not, whether we are famous or not because each of us somewhere and in some way is a role model to someone, and 15-20 years from now those children, will be the role model that will influence the generation that will follow them.These will be our future leaders, entertainers, athletes, etc., are we proud of the message they will be carrying with them?