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Celebrity Role Models: New Phenomenon, Bad Idea

It’s a misstep to equate fame with godliness or morally upstanding behavior.


Welcome to the reckoning and end of days of powerful (evil) men. Before the last few weeks, the conversations about sexual assault, even among famous people, have always been victim-centered: the people who inflicted harm upon them have been bogeymen, shadowy figures, evil smoke-signals. Often, we didn’t know names. We never expected public apologies. Over the course of the last few months, that has changed — seemingly in a permanent way — as powerful men have been toppled by their more powerful ids. Disappointment with the inadequate humanity of celebrity men is now a cultural refrain. For everyone, but maybe most of all for parents, this begs a question: Are we facing the extinction of the celebrity hero?

In the mid-1950s, about 55 to 75 percent of kids pointed to their parents, their family members, or other authority figures in their personal lives as inspiration.

Louis C.K., self-effacing everyman, masturbated in front of female coworkers. Matt Lauer, the nice guy who greeted adults over their morning coffee, had a button under his desk that could lock the doors of his office from his seat. Garrison Keillor, beloved of NPR-listening midwesterners, was fired over “inappropriate behavior” complaints. Charlie Rose. Jeremy Piven. Kevin Spacey. The list goes on and it will go on some more. The specific shock of each revelation remains even as it becomes clear that we shouldn’t be shocked that harassment — operatic, bizarre, compulsive flights of selfishness — is common. So why do we react the way that we do?

The Hollywood star machine started humming in the 1930s. It created the first batch of true celebrities and also protected them from public exposure (Rock Hudson was secretly gay, dozens of women stars had secret abortions. To the public, they were straight and pure Americans). The natural assumption would be that famous people became heroes to American children around the same time. But that isn’t true. In the 1980s, researcher Julie Maree Duck conducted an investigation about how children’s attitudes about “heroes” evolved over time. She discovered that in the mid-1950s about 55 to 75 percent of kids pointed to their parents, their family members, or other authority figures in their personal lives as inspiration. Then, culturally speaking, there was an earthquake. By 1988, on the other side of Woodstock, Watergate, and the first generation of non-working teenagers, the same percentages of kids were pointing to professional athletes, movie stars, and celebrities — not parents or friends — as the people they most admire.

In the decades since, that trend has continued. Celebrities have been memed into archetypes. Tom Cruise is an upbeat guy who does his own stunts! Ben Affleck is an everyman from Boston! Derek Jeter plays the game the right way! Nevermind the cult or episodes of on-set misbehavior or the legendary womanizing.

It is now taken as a given that celebrities are heroes for children. People bemoan bad famous role models — often these complaints betray thinly veiled racism — rather than the fact of famous role models. But it’s the fact that represents a historical aberration, not the popularization of gangster rap or the objectionable trend du jour.

A more recent UK study asking middle school kids about heroes and villains found that pop stars and actresses, sports legends, and reality TV notables topped the heroes list — not a politician or Nobel Peace Prize winner in sight. The top ten villains, with the exception of David Cameron (Britain!), were all presenters, entertainers, or judges on reality tv shows.  What makes Taylor Swift a “hero”? Or Nicki Minaj a “villain”? Not their behavior so much as the way that behavior is presented, sold, and resold by the sorts of flimsy celebrity publications that have weathered the press apocalypse like cockroaches.

Narrative. Since time immemorial (read: the sixties), obscene amounts of money have been spent building narratives about employees and movie stars and TV show hosts that seem very true and are not. Celebrities, many of whom are very intense, selfish, goal-oriented people, were made to seem like the girl or guy next door. Public relations became a growth industry and public relations professionals got very good at their jobs. The tendency to feel betrayed by the actions of men who seemed good is perhaps best understood as a reaction to the implausibility of there being an entire industry devoted to the cultivation of false narratives in service of creating heroes that aren’t particularly heroic. But there it is.

Where does a manufactured man stop and an actual man begin? That would be hard for even Tom Hanks to say.

Still, it’s unfair to just blame the spinners. There’s other stuff here: internalized misogyny, celebrity endorsements, Wheaties boxes, the wealth gap, and charity as entertainment. It’s a confounding mix made more confounding by the fact that truth is in the mix. Tom Hanks, a walking metaphor for “decency” and “kindness” in Hollywood, has been sold to the public as a good guy. But — and who the hell knows so don’t quote me — he also seems to actually be a good guy. Where does a manufactured man stop and an actual man begin? That would be hard for even Tom Hanks to say. Is he a worthy hero? Maybe.

Also, maybe not. As researchers have shown, he’s exactly the sort of guy that kids gravitate towards. But even Hanks would likely admit that he’s a less powerful role model than thousands of doctors and soldiers and humanitarians who don’t play dress up for a living.

So will the age of sexual harassment herald the extinction of the celebrity hero? The answer is probably not, but it should. Businesses will continue to invest in PR and blast children in the face with false narratives, but adults will be more savvy now, more wary of false advertising. Maybe parents will help their kids better understand the media and better understand the limits of what we can know about people we don’t know. And maybe that will make parents into heroes again.