Why Do We Expect Celebrities To Be Role Models?

In this age of woke, stars risk being maligned unless they do/ say / wear the right thing. Hannah Flint asks if everyone with a voice should be railroaded into using it...

lena dunham

by Hannah Flint |
Published on

I'm willing to bet that every Millennial woman can still remember how they felt the first time they watched Girls. Its effect on our generation was instant. Almost overnight we had a voice, and Lena Dunham - naked, tattooed and imperfect - was it.

There followed a *Vogue *cover, a $6m book deal and five more series of *Girls. *But it wasn't long before the cracks began to show.

Lena was branded with everything from nepotism to racism (writer Roxane Gay accused *Girls *of 'stark whiteness,' while others claimed it focused entirely on 'privileged white-girl problems'). Then, Lena herself began to trip up. In 2016, she accused Spanish magazine *Tentaciones *of retouching her photo - only they hadn't. And last year, after she wrote eloquently on #MeToo following the revelations about Harvey Weinstein ('I hear stories from victims... at a rate that feels positively dystopian'), she proceeded to defend *Girls *producer Murray Miller, who'd been accused of raping actor Aurora Perrineau when she was 17 (he strongly refutes the allegations).

Amid a torrent of social media abuse, headlines revelled in the 'fall' of Lena, with one reading, 'Good riddance... Finally, the star and creator of *Girls *has been exposed as the empty vessel she is.' Last week, at a talk at the SXSW festival, the 31-year-old addressed the backlash, saying, 'I didn't get into this to be a perfect celebrity role model. I don't know how to do that. That's not my skill set.'

Lena isn't the only one who's faltered in what New York Magazine's style website The Cut has labelled 'the great cultural awokening.' In March, Emma Stone was criticised for 'white feminism' after she described the Best Director Oscar nominees as 'four men and Greta Gerwig' (many felt she had slighted the minority directors nominated). When Taylor Swift refused to denounce Donald Trump in 2016, she became a poster girl for the alt-right (she's yet to deny she's a Trump supporter). Others who've faced a backlash include Kendall Jenner for the Pepsi ad, widely accused of undermining Black Lives Matter, Katy Perry, for her single with controversial rap trio Migos (famous for their homophobic lyrics), and Angela Lansbury, who claimed women must 'sometimes take the blame in sexual harassment cases.' (Note that it's very often women who are most pilloried for getting it wrong. There are no prizes for guessing who came under greater fire after starring in the same Woody Allen film: Selena Gomez or Timothée Chalamet.)

But since when did celebrities - whose talents lie in music, acting and writing, rather than politics - suddenly become expected to be the custodians of our moral code? And how did we get to the point where their views have become as important as their work? Much has been made of 2017's impact on culture: a year that started with the A-list wearing pussy hats on the Women's Marches and ended with seismic change in Hollywood following Weinstein, #MeToo and the launch of Time's Up. That climate similarly politicised audiences. We no longer want all-white, all-male stories, but rather those that fit our views and / or challenge the status quo. If you need proof, see the upset when Greta Gerwig was snubbed for a Best Director nomination at this year's Golden Globes, or the news last week that *Black Panther *is now Marvel's biggest ever standalone film.

We expect just as much from our cultural icons. They must say the right thing, use the right terminology, wear the correct colour on the red carpet, be activists in their spare time and be on the right side of the political track. But what happens when celebrities do all that, but don't practice what they preach? Look at Aziz Ansari, who wore a Time's Up pin to the Golden Gloves just days before he was accused of sexual assault. Or, as The Cut has pointed out, the comedian Louis CK, who called out white privilege and even joked that men are the 'number one threat to women' before his career collapsed amid accusations of sexual misconduct. And let's not forget Harvey Weinstein. Publicly, he was a major donor to the Democrats and backed Hillary Clinton for President; privately, he was a bathrobe-wearing monster.

In that context, shouldn't we all be a little more careful about looking to celebrities as role models? Moreover, why do we assume any of them want to carry that load? When asked in 2015 why his lyrics don't cover racist police brutality, the rapper A$AP Rocky told Time Out, 'Is it because I'm black? What the f--k? I'm A$AP Rocky. I did not sign up to be no political activist [...] I live in f--king SoHo and Beverly Hills. I can't relate.' He later added, 'I didn't ask for that kind of responsibility.'

And yet we persist. Perhaps because, at a time where a pussy-grabbing reality TV star sits in the White House, neo-Nazis protest in Charlottesville and so many of the men we once respected have been outed as bullies or sexual predators, we need comfort. And the reality is, celebrities have platforms with the power to change things; when they fail to use them, it often feels like a missed opportunity.

For many A-listers, that responsibility may be too great to bear. For those who proceed, they should do so with caution. In the words of Lena, 'Criticism teaches you about yourself and your blind spots. Now, I think about what I say.'

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