'Today's binary vision of people in the public eye sends a damaging message to young people'

6th June 2016 at 12:41
Pupil role models
Condemning young people’s choice of role model is damaging and dangerous, says the former government mental health champion for schools

Throughout my teens I had two posters on my wall. Well, I had more than that, obviously, but I think collectively, I probably had hundreds. Yet while the Boyz II Men, Will Smiths (as the Fresh Prince, natch) and Leo DiCaprios came and went, two posters remained consistent and immoveable.

The first was of Dr Martin Luther King, and beneath a picture of him mid-preach was written his famous "I have a dream" speech. "Not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character" is still one of my favourite quotes of all time.

The other was of Michael Jackson. Before I discovered David Bowie when I was about 17 (which, if you’re interested, I recommend as the perfect age for your students/children to discover Bowie), Michael Jackson was my Bowie. I loved him. Somewhere, out there in the world, exists a VHS recording of me aged 11 doing all the dance moves from Black or White while wearing crushed-velvet, hot-pink MC Hammer trousers: because that, my friends, is how cool I was.

When I was 18 and at university, long after those allegations about Michael Jackson had surfaced, a friend of mine questioned my choice of childhood role models. Martin Luther King, she claimed, was known to have beaten his wife (I’m yet to find evidence of this, but she insisted that it had been deliberately erased from the history books) and had an obsession with white prostitutes.

Essentially, this person tried to "hero shame" me and for a while it worked, until I realised what a ludicrous logic she was applying. I looked up to King because he was a magnificent public speaker with an ability to be both passionate and rational, and to unite communities. I adored Michael Jackson because of his talent and the way he used his music to draw attention to social injustice. Those things remained true, whatever other characteristics they might have had.

Binary thinking

I mention all of this because in today’s climate, social media has made us even more binary in our thinking about people in the public eye. I believe the collective message this gives, namely that our role models must be one thing and one thing only, is damaging to children.

It’s important for young people to learn that, unlike your average cartoon, the world is not divided up into heroes and villains, and that believing it is not only leads to disappointment, but potential danger. (How many victims of domestic abuse, for example, said they initially perceived their partners to be too "charming" or "romantic" to ever perpetrate manipulation or violence?)

We’re so quick to accuse today’s celebrities, politicians and even each other of hypocrisy if not every single thing about them follows one narrative. I, for example, am often told I’m a "bad role model" because I have a propensity for swearing and love fashion. And apparently those traits do not fit the public perception of what a body confidence advocate/voice for youth and campaigner for universal fairness should be.

But is the world divided into people who believe in diversity and those who love clothes, or nice people and people who swear? No, it is not.

So, while Miley Cyrus once sat on industrial equipment naked and licked a hammer, if you ask young women why they admire her, this isn't the reason they give. Miley is, to a large number of girls, representative of women who stand up to the system and did things on their own terms. The embodiment of independence. We might not like it but if she helps to inspire girls to fulfil their potential, does it really matter?

Complex characters

Harriet Harman caused a bit of a rumpus the other week by coming out as a fan of Kim Kardashian, calling her numerous and infamous naked selfies "pioneering". Twitter was quick to call Harman a hypocrite, being as she was a long-standing proponent of the campaign to ban topless models on page 3 of The Sun. Harman explained that she believes the Kardashians’ nudity comes from a place of choice and defiance, whereas the models on page 3 are anonymous and therefore aren’t symbolic of the same spirit of freedom and empowerment.

Now, I happen to think the above is largely twaddle. Looking at Kim Kardashian naked doesn’t make me feel anything other than a bit tired of life. However, that’s simply a reflection of how different my brain is to Harriet Harman's. If looking at a naked Kim puts feminist fire in your belly, then I’m prepared to say a (small) "woohoo" for you. Furthermore, disagreeing with Harman on this particular topic doesn’t make me any less admiring of her as a politician who has so often fought for the rights of women.

So before we condemn our children’s choice of role models, first we need to ascertain why they like them and what they are representative of, in their minds. And before we point the finger screaming "hypocrisy", we should remember how important it is to teach our young people that we are all complex, we are all flawed and we all have choices. 

Natasha Devon is the former government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team

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