Fame shouldn’t be the only criterion for being a role model

Last week, I blogged about critics who use Miley Cyrus’s age as their main reason to attack her overt sexuality. I argued that age is arbitrary and it’s a red herring — it’s not like she’s going to turn 18 and suddenly they’ll stop saying she’s being too sexual. But what about the critics who argue that Miley’s overt sexuality is inappropriate because of her fanbase, and because she is a role model for young girls?

This brings about a bigger question: Does being famous automatically make you a role model? Taylor Momsen, a 16-year-old actress from the show Gossip Girl, was caught smoking and received flak from critics who said she was setting a bad example for young girls who idolized her. Momsen’s response was:

“To be honest, I don’t f–king care. I didn’t get into this to be a role model. So I’m sorry if I’m influencing your kids in a way that you don’t like, but I can’t be responsible for their actions. I don’t care.”

It’s tough to tell whether she is being genuine or angsty (probably a combination of both), but she later said if she had ended up as Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus’s Disney character) that she would have told the crew “to go f–k themselves by the time I hit 11.” She implies that Hannah Montana is the type of show that breeds role models — not Gossip Girl.

Momsen’s got a point — if your child is watching Gossip Girl, which features high school students having sex, drinking, and doing drugs, why do parents who A) let their kids watch this nonwholesome show expect B) Momsen to be cookie cutter in real life despite her character, who has shoplifted, run away from home, and regularly stomps on people in order to climb higher on the school’s social ladder? If you’re concerned about your kids learning positive values, then don’t let them watch Gossip Girl.

Parents concerned about values found solace in Hannah Montana, but how much was Miley Cyrus a role model, and how much was she simply the lesser of all evils when it comes to finding kid-friendly TV shows? Hannah Montana was a show that was more neutral than anything, with songs that weren’t about sex or drinking, and plotlines that were safe. Hannah Montana also was (and still is) an extremely popular and lucrative brand, which is why Miley is going to have a hard time shaking off the Hannah Montana label.

Initially, I thought Miley had a certain responsibility to her fans because, unlike Momsen, Miley’s fame was founded in an image that was essentially positive and “safe.” Miley Cyrus played Hannah Montana for four seasons, and it made her career what it is today. Using the Disney channel as a springboard, she has gained millions of fans, most of whom are relatively young, as Disney’s target demographic is 6 to 14 year olds.

But she doesn’t want to be Hannah Montana anymore — she wants to be Miley Cyrus (regardless of how bad her music is). And perhaps that’s the main thing that is forgotten when it comes to actors — the roles they play, like Hannah Montana, are characters. So now that Miley is done playing Hannah Montana, why should she be expected to carry that character and that persona with her for the rest of her career, acting as if Hannah Montana is her true self?

The same thing has happened with other teen actors — for example, Jessica Biel played Mary Camden on 7th Heaven, and when she was 18 posed for some nude pictures in the magazine Gear, allegedly in hopes of getting fired from the show. As a fan it’s nice to love someone’s character (which is good for the producers, too), but it’s stifling if the actor doesn’t want to be typecast as a wholesome role model:

Biel claims that playing Mary is keeping her from being considered for roles in the unending stream of teen feature films. For instance, she tells Gear, she read for the role of the breast-baring teenager in the movie “American Beauty,” but did not get a call back.

Fans of Hannah Montana can still be fans of Hannah Montana, but they also need to separate the character she played on the Disney channel from the person she is in real life, or the onstage persona she is developing as Miley Cyrus the singer (as opposed to Miley Cyrus playing Hannah Montana the singer). It doesn’t help that her character was “Miley” on the show, so the line is especially blurry in her case, but fans should know that liking Hannah Montana and liking Miley Cyrus are two different things now that Miley isn’t playing Hannah Montana.

This post has only been focusing on famous actors, although athletes and other famous people are also viewed as role models. I’ve blogged before about athletes being role models and how in the sports world I think athletes are often bound by the endorsements and sponsorships they earn to be role models. Overall though, should all famous people be automatic role models, simply by virtue of being in the public eye more than the average person?

I don’t think so. I think that following their footsteps and mimicking their behavior simply because they are in the public eye is careless — being talented at acting, singing, or a sport doesn’t inherently make you a good person. And, I think parents should be more involved with their kids and talk to them more about proper role models if they see someone like Miley going in a direction they, as a parent, disapprove of.

Unless, of course, you can deal with the fact that your famous role models won’t be perfectly wholesome — Angelina Jolie is a great humanitarian, but she also had an affair with a married man. Hayden Panettiere is devoted to saving the whales, and she also went topless for her last movie, I Love You Beth Cooper. David Beckham is very involved in philanthropy, and he also had an affair with his children’s nanny.

But no matter who you want to be a role model, you can’t force them to be, despite the fact that they might have some admirable characteristics such as a strong work ethic and a commitment to their craft. We also want celebrities to use their fame for the greater good, but that doesn’t mean they will. And, perhaps, people should look outside of Hollywood and sports arenas for role models for themselves and/or their children.

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