The Problem with the Modern Role Model



“I now know that, yes, I am powerful. I’m more powerful than my mind can even digest and understand.”

No, this quote isn’t taken from some hackneyed film script where the protagonist comes to terms with their newfound powers. It’s actually Beyoncé, global superstar, singer, actor, and all round independent woman declaring that the sheer scale of her influence is too mindboggling for comprehension.

Perhaps this statement seems egotistical – a classic case of a celebrity’s bloated self-worth – but it should be noted that the woman is undoubtedly rich, undoubtedly successful, and apparently now one of the world’s most influential people according to TIME Magazine.

Whilst plugging his latest film in the publication – the soundtrack of which includes a Beyoncé song – director Baz Luhrmann goes as far as to say,

“When Beyoncé does an album, when Beyoncé sings a song, when Beyoncé does anything, it’s an event, and it’s broadly influential.”

Baz may be prone to excess and hyperbole when it comes to filmmaking but it is hard to argue with his judgement on this occasion. The self-styled “Queen Bey” is everywhere from the can you’re drinking out of to the school playground where excitable girls are perfecting their Single Ladies dance routines.

As with anyone who reaches such levels of ubiquity it is easy to criticise her. On one hand she is the pinup, scantily clad and titillating audiences worldwide. On the other, she is the doting wife and mother who proudly represents the modern alpha-woman. It is misleading though, to pick holes in what is essentially the canny marketing of a performer. After all, aren’t we the ones who lap up this performance?

Beyoncé isn’t simply a global megastar anymore. We have made her a role model for the current generation and dare I say it, the generations after that. And this is where the problems really begin.

Society has an awful tendency to merge talent and morality – not quite to the point where they become one and the same but enough for us to go gooey-eyed whenever a celebrity demonstrates the slightest bit of good will. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Average Joe may never have heard of Sudan until George Clooney started yapping on about the place. And professional sportsmen, usually rich and adored by many, can reach out to communities in times of need as happened recently in tornado-hit Oklahoma.

Still, as much good as celebrities can do, they shouldn’t be classed as role models. They are idols; icons we admire from afar. This distinction may seem small but it is significant nonetheless. Beyoncé would have us all believe that in interviews she is revealing a more intimate side to herself. Even if we ignore the careful stage management behind her public persona though, this doesn’t mean we know the real “Bey”.

It is this sense of a personal relationship which is so deceptive. Tiger Woods is perhaps the most famous instance of the role model turned bad. Before his fall from grace (the details of which no one has to rehash), he was the premier sportsman – the one that most men idolised and the proto-Obama who overcame racial prejudice with the defiant swing of a golf club. We soaked up the drama of his talent, lived with him on the golf course and yet no one had the slightest inkling of what was going on behind closed doors.

Woods’ return to form – an arduous journey by all accounts – has been seen by some as a redemption of sorts. The man has paid his dues and come back a stronger person and therefore a better player. The natural climax of his rehabilitation will of course come when he once more wins a Major.

I am not for one moment suggesting that “Queen Bey” has indulged in extra-marital dalliances but the example of Tiger Woods highlights the huge discrepancy between what plays out in public and private spheres. The golfer’s “redemption” would surely have come in his reconciliation with his children, not his return to the sporting summit. For them, he will always be a role model because they are privy to his inner sanctum and as such, under his moral influence.

I need to know more about Beyoncé than what I have seen from her music videos (as revealing as they are) before I consider her to be a role model. One day I may have a daughter who wants to be a singer but I would like to think that my ethical guidance as a father would far outweigh the inspiration derived from a global superstar.

Perhaps I am placing too much moral significance on the idea of a role model but it is an organic concept derived from personal relationships, not some manufactured facet of a performer’s star appeal. We should be more aware of buying into celebrity brands at the expense of ignoring the people around us.

A role model is someone whose influence isn’t always at first identified. For most people, it is not until they reach a certain age that they start to recognise their parent’s traits in themselves – and this extends to the views and values absorbed whilst growing up. We don’t actively go out into the world looking for an ethical tent pole around which we can develop. Unfortunately, too often we are encouraged to think that because someone is beautiful,  can sing, or is a worldclass sportsman we should look up to them even though we can scarcely know, digest, or understand whom we are looking at.

All these my head! I need to get them out!

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